Canning Company as remembered by Richard R. Renner.
Mr Renner lived in Littlestown from 1927 until
1945, when he graduated from Littlestown High
School and became a member of the US Military
Services. He is now a retired Professor living
in Florida. For more on his story check out Historic
Perspective of Littlestown Factories from 1930-45
This is a personal sketch of Littlestown’s industry when
things were often different from what Littonians experience today.
I have defined industry as those local businesses that produced
goods for sale in out of town markets. I’m going to list
some of the factories I remember as a kid in the 1930’s.
Most memorable to me was the Littlestown Canning Company. It
was operated by two of my neighbors on East King Street, Harry
Koontz and Melvin Wehler Their company also owned smaller plants
in Buckeystown, MD and Jersey Shore, PA
Its plant, on the east side of
town, was situated parallel to the Pennsylvania Railroad.just
east of the Littonian Shoe. In canning season I’d
often see several box cars on its siding loaded with
cans to be filled or with hundreds of boxes labeled
and ready for shipment to points all along the east
coast. When the corn wasn’t too tall in the
lot below our house, we could see the cannery from
our back porch. On busy summer nights, cans spinning
along the closing machine tracks clinked and rattled
until late at night until all that day’s crop
was in the can. Although the road past our house
was unpaved, it was heavily traveled; dozens of farm
wagons and trucks loaded with fresh-picked vegetables
chugged on their way to the factory. My dad regularly
scattered used crankcase oil on the street to keep
the dust down. Years later, it was named Renner Avenue.
When I was quite young, Littlestown
Canning Company processed corn, peas, green and wax
beans and peeled tomatoes. A decade later, in 1943,
when I first signed on as a seasonal employee, corn
had been dropped.
There were only about a dozen
regular workers. The rest were seasonal, including
a few teens, some mature older people, lots of part
time housewives, and persons with special problems
such as mental slowness but steady workers, and off
and on again alcoholics and so on. No one was lazy.
Charlie Eckert, the head foreman, was good at spotting
them and they seldom lasted long. I should mention
that during the entire period of this essay, I knew
of only one American Negro in Littlestown, a female
servant with a southern family who had moved into
a large house on East King Street. So there were
no Negro employees.
Sometimes a couple of dozen ladies
skinned tomatoes, some worked only on our busy evenings
after they got off jobs elsewhere or after dad had
come home to care for the kids. Their payment was
by the bucket and some skinners were very fast; at
other seasons some of the ladies inspected beans
as they came out of the nipping machines, sometimes
they helped in the warehouse unpacking recently cooked
cans from the large crates into boxes for later labeling
Penrod was one of our brands.
I earned a straight 65 cents
per hour; there were no special rates for overtime
in agricultural industries. I actually earned pay
for 96 hrs in one particular six-day week; in another
busy situation I started off my morning forking pea
vines into the shellers at 6 am, was switched to
taking off hot cans from about 10 am until about
3:00 am and then continued on until 9 am steaming
and washing down machinery. Of course, I had off
an hour each for lunch and dinner so it was really
only a 25-hour day.
Why me? My home was only a 5-minute
walk from the factory. I was only 16 or 17. I was
never absent, sick or late. I even had many meals
at home. Nearly all my co-workers were less fortunate.
Some lived a half- dozen miles away and had to share
a ride often on a fellow worker’s schedule.
And some had families to be nice to. My parents realized
that I was hustling cash to pay for college and they
Since it was wartime, labor was
in short supply. The Army sent us a batch of 25 German
war prisoners with two soldiers as guards. According
to the Geneva Convention, they were not allowed to
work more than eight hours a day and were to be paid
10 cents an hour. These men worked diligently and
intelligently. Mostly they were Luftwaffe officers
who had been captured with Rommel’s Africa
Korps. Some even spoke English and told me how glad
they were to be able to save some money from their
American work. The few I got to know seemed to be
The following year our factory
received two more batches of prisoners. The first
were Germans, but in contrast to their predecessors,
they seemed mostly indifferent, sloppy and lackadaisical.
