THE L.P. TRUE CANNING FACTORY IN HOPE
By Karen Blanchard
"L.P. True and Company in Hope was one of the earliest canning factories in the state. It was started by my grandfather, L.P. True, in 1883. Later, after my father had gotten through high school and had gone to college for a while, he joined his father in the business. When my grandfather got too old, my father took over the business. It ran until the Depression got into full swing. My grandfather felt a deep commitment to the community. He knew that people in Hope depended on the factory for a good portion of their incomes and he hated to close it down so that those people would be out of work. After several years, so much money was being lost my father had to close down. My grandfather was old enough so that he didn't really realize whether it was going or not it was always in the family, it was never sold.
"Corn was the first product canned, back in 1883. I can remember that they canned apples, pumpkins, squash, string beans, blueberries, baked beans and brown bread. Sometimes they would can for private parties; someone would bring in some tomatoes they wanted canned or something like that. Most of the produce was grown locally. People grew corn, beans, squash and everything in their gardens. I remember as a child going around with my grandfather each year when he'd call on the farmers to see if they were going to raise certain crops for him. He'd go to the blueberry growers, also.
"The caned goods were sold mostly in New England and a lot of them were sold locally. My grandfather would go to Camden and Rockland and visit grocery stores, restaurants and hotels and sell case lots. They sold to other companies in New England. I don't recall most of them, but I do remember that they used to sell to Burnham and Morrill in Portland. They sold baked beans and brown bread under their own label. They also sold beans and brown bread to Friends, which was a well-known brand name in New England; the company was down in Boston. I can remember my grandfather going around and visiting the boys and girls camps in the area to sell them case lots.
"The canning season began with blueberries in the summer and then it would keep going from one crop to another. They'd buy apples in the fall and keep canning until the crop was finished in the winter. Then they'd shut down for a while, but when it started to warm up, they'd open up to get ready for the next canning season.
When they were the busiest, which was in the peak season with blueberries, they had about fifty women and fifteen to twenty men working there. First they had to get things. ready to put in the cans. During the blueberry season, for instance, women would sit by the belt that carried the berries. The berries would come in by the truck load, or wagon load in the olden days, at night after the day's raking was over. First the berries were winnowed. After that the men would pour them in a big box over the belt and the women would pick out the leaves and maybe a spider. Once in awhile the men would put in a snake or something for a little excitement!
"Then the berries went into big metal tubs where they were cooked. After that they were put in the cans and sealed, ready to go to the pressure cookers, which we called retorts. I remember they used to have two big, round retorts, about four feet in diameter and about five feet high. The berries were sealed and canned in those retorts.
"Sometimes the volume of berries was so great they had to work nights, too. The people in this area worked in the factory and planned on it in the busy season. They used to send a bus down to Camden and Rockland every morning.
Blueberries were the biggest volume that they canned. I remember once when the price was so low that they sold for three cents a pound, Usually, in my memory, they sold for five, six or seven cents a pound and maybe they'd get eight cents, which was high. Compare that with sixty cents or more here in Maine the last several years.
The women mostly prepared the food that went into the cans. The men were on the receiving end of the product where there was heavier handling. The men would also chop up pumpkins and squash with hatchets before they were put in the steamer. It was steamed for a long time before it was strained and mashed.
I remember when my father started baked beans and brown bread, which was a new product. They had a great big oven - it must have been about fifteen feet by twenty feet. They cooked the beans in great big cans, the kind that restaurants buy. They were cooked with pork and molasses and they were really good! He made brown bread with and without raisins.
The oldest women had their backs to the heating pipes and the younger women were on the opposite side of the table. Some women worked well into their 70s. If one of them stopped working or died, the next person moved up a seat. Nobody sat in anybody else's chair.
In the old days, when my grandfather first started canning, the cans were tin and the caps were put on by soldering. A few years later the American Can Company came out with a pressure sealer that put a vacuum seal around the edge of the can. The cans, filled with blueberries or whatever, would go under this great, heavy machine that would press down and the pressure would curl the edge over the top just the same as today. My grandfather was the first man in the state to use that vacuum seal. You didn't buy the sealer; it was a huge machine weighing several tons and you rented it from the American Can Company in Portland.
They didn't have electricity in Hope until the '30s so my father had his own generator to have lights in the factory. They used steam for a lot of things at the factory. They used to clean and sterilize the machinery at night with a steam hose. The furnace in those days was wood-fired. Another way that people in town had of earning money was cutting and hauling wood, which my grandfather would buy from them. On cold winter nights they had to keep a fire going so the canned goods wouldn't freeze. If it was really cold and windy, someone would have to sleep in the factory to keep the fires going and also to see that the place didn't burn down.
As a little girl. I used to be called on once in awhile to put cans down. This was an upstairs job. There was a trap door and chute, and I'd take cans out of the boxes and roll them down the chute and onto a moving belt. It wasn't a bad job, except in the middle of summer when it was a pretty hot place to work. Once in awhile I helped label. They wouldn't label cans until an order came for a lot to be shipped. Most of the labeling had to be done by hand. In later years they got a machine, but it didn't work that well, so most labeling continued to be done by hand. Two or three women did it, and I remember once or twice my father sent word to the house that they needed help.
We always looked forward to the fall when they had a great pile of pumpkins and squash outside. When we were kids, we would climb up on them when our parents weren't looking, and climb up on the roof and go 'way up the water tank which was on top of the factory. When it got muddy and wet in the fall we always had to wear rubbers over our shoes. We lost more rubbers down in that pile of squash. We couldn't find them; either we didn't notice when they came off or we couldn't get to them. We'd have to wait until all the pumpkins and squash were processed, and then we'd find our rubbers down there in the mud!