Life in West Denton in the 1920s, on Choptank River, Caroline County, Maryland

Below is text from “Chapter Five – The Canneries” of Bridges To My Maturity,  Delightful Memories of What It was Like to be a Young Lad in the 1920s Along the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, by George W. Swartz.

Digitized, edited, and prepared for re-publication by CCHS volunteers Dave Ellis and Don Barker.

See all of our republished stories by George Schwartz about West Denton here.

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At one time there were five or six canneries operating in Denton. Three were in West Denton. One of these three went out of operation long before I can remember, but the old shell of the building and some of the machinery stood for years after the operation ceased and provided a bit of adventure for young lads who mustered enough courage to explore the remnants. Later, during my childhood, the old building was razed in favor of oil storage tanks and a fertilizer warehouse. Another of the three canneries was operated by L. B. Towers and Bros. and was about two hundred yards south of our home. The third one was about a half mile north of our store and was operated by G. T. Redden & Sons. This area, which included a number of homes surrounding the cannery, was unofficially known as “Redden Park.” My cannery experience was limited to this one particular cannery since the Towers Bros. did not employ very many young boys.

These commercial canneries operated from spring to fall each year, with sugar peas being the earliest crop processed. Some of the canneries followed the peas with string beans and lima beans. Then came tomatoes and sweet corn with alternate periods of each throughout the remainder of the summer.

As mentioned in a previous chapter, peas were harvested like hay and brought to the cannery by the wagonload, resembling a load of hay. Here they were fed into a mechanical sheller that vigorously shook the peas from the pods and sent the vines and empty pods by means of a conveyor to a huge pile in the cannery yard. Farmers were lucky if the pile was small enough that they could drive their wagons under the chute and fill them with the processed vines without having to load them by hand with a pitchfork. The pea vines, when spread on the land, helped to enrich the soil. If you have grown peas in your garden you know that the pea crop time is relatively short. In two or three weeks the Redden Cannery usually completed the processing of peas. Since this process was mostly mechanical, there was little or nothing for boys to do; also, it usually took place before school closed for the year.

The tomato crop came into maturity continuously from July to September. Frequently, the peak period coincided with the peak period of the sweet corn crop and the cannery would have to alternate its processing between the two crops, processing each for two or three days at a time. Also, during these peak periods the cannery might run for twenty-four hours a day using a couple of shifts. Boys were usually employed in the fields picking the tomatoes, but the older ones could find work at the cannery, especially in the warehouse loading the big baskets with empty cans and removing the hot cans of processed tomatoes from the baskets as they came from the cookers.

Tomatoes were brought to the cannery on horse drawn wagons and a few Model T Ford trucks in tomato baskets, five eights of a bushel and slightly larger than a peach basket, one half bushel. The bottom of the wagon would be filled with baskets, and a rack placed over them to allow a second row, sometimes even a third or fourth row of baskets. As boys will do, many tried to swipe a tomato or two as the wagon passed by, but most of the drivers were prepared to heave an overly ripe one into your face when this was tried. Since most farmers grew a field or two of tomatoes, many of them ripened at the same time thus flooding the cannery with the product. Often the tomatoes would be stacked several baskets high in the lots adjoining the cannery until they could be taken to the scalder and processed.

Baskets of tomatoes would be carried to the scalder and from there to the skinning tables in sixteen quart buckets. A cousin of mine, older than me, says that he and another fellow have carried as many as 3,00O to 4,000 sixteen-quart buckets a day to the skinners for which he received thirty-five cents an hour. The skinners almost always were women who, with a spoon-like knife, cored and skinned the tomatoes by hand and placed them in a bucket to be sent on to the people who packed them in cans and prepared them for sealing and processing.

The cans, after being sealed, were placed into large round metal baskets and lowered into the big cookers. From there they went to the warehouse for storage until labeling time in the fall and winter months. I still have a picture in my mind of the “buggy” as it was called, used for transporting these baskets containing two hundred or more cans of tomatoes from the cookers to the warehouse. It was a vehicle with two wheels on an arched axle that had a long pole attached to it. At the point where the pole was attached to the axle there was a large hook. The baskets had a heavy metal arched handle and as the buggy operator lifted the end of the pole he would engage the hook with this handle. Then, by bearing down on the handle he could lift the basket, suspended between the two big wheels, far enough off of the floor to enable him to move it along to the warehouse, guided only by moving the pole to the right or the left. The route was usually downhill, except perhaps for a ramp at the warehouse door, but the speed and momentum of the heavy basketful of cans provided the force necessary to conquer the incline. It took quite a man to handle the loaded buggy since it had no brakes and had to be guided through the doors into the warehouse and up to the place where the cans could be unloaded and stacked until labeling time.

On his return trip, the buggy “driver” would bring back a basketful of empty cans. In the warehouse, the hot cans were removed from the basket by hand with leather gloves. Several men were employed in the fall and winter months in labeling the cans, placing them in cardboard boxes and labeling the boxes.

Processing sweet corn provided the most work for boys in these canneries. As previously explained, the ears of corn in their husks came from the farm by the wagonload. Since these had to be thrown by hand from the wagon into the husking shed, it was a common sight to see wagons lined up from a quarter to a half mile awaiting their turn to be unloaded. The husking shed was a long V-shaped building with the sides sloping outward. The bottom of the V, however, was wide enough to allow room for a conveyor down the middle, a walkway on each side of the conveyor and space along the walkways for the huskers to sit and husk the corn.

