Canning Factory

FACTORY WORK — Workers at J.S. Mitchell Canning Factory stand outside the Greentown business in the 1930s.

Don't you just love this time of year? Warm sunny days and nights where shorts, sleeveless shirts and walking barefoot on green grass are in vogue. No wrapping up in layers, scraping of car windows, fogged over eyeglasses, or bruised buns from taking a tumble atop an icy surface.

An additional benefit which attaches itself to mid-summer is the welcome availability of fresh, homegrown produce. What satisfaction is gained from taking a short family garden trek to scope out the colorful bounty beckons a journey across our anxious taste buds.

The initial picking of green beans or plucking of tomatoes directly from vine to mouth is sheer ecstasy. As a kid I recall seeing dad armed with a shaker of Aunt Jane's Krazy Mixed-Up Salt, as he stood in the warm sunshine and plucked a ripe Better Boy from its green umbilical, douse it liberally with Aunt Jane's, then savor the flavor. Oh rapture!

Can you imagine living in a large metropolitan sprawl and never having the opportunity to experience this phenomenon? Of course I've never been mugged on a street corner, but I don't believe I would trade.

If fresh isn't an option, produce preservation by freezing, drying, or canning comes into play. I became familiar with canning via my maternal grandmother but never took part in the process, other than snapping string beans or shucking sweet corn, followed up by consumption at a later date.

That changed in the late ‘70s when dating a West Middleton girl whose family took gardening and canning quite seriously. Wishing to make a good impression on her parents, I immersed myself with learning the ins and outs of preservation by mason jar.

The Ball brothers, Charles, Lucius, Lorenzo, Frank, and William cast their first mason jar in 1884 near Buffalo, N.Y. In 1887, operations moved to Muncie, Ind., to take advantage of free land and cheap natural gas. Alexander and Amanda Kerr formed the Hermetic Fruit Jar Co. in 1903, eventually owning numerous manufacturing plants, one being in Dunkirk, Ind. The Ball and Kerr surnames became synonymous with home canning.

But what about the folks who opt out of canning their own veggies, those who lack the tools, wherewithal, or gumption for such a venture? Industrial canning factories have stepped up to the plate for generations to ensure sustenance for the masses.

At one point a few decades ago, there were nearly 30 canning plants within Howard and surrounding counties. Some associated with Kokomo packers in the last century would be Gennebeck & O'Neal, Kokomo Canning Works, Stokely's, Kemp Brothers Cannery, and mainstay Libby, McNeill & Libby, to name a few. Brothers John B., Albert A., and George Charles formed the Brookside Canning factory, Kokomo's first, at the turn of the last century.

Greentown and Windfall had the Regal Canning Company with Carl Scudder, W.W. Dragoo, Oscar Grau, and Floyd Reel serving as plant managers at various stages with John S. Mitchell as the owner. Other plants were located in Tipton, Kempton, Swayzee, Point Isabel, Sharpsville, Atlanta, Curtisville, Elwood and a slew of nearby towns.

Canning season was a big deal. As July began, canning factories advertised for seasonal employees to prepare and process the produce. The Regal plant in Windfall alone employed 400 people for “the pack.” As month's end approached, newspapers routinely printed accounts of nearby canning concerns processing their “first pack” of tomatoes. Weekly running totals of cans packed would be published for all to see. If sums were greater than expected, this bounty was referred to as a “bumper pack.”

Tomatoes weren't the only food item canned. Green beans, peas, sauerkraut, hominy, pork and beans, apples, turnips, greens, and pumpkin were examples of locally-grown produce to be processed near home.

With water and steam playing a major role in the canning operations, floors were wet and equipment was noisy with very few safeguards. It was not uncommon to read accounts of employees becoming entangled in drive belts or conveyor systems. Nasty falls due to wet concrete floor were workaday hazards. OSHA safety rules were decades away.

With nearly non-existent waste water treatment in those days, pollution attributed to discharge from canning factories was a major problem. Bacteria born in the sludge and muck, which overtook local streams and tributaries, created a real health hazard. Local officials wrestled with this issue in several communities including Kokomo and Greentown.

By the late 1960s roll call numbers of small canning plants began to dwindle as large corporate packers came into play. Libby's canned its final Kokomo container of juice in 1981. When my kids were small in the late 1980 s we took “field trips” to the Swayzee Canning Co. to observe tomato processes. The kindly supervisor of lady inspectors doted on my wee ones by sharing small cans of freshly-sealed tomato juice. SCC closed in the early ‘90s.

The days of small, local canneries are now stuff of legend. I'm pleased to have experienced the flavor of hometown packed goodness. Let's go pick a tomato.

-That's 30-