Many people were employed by two former businesses in Morristown. Mexican and Jamaican migrant workers even came here for jobs. Morristown Canning Company and the Blue River Packing Company are two of this community’s former industries. Many people can remember everything about them, while others struggle to remember the facts surrounding them. Some younger people do not know they ever existed. The two canneries that once operated in Morristown are a rich part of this community’s history.
In the 1900s two canneries opened in Morristown. They were the Morristown and the Blue River Packing Company. Mr. Charles Carroon opened the Morristown Canning Company in 1923. In 1926 Mr. Carroon sold it to Milroy Canning Company. In 1935 Mr. Garnett Fleming and Mr. Lawrence Link took over the cannery. They traded farmland for the company’s stock. Mr. Fleming and Mr. Link had equal shares of the cannery (Fleming). After the death of Mr. Fleming, his son John took over the cannery (Shelby County historical Society 89).
The owners of Morristown Canning Company did more than just pay the bills and bark out orders. Dr. John Fleming, Jr. remembers that his grandfather wore a tie to work. His grandfather kept the books in order and handled all the money and orders. John’s father helped where he was needed and made sure all the equipment worked properly. When something broke, he would fix it. He also hired and fired people.
There were many people who made the cannery very successful. The residents of Morristown, the farmers, and migrant workers were some of the people. The jobs and hours at the cannery varied depending on the season. During the summertime many of the local younger folk helped pick and peal tomatoes.
Janet Miller worked at the Morristown Cannery while she was in high school. Her father worked in the boiler room and her mother peeled tomatoes and ran the fillers. After high school Mrs. Miller became secretary at the cannery. Mrs. Miller remembered, “I could work forty hours a week or more. It just depended on how long it took to get the job done,” Mrs. Miller also stated that the workers could work twelve or fourteen hours a day. She made about $30 a week. Zona Lee, Mrs. Miller’s sister, stated that she never did the exact same job every day. One day she would put cans in the chutes: the next day she would work in the cappers and help in the fillers. Her hours would change depending on the season and the job she was doing. She would generally arrive around 5:00 a.m. and leave between 10:00 or 11:00 p.m.
One of the most dedicated workers at the Morristown Canning Company was Mr. Kent Gordon. Mr. Gordon would pick tomatoes, do the clean up, and work the boilers. Mr. Gordon lived in his car when the cannery was in full canning season. He would arrive at about 5:00 a.m., pick up the other workers, and drive them to the fields. They would return to the cannery approximately 5:00 p.m. At 9:00 p.m. the cannery closed for the day. Mr. Gordon would then begin cleaning up. Around 1:00 a.m. he would go to his car to sleep for a couple of hours. Then he would get up and start the day all over again. The workers were allowed to have one day off a week. Mr. Gordon usually took his on a Saturday afternoon. Most of the other workers worked sixteen to seventeen hours a day. Mr. Gordon’s pay started at $.50 an hour then rose to $.75 an hour. Mr. Gordon said that the people running the boilers got about $1.25 an hour.
Harry Ferris drove a tractor and worked the fields for the Morristown Canning Company for about four years. He originally made $1.00 an hour until he told them that $1.00 was not enough, so they upped his wages to $1.15 an hour. His wife peeled tomatoes for the cannery. For every bucket she peeled, she received $.10. Amanda Nugent worked for twenty years at the cannery. Mrs.Nugent was a star peeler who never complained about her job. Mrs. Nugent always did what Mr. link asked her to do, even if she thought she would not do well on the job. She remembers that one time Mr. Link asked her to be the boss on one of the belts. “I don’t think I would do well, and the people won’t like me,” she told him. Mr. Link promised her that if things did not go well, she could have back her old job. Naturally, she had no problems with anyone or anything. She remembers having the same conversation every time Mr. Link had a big job for her. She earned $1.50 an hour. Mrs. Nugent’s husband was a local farmer.
