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James Rowse, 96; transformed firm into Veryfine company

The man who distributed more apples than Johnny Appleseed has died.

James A. Rowse Sr., 96, who took over a nearly bankrupt cider press operation owned by his father and parlayed it into Veryfine Products Inc., a $200-million a year juice bottling concern, died Tuesday at his home in Mason, N.H.

''He was a typical New England Yankee -- frugal, clean-living, and hard-working," Edith R. Fallon of New Milford, Conn, said of her father, who was still going into the office once a week when he was 95.

And he was good to the employees.

Earlier this year, when Veryfine was sold to Kraft Foods Inc., Mr. Rowse insisted on a guarantee that all of the company's 400 employees keep their jobs, and had $15 million of the proceeds distributed among them. Employees with at least 20 years of service were given a year's pay.

''He considered the employees family," said his daughter.

Mr. Rowse inherited the business from his father, Arthur, who purchased the Standard Vinegar Co. in Somerville in 1900. Standard sold vinegar in wooden barrels to general stores and pickle and fish processors. Arthur Rowse changed the company's name to New England Vinegar Works in 1907 and moved the operation to Littleton 23 years later to be nearer the apple orchards.

Arthur Rowse died in 1937 and turned the company over to his oldest son, Arthur Jr. By 1940 the company was $100,000 in debt and filed for bankruptcy protection.

Mr. Rowse's mother, Edith, who took control of the company, named him treasurer. Arthur Jr. left to start his own company.

Mr. Rowse bought equipment that allowed the company to pasteurize its product, thus transforming it from cider to apple juice. Unlike other juices, apple juice was not rationed during World War II. Sales skyrocketed.

An inveterate tinkerer, Mr. Rowse bought a machine that was supposed to make apple juice, but left too many solids in the liquid. Mr. Rowse and his son David, who died in 1989, sought to fix the problem.

''I said to him, 'David, this machine wants to make apple sauce -- why in the devil don't we let it make what it wants to make?' We came out with a new product, and sold apple sauce," Mr. Rowse said in an article published in the Boston Business Journal in 1995.

The altered machine was able to process 500,000 pounds of apples a day. He soon had two.

''He was very ingenious," said his wife, Anna (Barnes), whom he met at a church social.

Mr. Rowse and his family were also ingenious when it came to marketing. In 1981, Veryfine was the first juice company to distribute its products in branded vending machines. Machines with the distinctive logo -- a clutch of apples with dew-dappled leaves -- were soon stationed at 50,000 locations.

In 1984, the company introduced the country's first aluminum can for fruit beverages, which allowed direct competition with soft drinks.

Later, it introduced a line of flavored water named Fruit20 that is particularly popular with children.

The company's employees are now distributed among a 350,000-square foot manufacturing facility in Littleton, a 20,400-square foot manufacturing facility in Berlin, N.H., and a 216,000-square-foot distribution center in Ayer.

Mr. Rowse was born in his family's home on Medford Street in Arlington. He attended Lawrence Academy in Groton for three months. ''I was out there living out of a suitcase and I didn't like it, " Mr. Rowse said in 1995. He returned home and went to nearby Browne and Nichols School, where he was a member of the crew team.

He was admitted to Harvard College in 1927. ''Let's say I went through Harvard in a year and a half, " Mr. Rowse said in the 1995 article. ''I broke down one day when I was rowing with the crew on the river. I've been on a leave of absence ever since."

He worked for a time for National Fruit Co in Winchester, Va., but became homesick and returned home just before the Depression.

He joined his father's company in the early 1930s.

He courted his future wife in the parlor of her family's home in Bedford. ''When it was time for him to go home, my mother dropped a shoe on the floor of the room above us," his wife said yesterday.

They were married for 72 years.

Though he turned over the operation of Veryfine to his sons in 1976, Mr. Rowse continued on as chairman of the board.

Every Wednesday he went to the office, often accompanied by his wife and his cocker spaniel A. J. (for Apple Juice) to sign checks in an office with an apple chart on the wall, an apple-shaped jug on a shelf, and a lamp fashioned out of a Veryfine bottle.

He enjoyed making clocks in his spare time and was a big fan of the ''Wheel of Fortune" television show and its hostess, Vanna White. His favorite gift at his 95th birthday party was an autographed picture of the enduring TV hostess.

A former resident of Littleton, he had lived in Mason, N.H., since 1956 and was involved in community affairs in both towns. In Littleton he had been a School Committee chairman. He once held a committee meeting in his production plant as he ran a filling machine because one of his employees did not show up for work.

In Mason, he was a member of the finance advisory committee and donated a building to the town for a library and municipal offices in 1984.

He was also devoted to Mason Congregational Church. ''If he looked out at the church and the driveway hadn't been plowed, he'd hop on his little John Deere and do it himself, " said his daughter. ''He mowed the lawn, raked the leaves, and pretty much did anything that was worth doing. When a new minister came in 1980, he thought he was the janitor."

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Rowse leaves three sons, James A. Jr. of Princeton, John R. of Jamaica Plain, and Samuel B. of Mason; 15 grandchildren; 24 great-grandchildren; and one great-great grandchild.

A memorial service will be held today at 11 a.m. in Mason Congregational Church. 

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