My guess is that most were from urban working class
families and the fact that the Allies had been bombing
the holy bejeebers out of their home cities for months
didn’t help their morale much. Our last batch
of troops were Italian. They were easygoing, relaxed,
and not very focused on their task, which like that
of all their predecessors, was simply to lift recently
cooked one-pound cans of vegetables out of crates
and pack them, unlabeled 24 to a box and then, turn
the full unsealed box upside down (umgekehrt) for
the stacker who built them into a pile about 10 feet
high. The stacking was usually done by young Americans,
often Jimmy Wehler, Ken Sell and myself.
You could say I learned to swim
in Littlestown Can. We boys used swim in Piney Creek
about 1935, in a nice hole at best 4 feet deep with
a splashing rope tied to a tree.. Leaches were sometimes
a nuisance but they were more gross than harmful.
(the same as kind were used by physicians trying
to save George Washington’s life). Our best
hole was located more or less directly south of the
present swimming pool.
The cannery had a large cooling
tank. I must guess at its dimensions but it was a
semicircular tank about 5 or 6 feet wide and probably
65 feet long and about 10 feet deep. On the opposite
side were the large steam cookers.. The tank might
have held 15 or 18 crates cooling at one time. .
A large steam crane moved the heavy crates from cookers
to cooler and ultimately to warehouse carts for packing.
Each cooker held three large round metal baskets
containing possibly 300 cans each and once the product
had been cooked long enough to destroy the bacteria
that causes food to rot they were transferred promptly
to the water tank. Why? Cooked food gets mushy if
it cools slowly; no one wants mushy peas, edible
though they may be, hence the cooling tank as a necessary
part of canning.
What does this have to do with
learning to swim? You must have guessed it!
Between crops, the cooling tank was cleaned and filled with about
five feet of water and some of the owners’ kids and I climbed
down the wooden ladder in a cool pool deep enough to force us
to sink or swim. I swam!
There is a sad side to the cooling
tank story that has nothing to do with swimming.
I, and a couple of my more dedicated co-workers,
had the task of cleaning it up. It took us a couple
of days, One morning I walked past one of our famous
(why famous—they didn’t fall over) ten
foot stacks of boxed canned goods. A dark fluid was
seeping out of one of the boxes. Soon, some of the
boxes were beginning to swell and soon many cans
were beginning to explode. The owner was called and
we were soon unstacking the mess. Stinky rotting
peas, worms, burst cans, evil drool, even a few late
bursts. We shoveled it out into the trash.
What had happened? It’s
important to remember that this happened while we
were very busy canning. The man in charge of cooking
and cooling was a serious person about age 60. He
came in early in the morning to get his cookers ready
(his steam came from a separate building to the west
end of the main plant.) Then he was around until
the last lot of the day was fully cooked and cooled.
He was still around while I was helping Woody Ketterman
clean up his closing machine area. He must have had
many long days.
So what you say! What must have happened? In a state of awful
weariness the cooker man must have mistakenly put three crates
from our closing machines directly into the cooling tank without
cooking them. Then they were packed and stacked and soon started
their evil ooze and pop.
This was the exciting aspect
of canning and strenuous too. The “closing
machine” filled each can and fastened its lid
at the rate of 180 cans per minute Two agile boys
wearing asbestos gloves were required to keep this
from becoming a disaster since the machine never
stopped except for breakdowns. It took considerable
skill to pick up four hot cans at a time and pack
them quickly into the iron cooking crates. Since
the vegetables were blanched, the cans were too hot
to touch. This job was tiring but always challenging.
One morning just before we started
up for the day, I found stranded in a new empty can
on the intake track by my shoulder a mouse and her
new born. Minutes later they would have become a
premium in some one’s can of peas. Not a good
way to spend their birthday!
Few canneries operate like this
nowadays. Some may remember Aunt Kitty’s top
quality home style soups from Hanover—soups
like our grannies used to make. Aunt Kitty’s
backyard cannery was bought up by a large soup corporation;
the unique quality of its products soon deteriorated
and it closed down. Let’s hope that Littlestown
industries enjoy a better fate.
Submitted June 2006