The Wilson Story

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Cannery – Del Monte and beyond.

    Brine Chemist/Corn Cooker 

    When I turned eighteen I started working for Del Monte.  My first job was the pea vinery and then later in the summer l I was able to work in the cannery on the night shift.  My first job was to work on the distribution system to keep the ladies husking ears and removing the kernels from the cob. This was a two step procedure that involved removing the husks and then the kernels.  In cutting the kernels from the corn there were two distinct types of events.  The kernels were removed intact from the young tender ears to make whole kernel corn.   On old ears the kernels were cut in half and then a beater was used to remove the corn juices to make creamed corn.  The set of rotary knives that removed the corn were very efficient and extremely interesting. I was just getting to work when Max Stewart pointed to me and the night boss came and asked if I had chemistry and I told him that I had B's in chemistry.  He asked if I wanted a raise to $1.15 per hour from $1.04. Now college was worth while, I was the “Brine Chemist” on the night shift and Max on the day shift.  The brine chemist had to mix combinations of three ingredients, liquid sugar, sacks of salt, and water to add to the corn as it was put in cans. There were two different types of brine and two storage tanks on the third floor of the cannery.  I had lights that would indicate when tanks on the third floor were nearing full or empty.  I became a slave to these lights and tanks. The lights were controlled by two electrodes in the brine tanks, one electrode measured when I was nearing empty and the  other as it was filling. The catch was that I had one mixing tank for these two storage tanks and a very slow pump to move brine to the third floor storage tanks. I had to weigh buckets of corn starch for the creamed corn boilers. Thus, I had to watch two sets of lights and buckets of starch at the same time.  This was a good job and it was much easier than pitching peas and paid more.

    Most of the busy jobs such as husking corn, cutting kernels, and cleaning the food was done by an army of women.  They were allowed to work ten hours and then they had to be paid overtime which the plant would not pay. During the main harvest times the women would work ten hours and then we men would clean up the plant, thus getting 1-2 hours of overtime. Over time pay was 1.5 times our hourly wage (1.5 x $1.15 = $1.725).  Our shift would start in the afternoon 4:00 pm and end near dawn. The clean up crews had two piece yellow rubber suits and black boots and an array of hoses. Hats were optional.  We had high pressures hoses that were used to remove most of the sticky corn materials, these would easily shoot a stream of water 20-30 feet.  These hoses had a nozzle to give you a fine stream, that was controlled by a handle. These looked like a pistol with a black hose for the handle. We had steam hoses that would give you a scalding mixture of water and steam. Every inch of the plant could be reached by hoses.  If you found someone a sleep at their hose you could wake them up with a shot of cold water.  The trick was get them without anyone seeing you, especially them.

    The general flow of materials through the plant was from East to West. Food was prepared on the East end of a large building.  The middle of the plant was cleaning and canning and the west end was the large cookers.  The canning machines were old most of them dating to the early 1900s.  The standard canner would do 180 cans per min while the vacuum pack canner would do 220 per min.  Two people were needed per canner,  one to see that everything was filling and running right and a second to place the cans in carts.  The 4'x4'x4' carts had a movable bottom so that you would put in a layer of cans then drop down and put another layer in and so forth. When the cart was filled they were removed and put in a large walk in autoclave for cooking.  They were cylindrical with large doors at both ends.  You loaded one end and took them out the other end.  Only we called them cookers not autoclaves.  After cooking the cans were taken across the tracks to the next building where they were labeled and stored.  The train tracks were there to bring in new empty cans and then take out filled cans at a later date.

    My first error as brine chemist came when I had two tanks come empty at nearly the same time.  I thought that I could get the brine up for the vacuum pack canner but did not.  I failed to warn the boss as I was working as fast as I could to get the second tank full and they ran out of brine.  The canner operator didn't pick up the error for two or three carts of cans.  Boy did I learn some new words.  I vowed never to fail to warn the boss to watch the brine if things were going to be close.  What do you do with three carts full of corn without brine?  You open them with a can opener and re-can them.  The good news was that Keith Buys had to open all of the cans by hand.  Oh was he mad at me, but we could all laugh at my mistake.  Never again did I allow a tank to go empty on a canning crew. Each can was a loss of 9 cents.

    One of the ways I would get in the good graces of the canning crew, the huskers, and  cutters is that I would cook a bucket of corn for dinner using one of my steam hoses and one of my flour buckets.  I provided salt and the ladies provided butter.  I loved to eat the shoe peg corn the best.  So if you were nice to me you got fresh corn.  Boy I would love some of that fresh corn right now. 

    The second year at Del Monte I moved up from brine chemist to operating the creamed corn cookers. This job paid about ten cents an hour more than brine chemist.  It was a better job because I was always busy. A continuous flow of creamed corn was used to fill in turn four large vats or cookers (250 gallons each).  The task was to add a sugar brine, corn starch to thicken the mixture and heat it up near boiling temperature for a period  of time. After cooking the creamed corn was pumped to the creamed corn canners.  One of the hazards was hurrying to fast.  On one occasion I slipped on a wet floor and threw a bucket of corn starch in the air covering everything including me. I remember one night we were able to beat the record for cooking corn by getting something like 150 batches in one shift or 15 batches per hour. This was a challenging repetitious job that I really enjoyed.  The clean up was also a challenge with sugar, cream corn, and starch every where.

    Working some 70 + hours per week it would seem that all we would do is work and sleep, but we did have some fun.  After a good nights work we found little to do at 4 or 5 in the morning.  We would often meet at the local dairy freeze even if it was closed and talk.  One summer we started playing cards every morning.  We would move the picnic table over under the night light and play poker.  I was a fair to meddling poker player in my day.  The local policeman would come by to see that we were not into trouble and even join in for a few hands.  If he started to lose he would threaten to run us in, but that was only a threat.  I am sure that Doug Dixon (the owner of the Dairy Freeze)  would wonder why his picnic table was always up against his back door.  If he had put a night light over the table we would not have had to move the table and neither would he. As the sun came over the mountain we would get bored and off to bed we would go.

    The night shift was the best shift because of the extra time allowed for clean up and the daily extra overtime. The final cleanup was the most was fun of the season. The last day of the season the supervisors would clear out and allow us a couple of extra hours to clean up.  When every things was clean, the water wars would begin.  We had a water fight that was the “mother of all battles”.  The water would fly all over the place.  No one would leave the place dry especially a supervisor if they were there.  I remember one year someone hollered, “get the fire hose” and the race was on.  One of our team members headed for the fire hose but appeared a little late. We all knew that the fire hose could really pump water.  As he was nearing the fire hose he found someone turning on the hose.  This person was holding the hose between his knees and starting to turn the hose on.  Our team member grabbed the hose from behind turned it on and stuffed it under the opponents coat.  We were right the fire hose really put out the water right under his coat. In a couple of hours of great water fighting and the season was over.  We looked like drowned rats but we were ready to go back to the college and books.

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