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Factories in Littlestown
Recollections from 1930 to 1945

Richard R. Renner

If you live in Littlestown you have certainly heard the slogan, “Littlestown, Where Industry and Agriculture Meet.” Why have I chosen the 1930-1945 time period? Uncle Sam plucked me from my Littlestown nest in 1945, the year I graduated from LHS, and I haven’t lived there since, although I’ve visited from time to time.

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. More about my work there later.

BF Shriver also owned a large cannery to the west of S. Queen Street at Piney Creek, as well as plants in Maryland. My dad, Roy D. Renner, worked at Shrivers as a young lad, about 1902, for pennies an hour. From the stories he told he must have been a gofer—an errand boy for the plant manager. John Mathias’ mother skinned tomatoes there.

Another of my neighbors, Luke Jacobs, operated a clothing factory in what appeared to me to be two of the upper stories of the large hotel on the north side of the railroad station (demolished in 2006). Although I knew the Jacobs family quite well, son Bob was my age, I enjoyed only a couple of brief visits at Mr. Jacobs’ plant, I would guess that about 50 women were employed making women’s cotton clothing. In the mid to late thirties there were also two or three other sewing factories in town, and I think another larger one was founded in the 1940’s, not far from the old quarry. I remember best the one that occupied several rooms on the upper floors of the building that housed Trimmers 5& 10 on the Square. There was another next to the East King Street elementary school, back of a church. Later, that site became a bowling alley. John Mathias recalls another just off Cemetery Street

Ah yes, cigars. They were symbols of manly affluence and personal satisfaction. There was a large yellow wooden building on the corner of E. King Street and an alley opposite Walnut Street. My guess is that up until the early 1930’s about thirty persons still worked there making cigars. Indeed, my first baby sitter’s father made cigars in the back of his double house. He may have been laid off due to the Great Depression but continued to practice his skill at home. Similarly, my high school social studies teacher’s father continued making cigars at the family home in Crouse Park well into the 1940’s—Eph’s Best was a quality stogie, I’m told.

Then there were the shoe factories. My knowledge of them is spotty. Yes, I worked at Windsor Shoe after school and on Saturdays in the winter and spring of 1944 and 1945, along with fellow students Doris LeGore (Plunkert) and John Mathias. These factories paid by piecework so that a good worker could earn more than the minimum wage. However, as part-time employees, we seemed to get assignments that paid only minimum wage—40 cents an hour. The head of my Stockfitting Department, Paul Myers, was well respected and fair.

At Windsor I sometimes worked a cutting machine that sliced all soles to the same thickness (irons); it would often break down requiring time-consuming adjustments by the operator. Once I had John (known to a few then as Binney Skitch) feed me the leather super fast so that there would be no delays and hopefully, no breakdown would occur for an absolutely perfect work session. How much might I have earned were I at its piece rate? Slightly less than 41 cents per hour.

My Uncle Billy Renner ran a grocery and lunch room on Newark Street that mainly served a real dinner meal to workers who came to factories there from other towns. In most of Littlestown’s factories, a one-hour lunch break was customary. As most natives know, the noon meal is dinner and supper is in the evening, None of this sissy lunch stuff! Go to Germany sometime and you’ll note that both meals are for real.

There were no labor unions. It was said, probably correctly, that the one cent per copy purchase price for the Hanover Evening Sun was set that low for decades so that workers in our area would be well exposed to the non-union philosophy of its publishers. There was never any discussion about the possible positive value of unions among any of the Littonians I knew. My earliest youthful ambition was to own and manage my own factory once I had finished college. Given the occupation of many of my playmates’ parents on our part of East King Street, becoming a capitalist entrepreneur seemed a reasonable ambition for a twelve year old.

During WWII, one of the empty industrial buildings next to Windsor Shoe was taken over by the Cambridge Rubber Company. Some of my high school friends worked there and apparently earned good money on piece work. Unlike the “free market” faced by the high heeled women’s shoes made by the A.S. Beck Company’s Windsor Shoe, Cambridge Rubber was a military contract.

Another of my neighbors on East King Street extended were the Snyder’s, partners in the Littlestown Foundry. I remember spending many a hot summer afternoon in Bob Snyder’s Hanover Street home pool. I think that my mother and Mrs. Snyder were members of the same book-reading club. I understand that the Foundry was founded in response to WWI federal military contracts, although over the years it continued to address civilian needs. My son Russell, who lives in Florida, is proud of the heavy vise he bought because was made in Littlestown. I used to gawk in occasionally at the foundry as a kid, but it wasn’t a comfortable place to hang around. My classmate, Gerald Daley, who lives on South Queen, worked there quite a few years, but long after I had left town in 1945.

Then there’s the Keystone Cabinet Company. In the 1930’s it used to sound its steam whistle every morning at 7:00 am. It was reassuring to hear for it seemed to say to all, “Get serious, the day has begun.” Its must have resonated all over town, but we lived only four blocks away. On reflection, it was a practical way of telling workers, many of whom had no pocket watches, or watches that were inaccurate, that money is being paid to you to get to work on time. Ignorance is no excuse. We also felt good when the 6:00 pm whistle marked the end of the day. However, I didn’t realize until I began to write this, that only a few years after Roosevelt got elected in 1932, that the evening whistle began its toot at 5:00 pm, one hour earlier. Shorter work-days were to make more jobs for the millions of workers who had been laid off -- a New Deal idea. John Mathias has contributed a photo of this plant’s employees in the early 1930’s. Since John first showed up at Littlestown Elementary School when I was in second grade, I would date his picture about 1934.

