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Pick, Peel, Can and Cook ‘em

Earle Mills (left) was manager of the Urbanna Branch of Lord Mott, a Baltimore firm. Mills weighed and bought tomatoes and other vegetables from local farmers. The Lord Mott canning factory was just outside of Urbanna on Lord Mott Road. (Courtesy of Anne Wheeley)

Steamboats from cities brought commerce to the rural communities of the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula. Fruits of the land or water in the country were transported to city markets and, in turn, goods and services came from the city.

The vegetable canning business that grew out of the steamboat era provided many jobs in a time when this area’s economy was still trying to recover from the Civil War and, later, the Great Depression. 

The Chesapeake Bay and the major rivers were full of creeks and coves where canning factories could be built within easy access of a steamboat landing. Some factories were built on top of steamboat docks while others were built along the shoreline, close enough for easy loading and unloading.

Steamboats would carry canned vegetables to market in Baltimore or Norfolk. At one time there were 40 tomato canning factories on the Northern Neck, and just about that many on the Middle Peninsula. 

Wit Garrett of Bowlers recalls that R.G. Neal owned a tomato canning factory at Bowlers Steamboat Wharf in Essex County. Some years later Lord Mott Corporation of Baltimore took it over.
Garrett went to the factory from time to time. “There were tables everywhere and women would core and peel the tomatoes,” he said. “The peeled tomatoes were put in cans, and then the cans of tomatoes would go into a big kettle to be cooked.”

The factory at Bowlers canned tomatoes and black-eyed peas. “People worked at the factory, but people also made money by growing tomatoes for the factories,” said Wit.

“A lot of people who worked the river had little farms. They grew tomatoes and would take them to the factory to make a little spending money,” he said.

“My uncle had a factory in Dunnsville,” he said. “The last one in operation on the Northern Neck was owned by the Cowarts. I think what killed them was that the health department regulations just got too strict.

“When I got out of World War II, they were still canning blackeye peas at Bowlers and we’d go down with a wagon and take away the leftover hulls and feed them to our cattle,” said Wit.
Dumplin Major of Saluda would help his father haul tomatoes to the community canning factory when he was a boy in the 1930s. The earliest factory was on Urbanna Creek in the area of Boney Finger. It was later moved behind where the VDOT building in Saluda is today. Local businessmen Jack Smith and Edmond Smith owned the factory.

“When I was a boy there were a bunch of people peeling tomatoes there,” said Major. “There were empty cans all stacked up and steam kettles where they’d cook the tomatoes.

“Tom Frazier was in charge of getting the cans stacked right in the cooker,” said Major. “They used fresh water from a swamp, and they actually made a small dam to hold run-off rain water.

That’s where they pulled the water to operate the steam-powered boiler. They used the water to generate the hot water for canning. I can remember as a boy playing on the dam that they built.

“The steam boiler had a great big round kettle. They’d put the cans in metal crates and lower them down into the boiler. After they were canned, they’d let them cool, and then there was a crew of women who put the labels on,” said Major. “That was a busy place in those days.

“My father raised tomatoes and we were living right where the new courthouse in Saluda is now,” he said. “When the factory was on the creek, I remember going down to the factory on a wagon loaded with tomatoes and pulled by mules.

“There was a big hill we had to go down to get to the factory. Daddy had to chain the wheel of the wagon so it wouldn’t go down too fast or we might turn over,” he said.

Major said “that hill” and the transportation change in the 1930s and 1940s from steamboats and sailing schooners to trucks persuaded the Smiths to move their factory into town and off the water.

“The man who ran the factory was Earl Redd of Essex County. He would board with us,” said Major. “Mama would feed him. The factory did not run on weekends, so Redd would go home to Essex.

“It was right good for us. We could grow and sell our tomatoes and get money from the manager staying at our house,” he said.  “It was a big deal in Saluda in those days and we had quite a few factories in the county.”

In the 1930s, Lord Mott Corporation of Baltimore established a factory just outside of Urbanna. It was a large plant and the firm grew a lot of its own tomatoes. Major recalls that a Lord Mott truck went to King and Queen and Gloucester counties to get enough workers to pick the beans and tomatoes. “They’d haul them in and haul them out. Most of the pickers were black women,” he said.

He noted the firm had large motor-powered buyboats that hauled tomato cans and ingredients from Baltimore, and the finished product to Baltimore. “By then the steamboat had stopped and the buyboats had taken over. There were still a few sailing schooners hauling canned tomatoes to Baltimore into the 1940s.”

Tomato fields were not just at farms. Tomatoes for the factory were also grown in open lots within the corporate limits of the Town of Urbanna. 

Anne Wheeley of Urbanna recalls the black pickers coming to town in the late 1930s and early 1940s. She lived in the house on Rappahannock Avenue next to Taber Park. In those days, Urbanna School was located on what eventually became park property. The field next to Taber Park, which today is used for the Oyster Festival and other events, was a tomato field.

“When the picking started, we would raise the windows as far up as they would go just to listen to them sing,” said Wheeley. “Honestly, I’ve never heard a church choir that sounded any better.”
Kilmarnock had its own tomato factory at Kilmarnock Wharf. Andrew Simmons, who lives between White Stone and Kilmarnock, worked there putting empty cans down a chute to be filled with tomatoes.

“They steamed tomatoes just like they steam crabs now,” he said. “I’d put empty cans in a chute and it would drop down into a machine that would fill the cans with tomatoes.

“The cases of cans came in cardboard boxes and I’d take them out of the boxes and drop them down the chute,” he said. “It took two of us to keep enough cans moving to keep up with the machine.

“Once the can was filled up it went through a capping machine and then it was steamed,” said Simmons. “There was a coal-fired boiler that steamed the cans of tomatoes. In the early years, labels were put on by hand and then we got labeling machines which cut down on labor.

“The operation was managed by Latane Palmer and we called it Latane Palmer’s Tomato Factory. It was at Kilmarnock Wharf right where the granary (Southern States) is today, he said.
“This was in the early 1950s,” noted Simmons. “I was just a kid and so short I had to stand on a box to get high enough to get the cans to the chute. It was a summer job and it was enjoyable. There were a lot of people there and it was fun being around all those folks.

“The tomato canning factory was just another one of those things that came and went,” said Simmons. “You go down there now and you wouldn’t know it had ever been there.”
The last of the canning factories closed in the 1960s, which marked the end of a colorful era on the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula.

posted 08.01.2008

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