Economic Rebound Led by the Tomato
It was a majestic time in the eastern counties of Virginia bordered by the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers. The costly and deadly Civil War had been over for more than two decades and reconstruction had begun, easing the effects on the area financially. Only the farming, timber and fishing industries were operating, but they had not yet recovered to pre-war levels. Large farmers did not have the money needed to plant as before. Everyone was in some way still feeling the effects of the war.
Unfortunately, laborers did not fare any better. Former slaves, although free to move about as they saw fit, did not have the means to do this and remained in place working at existing jobs. These jobs were scarce, and wages were low. There was no money.
Then entered a knight in red armor to save the day, the tomato. First labeled as an aphrodisiac and grown for decoration, it became a dietary staple and provided employment for the people of the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula. It was initially believed to be poisonous, but after Thomas Jefferson made it known that he had eaten them and did not feel any ill effects, others started consuming them as well. What would become a great boom to the local economy began small in the 1870s but by the turn of the century, every county in eastern Virginia had numerous tomato fields producing tons of tomatoes.
A French baker named Nicolas Appert developed a method that greatly lengthened the time vegetables could be stored without spoiling. The method was referred to as canning, but initially glass jars with cork tops were used. Shortly thereafter, tin-plated cans replaced the jars and tops were soldered onto the cans.
Being located on rivers, creeks and bays, Eastern Virginia was reachable by sailing vessels, and there was a market for canned tomatoes in the cities of Baltimore and Norfolk. The “Neck” on both sides of the rivers was perfect for growing tomatoes. Since the soil was very rich in nutrients, it produced an especially tasty fruit. The tomato canning business began here in earnest a decade after the Civil War and grew dramatically. By the late 1930s, it was estimated that over 200 canneries lined the rivers, creeks and coves in eastern Virginia.
The startup cost of building, equipping and outfitting a tomato cannery was about $3000. That included the building, the steam boiler, the pans, cans, buckets, boxes, baskets and a pump for fresh water. The business was very labor intensive, but there was a labor pool readily available and looking for work.
The process of growing the tomatoes began in the spring. Cannery owners would provide tomato plants to growers all over the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula. If requested, fertilizer consisting of guano (bird droppings) and ground fish was also available in 200-pound sacks. Later, a more manageable and lighter bag of commercial fertilizer was the choice of the farmers.
As crops ripened, canneries began operating. A steady supply of fresh, ripened tomatoes started to arrive constantly at the canneries. This time was referred to as “the glut”. Pickers worked long and hard and thousands of 5/8 bushel baskets of red, ripe tomatoes were harvested and loaded on wagons or trucks for delivery to the packers.
Nearly everyone in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula was in some way involved in the tomato business. Growers, farm workers, watermen, timber workers, domestics, wives and children all had a part to play. If they could stand the heat, the smell, the long hours and the grueling work, all were welcomed with open arms.
As tomatoes arrived at the canneries, they were checked in, inspected and graded. That operation was basically the same in all the canneries in Westmoreland, Northumberland, Richmond, Lancaster, Essex and Middlesex Counties.
First they were loaded into baskets and lowered into boiling water. This cleaned the fruit and loosened the skin for easy removal. When scalded, the tomatoes were placed in a metal pan and passed down the lines to the peelers who removed the skin and the core with a pointed knife, sharp on both sides, called a “tomato spoon”. The peelers then placed them in numbered buckets. Filled with peeled, cored tomatoes, the bucket would be taken to the packing table and dumped. A token, usually stamped with the initials of the packing house was placed in the bucket and it was returned to the peeler. At the end of the week the tokens were turned in for payment, usually cash.
From the packing table, metal tubes or ducts fed empty
cans to the packers below. Tomatoes were ladled into cans and lids were sealed by capping machines rented from the
The cans were then placed in metal cages, submersed in boiling water and the tomatoes were cooked. As they cooled, the tops became more tightly sealed and the cans were packed into cardboard cases and placed on loading docks ready to be shipped by boat or truck.
The heated water used in the scalding and cooking processes was generated by steam boilers. The operating pressure was usually kept around 100 psi. The steam generated not only killed germs or bacteria during the cooking phase, but was also used to operate the engines which powered conveyer belts, can feeders and such. These boilers, fed by wood and later coal, were very dangerous and a few accidents did occur.
One of the worst accidents happened near Kinsale, Virginia at the Bailey and English Plant. An employee wired the relief valve shut to keep pressure high and prevent steam from leaking. After ignoring numerous requests to open the valve and release the excess pressure, the boiler exploded, killing the operator and severely injuring others. According to an article published by the Northern Neck News in1899, the boiler was thrown 200 feet into the air and around 100 yards from the plant site.
At the start of WWII, the growers in Eastern Virginia and Southern Maryland contracted with the War Department to provide 40 million cases of canned tomatoes for the military. A great deal of effort went into filling the order.
One of the more colorful aspects of this industry was the labels on the cans. Each plant carefully selected the colors and words they thought best described their tomatoes. Even though they may have been canned only a few hundred yards apart, each cannery had its own pitch for their signature product. Names such as Wife’s Pride, Newland Tomatoes, Evenripe Tomatoes, Pride of Virginia, Kinsale Tomatoes, Southern Tomatoes, Super Pride Tomatoes, and dozens of others, added more color to a already colorful business. The individual packers boasted of the quality of their brands, but in many cases, the tomatoes came from the same fields and certainly the pictures of the tomatoes used on the labels seemed to be nearly identical.
Another pleasant memory provided by the people who worked in these canneries was the good-natured chatter of the ladies on the scalding, peeling and packing lines. They would laugh, tease each other as to who was the fastest and even occasionally break into songs. “I remember how beautiful the songs were, mostly gospel or songs they sang as children,” remembers Mrs. Virginia Elliott, 95, of Laneview, Va. “I was in my early 20s and had just gotten married when I went to work at Mr. Neal’s Place in Bowlers Wharf,” she reflected. “We were all country folks, men and women, black or white, children and adults and we got along very well. Few arguments happened and they never lasted long. We were like a family,” she said with a huge smile.
“There also was a cannery in Dunnsville, owned by Eddie Kreite who packed black-eyed peas and tomatoes, as well as another factory in Montague. Since I lived in Laneview, Bowlers was closer than Dunnsville so that’s where I started. Same people worked in all the canneries though,” she chuckled.
Fred “Skipper” Garrett III said, “I remember going with Uncle Wit (William “Wit” Garrett) with a wagon to pick up the discarded stalks and hulls from the black -eyed peas at Bowlers to feed the cattle. I also remember when the factory was canning tomatoes, the water around the building and shore was bright red from the peelings that were discarded”.
At the end WWII, the increasingly restrictive health and environmental regulations began a trend that would eventually end the local tomato business. Huge canning facilities in California and Florida were automated and packed vegetables year around. Canneries here in Virginia could not compete with the automation and the lower product cost. Some local canneries tried packing seasonal fruits and vegetables, some packed herring roe, others hominy, oysters and later crab. The last ones to close were Leedstown Canning in Leedstown and Lake Packing Company in Callao. Lake Packing held out until the late 1980s. These businesses were heroic reminders of the way things were in Eastern Virginia.
“The Red Knight” made his appearance just in time. Referred to by some of the folks that were involved in the industry as “The Prince”, the tomato helped save a geographical area. While doing so, he put money in pockets that had been empty for a long time. New shoes for school, Christmas presents and holiday candy for the children were made possible by people with a common goal. Management, labor, neighborhoods, but mostly people working together and caring for each other set the tone for these 75 years of prosperity.