I was impressed by the big parade and celebration for Roosevelt’s election at the Square and on East King Street. By this time, at age six, I was old enough to roam around town cautiously on my own. Certainly, I now realize, my dad, a local businessman, would not have been among the Roosevelt celebrants. One of the very first words I learned to say was “Hooer.”

Apart from my own kid visits to the Keystone Cabinet’s boiler fireman, I had few interactions with the factory. My mother did complain (only to us) about the soot speckles on her sheets from the factory’s smoky chimney. Either she was inordinately fastidious or it was a real nuisance. No one had electric driers in those days and all clothing was dried out doors on the wash line (pronounced warsch line). Of course we kids salvaged pieces of broken mirrors from the trash areas at the far end of the plant and used them later for sun glare flash fights. If I can catch the sun in my mirrors and blind you better than you can blind me--then I gotcha. Try it! It’s fun.

Cyril Reck, another nice neighbor on East King, ran a small lampshade factory located just east of the Keystone Cabinet. Considering the huge numbers unemployed nationally, and the lack of any government assistance, I find it hard to imagine much demand for his product. All I know is that Luther Ritter acquired his factory and began to manufacture shoes for babies, a niche market if ever there was one. In its first decade, Ritters Littonian Shoe must have employed 30-50 persons. The Ritters moved in a couple of doors west of us on E. King and made good neighbors.

Then there’s the silk mill. As a kid, I’d ride my bike over to its large brick building
not far south of the railroad station. What did it do? It spun silk.
Where did the silk come from? I don’t know. Where did it go?
I don’t know. It was fun in the early days to watch a couple dozen of people messing with bobbins but still, it was a good half mile from my home on Hanover Street. Then it closed down for a while and I never learned much more.

General Observations Related to Industry in Littlestown Many decades ago I’ve heard it said that the US Census data applicable to the 1930-1940 period showed that Littlestown suffered less from the Great Depression of the 1930’s than any other community of its size (about 2000 population) in the USA.!

I have never been able to track this statement down to its roots, let alone verify the statistics on which it is based. But just to spark up our thinking, let’s assume it’s true!
What did Littlestown have going for it in that era that all other towns lacked?

Well, in 1930 perhaps 90% of Littonians were of German peasant origin. By then, we all spoke acceptable English, or “Germanlish” that everyone locally thought was English. For example, when I was in elementary school, kids still ruched around (ask an old-timer to explain). In those days neither radio, movies, nor television had had much of a chance to erode Kleina Stedtle ‘s 18 th century virtues of hard work, willingness to work long hours, frugality, efficient use of resources, promptness, honesty, pride in doing a good job, respect for those with duly earned authority, an egalitarian social tradition in the sense that that all peasants (Americans by this time) are equal–-no hereditary prestige or unearned pride—one gains prestige by moral behaviors that earn respect. Other behaviors such as dishonesty, profligacy, and waste are immoral. Marriage and family and the responsibilities they entail are important if one is to be respected. One should try to be a good example to others. Education is valued but not limited to that offered in the schools.

All of the above values are very nice and although never practiced by everyone, were at least known to every sane person in the community. Such values placed Littlestown above much of the country, but not above the similar small ethnic-German communities in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

What made Littlestown stand out?

Lots of small factories. Littlestown was not just an agglomeration of churches and farm supply stores. Littlestown, as our early sloganeers remind us, was “Where Industry and Agriculture Meet.”

Farm income during the Great Depression was meager but most Littlestown factory workers, even those living in town, had their own chickens and vegetable gardens. Then too, many factory workers had rural relatives and friends of years standing who did their own butchering, milked their own cows and were in close and friendly touch with those who didn’t. Interdependence could exist at a basic level. I suspect that the chickens whose heads my dad cut off next to my backyard swing were in partial settlement of a bill owed by a farmer to his store. My family was unusual in that we kept no chickens. Still, lots of other ethnic German American towns must also have had good ties with the rural communities that surrounded them.

While all this mattered a lot, I think what mattered most was that Littlestown had lots of small industries that competed not against each other but in national markets where labor and other costs were higher. However, more important still was that in a time of extreme depression, and economic retrenchment, and the closure of one of its two major lending institutions, Littlestown continued to manufacture more cheap canned goods and cheap clothing than ever. Need forced newly unemployed Americans switch to what Littlestown made. Remember poor Cyril’s defunct lampshade plant; the baby shoe factory that replaced him is interesting because in the early 1930’s fewer babies were being produced but apparently those parents who produced them had bucks for their babes. Also, Mr.Ritter skillfully marketed some of his shoes to the Latin American rich where shoelessness, even among babies, can carry a social stigma..

Now, Back at The Littlestown Canning Company
Employees.

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.

Pay

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 understood.

War Prisoners

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 nice guys.

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.

Swimming

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.


Hot Cans

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.

******

Many Littonians know a lot more about these industries than I do and, just as important, what became of them. Hopefully, my effort here will encourage you to contribute your recollections.

Somewhere in industrial, local and personal history ample details usually exist that can provide a rich picture of what the times were like. Many of you, as long-term Littlestown residents can bring the past to life. Maybe grandma worked there. What does she know? Who does she know that knows still more? And so on. Send us your facts and impressions. This web site is an inexpensive way of improving communication in our community. My current E-mail address is R381@ufl.edu or contact the web master at ken@thomasnetwork.net.


June, 2006
End

My dad (John Mathias' Dad) is in the next to last row, third one in from the right.
I only know one other face and name. Appler. He is in the bottom row, fifth one in from the right. Kin to Dorothy

Photo Contributed by John Mathias. (Date of picture about 1934)

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Littlestown Area Historical Society
50 East King Street, Littlestown, PA 17340