The wagon was pulled up to the sloping side of the shed and the corn was thrown by hand high overhead through the opening between the sides and the roof. The corn would roll down the sloping sides to the feet of the huskers who sat from two to three feet apart all along the floor between the walkway and the corn. As they husked out the corn, the ears were put into a slatted crate and the husks were placed on a pile to be pushed onto a conveyor belt which carried them to the outside of the building. The crates held about two-thirds of a bushel and, like the tomato skinners, the women were paid by the crate for husking the corn.

Down through the center of the building between the walkways there was a built-up rack about two and a half feet wide and three and a half feet high containing two conveyor belts, one at floor level and one at the top of the rack. On the top of the rack, about every six feet down the line, boxes that were five feet square and eight inches deep had been built. The whole purpose of the mechanism in the center of the building, was to dispose of the husked corn and the husks. There were three other types of workers whose work centered around the huskers and the conveyor belts. One type was responsible for checking the crates of husked corn, punching the husker’s card, and emptying the crates into the boxes on top of the conveyor belt rack. The second type of worker patrolled the floor with a pitchfork and pushed the husks onto the bottom conveyor belt.

The third type of worker stood at each of the four corners of the box where It protruded over the rack holding the conveyor belts. For several summers I was one of these workers. Our job was to take the ears of corn one at a time and cut the wormy places and the ends from the ear and then drop it onto the top conveyor belt running along immediately under the box. We stood on a small platform about eight inches above the floor level in order to be out of the way of those workers pushing the husks onto the bottom conveyor. To cut the bad places from the ears we used a large butcher knife.

I always hoped for good partners on the other three corners of the box because some of these fellows were rather careless and inconsiderate and when they wanted another ear to trim they might try to snag it by driving the butcher knife half way through it and pulling it back to their corner rather than reaching for it by hand as they were supposed to. If you happened to be reaching with your hand for another ear in the same vicinity you could get a finger whacked off or a severe cut. The foreman would fire anyone who consistently used this method but that did not prevent the really mean ones from continuing to do it when the foreman was farther down the line.

For this job we were paid 25 cents an hour and the length of the day might depend upon how many wagonloads of corn were waiting to be unloaded. The cannery owners did not like to leave too much corn piled up on the sloping sides of the building for any length of time since it would begin to heat up and spoil. During the peak season, one shift might work ten or twelve hours followed by another similar shift the same day. The conveyor belt took the trimmed ears on into the cannery building where the grains of corn were removed from the ears after washing and where they entered the cans ready for sealing and processing.

The warehouse provided some work for boys. Here they could place the empty cans into the big baskets that transported them to the main cannery building. They also could help unload the baskets coming from the cannery building with the hot cans of processed tomatoes, corn, or whatever. And they could help unload a railroad boxcar of empty cans and transport them to the warehouse. In those days the cans were packed loose in railroad boxcars from the floor to the ceiling laid flat on their sides.

The trick was to pick up at least five empty cans in each hand and very quickly transfer them to the container transporting them to the warehouse. It took a little practice to position your ten fingers just right so that you did not fail to pick up the next ten cans as you progressed from the ceiling to the floor. The process was reversed, of course, as you stacked them in the warehouse. The cans were sharp even though they had a slight flange on them, resulting in some minor finger cuts. Most canning was done in the No. 2 (16 oz.) size can, although tomatoes were sometimes canned in the No. 4 (30 oz.) size. Occasionally No. 10 (the gallon size) were used if the cannery was processing a vegetable for use in commercial institutions, restaurants or hotels.

Many people in my neighborhood had little or no work at any time during the year except during the canning season and their earnings had to last them during the year unless some kindhearted merchant, such as my dad, would allow them to have a charge account during the non-employed seasons.

I am not sure exactly what the labor laws were governing the use of boys in the canneries. The minimum age must have been about 14 or 15 except in the more hazardous parts of the cannery. Some must have been employed earlier than the law allowed for I remember that if the cannery was warned ahead of time that the inspector was coming, the youngest workers would be told to sit around as if they were loafing. Apparently they were not too strict in enforcing the law in the non-hazardous parts of the cannery. Also, I do not remember any time when boys were employed in the cannery where there were dangerous machines, steam, or pressure cooking.

During World War II, our government urged people to raise much of their own food and also provided funds for the establishment of several community canneries so that they could process their meats and vegetables. Around 1950-51, I was the manager of one of these community canneries for two summers. My experiences in the commercial canneries during my teenage years were quite helpful in carrying out the responsibilities associated with this task.

During the ’30s, practically all of the small commercial canneries on the Eastern Shore either sold out to or folded up because of the competition of the larger ones. By the ’50s, the major cannery operation on the Eastern Shore was the Phillips Packing Company of Cambridge, Maryland. Farmers were still able to grow crops for this cannery but now they sent their harvest further from home and faster via motor trucks. Then, too, scientific improvements in processing and new inventions brought major changes in the whole operation. Not too long ago I read of a major canning company that now has a machine that can be taken to a field of peas, for example, and all in one operation harvest, process, and can the peas in the field.

When my father used to order canned tomatoes for shelves in his store from the wholesaler, he might get a different brand of tomatoes on each order. This was because the wholesaler would buy his supply from many different small commercial canneries. Today there are a small number number of major brands of all canned fruits and vegetables, many of them distributed nation-wide. This type of major operation by just a few companies has eliminated the small commercial cannery as I knew it and has also eliminated much of the back-breaking labor previously attached to the operation.

However, I believe that it can be said that the small neighborhood commercial cannery in its day not only provided an opportunity for many people to earn money but also was a major social event of the season and an opportunity for people to work together on one community project. The people of West Denton, for example, were proud of the fact that they had a part in producing the can of tomatoes on the store shelf that exhibited the bright red label of the Towers or the Redden Cannery.

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