The Boys of Summer
Early on the warm summer mornings, I would awaken to the sounds of cardboard crates filled with empty tin cans being shuffled about. I remember the pre-dawn cannery lights which pierced the grays of early dawn and I could hear the gentle banter of the employees of the Cliffside Mills’ public cannery preparing for the days operation. I also remember the rumbling roar of a bright red Indian motorcycle, with its ornate saddlebags adorned with jeweled buckles, as it was being parked between the cannery and our house, announcing that most of the employees were in attendance.
For a very young boy the cannery was a source of wonder and excitement. The summer days were filled with a non-ending stream of people of the Cliffside and Avondale areas preparing their garden produce to be sealed and steamed in tin cans for use in the upcoming winter months. Vegetables and produce included tomatoes, corn, peas, beans, okra and fruit such as apples, peaches, blackberries, and pears. I remember the chattering of the steam pipes, and sounds of the water vats as they were being roiled by the hot steam.
The cannery that I remember was located directly behind the R. R. Haynes Memorial Building. Customer traffic began early in the morning before the heat of the summer sun began to bear down on the tin roofed building. Its location behind the Memorial building sheltered the structure until almost noon and from that time the sun’s heat and the hot steam used in the process would escalate the building temperature until working conditions were almost unbearable as it peaked about 5-6:00 p.m. when it was covered in the shadow of the two story wooden warehouse nearby. Many times the daily processing volume would be so great as to require the employees to work into the night.
In the July 24, 1919 edition of the Sun, the Cliffside correspondent also makes note that “A new building has been erected here for the cannery, and a great deal of interest is being shown in its work.”
In the Society’s oral history interview with Leavy Johnson Scruggs, (widow of Thurman Scruggs), she recalls her family had been canning in glass jars, and when the Company built the cannery, in the vicinity of the old blacksmith shop they began canning in tin cans. This indicates that the cannery was located near the junction of Riddle’s Creek and the Second Broad River. The simultaneous opening of a laundry and the cannery in 1919 could indicate that they possibly shared the same building or energy source, as both of the facilities used steam in their processing operations.
The steam laundry operated at that location until 1927 when George Shuford and Myles Haynes opened a new Dry Cleaners on Main Street, which once had housed the old theatre before it moved to the R. R. Haynes Memorial Building.
The date of the opening of the first cannery may have been associated with the “Victory Garden Movement” of World War I. It is not certain how long the first cannery was in operation or if it operated at its “under the bridge” location until 1932, when the new cannery building was erected.
The new cannery was announced in the Forest City Courier, on July 7, 1932. “The Cliffside Mills is constructing a cannery and installing machinery which the patrons may use without charge. Those who bring produce for canning will be expected to pay only for the cans used. All other expenses will be borne by the company. The capacity of the cannery is about 5,000 cans per day. H. C. Beatty and John Tinkler are in charge of the cannery with John Bartee, an experienced canner assisting.” The employment of an experienced canner in the initial season may indicate that the new cannery was either a different process from the former cannery or that the cannery of 1919 had closed prior to the erection of the new building. The news coverage of the cannery does not list John Bartee in any of the subsequent seasons.
In 1933, in its second season, some new equipment upgrades for the cannery are mentioned. The Rutherford County News, August 3rd edition announces “wood burning furnaces were replaced by steam heating equipment and an automatic sealer was added.” It was in 1933 that the cannery must have tapped the steam line that ran from the Memorial building to the ice plant on Railroad Street.
Before the installation of an automated can sealer, the sealing of each can was accomplished by a mechanical sealer. The automated sealer allowed greater speed in sealing the cans, increasing the production capacity of the cannery.
The Cliffside Mills Cannery, established in the teeth of the Depression, was not unique in the textile communities of the South in the late 1920s. Articles in the late 1920s and early 1930s in Southern Textile Bulletin and other industry publications implied that it was the duty of the mill owners to provide canneries for their employees as a means of weathering the country’s current economic failure.
On August 3, 1933 the Forest City Courier reports “The Department of Public Welfare is canning vegetables and fruits at Cliffside, Hollis, Forest City and Rutherfordton. Most of the produce being canned is coming off community gardens operated by the Welfare Department. The largest community garden is located at Cliffside on Cliffside Mill property. This is also true of the cannery. This garden and canning program is under the supervision of Mrs. George C. Shuford.”
The local reporter for the Courier on June 28, 1934, relates that “The community cannery here, under H. C. Beatty and Fred Barkley, opened Monday morning for the summer. There will be no charges for the containers for Cliffside residents.” The extension of “free” canning for the residents of Cliffside was a measure of just how severe the depression had become. In subsequent years the fee for the cost of the containers was reinstated.
In 1935, the cannery was again under the supervision of H. C. Beatty and Fred Barkley and the reports indicate “part of the time it has been necessary to run the operation both day and night.”
In the late 1930s and early 1940s the managers of the cannery were Fred Barkley and Gerard Davidson, who continued in their role of co-managers until the beginning of World War II. After the war, Dorus Huss was the manager of the cannery and continued as such until the early 1950s, and Henry Elmore continued as the cannery’s manager until it closed in the late 1950s.
The demise of the Cliffside Mills Cannery can be attributed to many factors; among the most prominent are the change of consumer buying habits coupled with the early advent of the chain supermarkets, and the desire of corporate textile administration to divest itself of the last shreds of the paternalistic system of corporate management.
Consumers moved away from the growing of their own fruits and vegetables and moved toward buying these from the supermarkets. As this shift took place, the demand for the service of the cannery declined. It was soon regarded as unnecessary and the cannery died a slow death until an end was demanded by corporate management.
The cannery, which was once shuttered in the winter time and sprang to life each year in the late spring, soon was shuttered for the final time in the late 1950s and torn down in the early 1960s, leaving only the brownish-gray concrete slab, and served as a parking lot until it too was razed with the remnants of the town buildings.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2009 issue of The Cliffside Chimes. Jim Ruppe is (as of this posting) vice president of the Cliffside Historical Society.