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
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
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
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
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
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
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 understood.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.