“During World War II, there was plenty of work to be done, but not enough workers to do it,” stated Mr. Charles Wilson. From September 1944 through 1945, there was a prisoner-of-war camp in Morristown. This was home to four hundred POWs from Camp Atterbury. The POWs were to help fill a labor shortage at the canning factories. The POW camp was located at Asbury Road and County Road 1100 N. [POW pictures] A partial stone pillar still remains at the southwest corner and is rumored to be the entrance to the camp. According to Shelbyville News article dated September 18, 1999, “Prisoners worked 10 hours a day, usually on a single meal of beans or sauerkraut on bread.” The prisoners had to sleep eight to a tent. Mr. Wilson said the German and Italian soldiers harvested the tomatoes and the other local crops. Velma Wortman was just beginning her teaching career and remembers driving by the camp every day. She remembers they sang German songs beautifully and seemed to be very nice, clean cut fellows (Wilson).
The Morristown Canning Company received migrant workers from Jamaica and Mexico (Fleming). All the workers seem to have fond memories of the migrant workers. Mr. Kent Gordon remembers them as being the best help they ever received. Mr. Gordon would eat with the Jamaicans. Their main meal consisted of goat, gravy, and rice. His new friends invited Mr. Gordon to Jamaica. In 1963 he took a vacation to Jamaica and had a wonderful time visiting his friends. All the interviewees remember the migrants for being great workers. Mr. Gordon recalls a fellow worker who was just released from the penitentiary. “The cannery could care less about the workers past as long as they got the job done,” he said.
The crops were of a variety at The Morristown industry. They canned peas, pumpkin, corn, and tomatoes (Fleming, Ferris, Negent, Miller). Harry Ferris farmed for the cannery, and he received $20-25 a ton for peas, but for the pumpkin, corn, and tomatoes, he received $10 a ton. Some of the cans used at the cannery were came by train on the tracks that are located behind the cannery. The trains were also used to ship out the finished product.
Gathered from the sources there were more women than men employed at the canneries (Fleming, Ferris, Nugent, Miller, Pherigo, Gordon, Everhart). The peelers and sorters were usually women, and the men worked the boilers and the fields. Occasionally there would be 50- 50 split of men and women (Miller). Mr. Gordon said that the canneries were the only outside job that the women had. They finally had the chance to help support their families.
Dr. John Fleming had other fond memories to share. He remembers President Eisenhower and his wife writing his father a letter thanking him for the case of canned pumpkin that John Sr. sent them. John Sr. was an administrative aid for President Eisenhower during WWII. Dr. Fleming also remembers his father rescuing a dog that had fallen into the cooling pits, and he recalls riding his first tractor at the cannery.
In 1969 the Morristown Canning Company closed. It was the last local canning company to close (Shelby County Historical Society 89). Many reasons were given for the closing of the cannery. A major reason was that minimum wage was implemented, increasing the cost of doing business. It was cheaper for the California producers to grow and process tomatoes than it was for the Morristown Canning Company to do so (Gordon). In 1969 frozen food was becoming more popular than canned foods, and there was not enough money to keep the business open (Fleming). The Morristown Canning Company building is now home to another business known as American Contractors.
Morristown was the home to another business known as the Blue River Packing Company. Mr. Brainard Nelson and Mr. L.H. Pitts opened the Blue River Packing Company in 1926 – 1927. It was located across the road from the Morristown Canning Company (Shelby County Historical Society 89). Now it is known as the Hawk-Spencer Mortuary owned by Lowell Spencer.
Mr. Emerald Everhart worked at the Blue River Packing Company for nine years. Mr. Everhart was the superintendent. His starting pay was $240 a month, and then he got a raise to $360 a month. Mr. Everhart was on call twenty-four hours a day.
The Blue River Packing Company employed about 100-120 people. Mr. Everhart estimates 70 percent women to 30 percent men at the cannery.
The Blue River Packing Company canned only tomatoes (Everhart). The land that is presently home to Jacket’s Hive (previously called the Ice Cream Man) was a tomato patch for the Packing Company (Addison).
The interviewee for the Blue River Packing Company did not know what year the cannery closed or the reasons why it closed.
The two former industries are remembered by many and forgot by some. Our younger generation is not aware they ever existed. Now some are remembering and learning about the canneries. The industries employed many of our residents and helped support our local farmers. The information I found was very interesting, and the interviewees were very friendly and eager to share their memories. I was lucky to see pictures and labels from the Morristown Cannery. After interviewing all my contacts, I have learned a lot about my own community. Past businesses, although gone, helped this community grow as lasting friendships were born.
Written By: Nichole Thomas, 2001, for a Morristown High School Class Project.