The Vagabond – Early canning factories

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By Danny Crownover

Gadsden’s first canning factory was built in the early 1890s and operated by R.H. Lucas in connection with his ice and cold storage plant on the Southern Railroad near Town Creek.

The Gadsden City Council appropriated $1,100 as a gift to the enterprise after much urging on the part of local citizens, who claimed that the area needed something of the kind to aid and encourage farmers in growing vegetables.

Although small, the canning factory was a good one. During its short life span, it put up beans, okra, tomatoes and other vegetables of a high quality. Zach Hardy planted a large field of tomatoes in East Gadsden near the river, while other farmers in the county planted tomatoes and other vegetables for the factory.

During that time, the financial panic of the 1890s was getting into full stride, so Lucas decided to move his plant to his hometown of St. Louis, Mo., and took with him the canning factory. The city council awoke to the fact that its $1,100 appropriation for the factory was a gift, and nothing could be done to protect its interests.

One of the largest ever built in this area, Lucas’ ice plant was equipped for a large cold storage business and bottled beer that was shipped in tanks from Milwaukee.

The fact was that Gadsden was simply too small for the operation, especially during a serious business depression. Even the low price of 75 cents for a dozen bottles of beer did not help.

There was no further attempt to operate a canning factory in the area until 1906, when Captain J.M. Elliott, the head of the Elliott Fruit Company, established one on what is now Gadsden Country Club property. Elliott’s peach orchard of 94,000 trees was just coming into bearing, and he planted 40 acres in tomatoes, the largest field ever planted for that vegetable in Alabama. He planted a tomato variety known as Greater Baltimore, one that was being used extensively throughout Maryland. Elliott noted that the variety was a favorite in the Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago and Cincinnati markets.

Elliott expected to put up 75,000 three-pound cans of tomatoes from that one field. He canned nothing else at the start but peaches but did prepare to add beans, peas, okra and such.

Practically all of the factory’s workers had to be transported from Gadsden to the plant by wagon, a costly procedure. In addition, all shipments had to be hauled to the railroads by wagons, so the cost of transportation was one of the main factors why the project was finally abandoned, along with the financial panic of 1907.

Contact The Vagabond at dkcrown@bellsouth.net.

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