Harold W. Hurst August 2006
The Canning Industry in Delmarva
Harold W. Hurst
The packing and canning of oysters, fruits and vegetables (especially tomatoes) was the principle manufacturing industry throughout the Delmarva Peninsula during the period between the 1880s and the 1950s. The fish-laden waters of the Chesapeake Bay and the fertile farmlands of eastern Maryland and southern Delaware provided the thriving industry with a continuous flow of produce that was processed for shipment for northern ports.
As production methods and technology became more sophisticated in the early 1900s, the Delmarva region became one of the nation’s chief sources of canned goods. According to R. Lee Burton, Jr., the author of Canneries of the Eastern Shore (Centreville, MD. Tidewater Publishers, 1986), the Eastern Shore counties of Maryland had about 250 canneries in 1920. A large portion of them were concentrated in Caroline, Dorchester, Wicomico and Somerset counties.
This article focuses on the canning industry’s impact on Delmarva’s economic and social developments, population growth and community life rather than on the production methods and technological developments that changed the craft in this era.
The development of peach orchards in Delaware led to the establishment of a cannery in Dover as early as 1856, when Alden B. Richardson and James W. Robinson opened a shop that produced 9,000 cans of fruit by 1858. Four years later the booming plant put out 40,000 cans. The canning plant was Dover’s chief manufacturing enterprise during the latter part of the nineteenth century and continued as a mainstay of the local economy.
Surprisingly, land-locked and sparsely settled Caroline County had 62 canneries in 1920, more than any other Eastern Shore county. Walter M. and William J. Wright established the first cannery in 1885. The second generation of Wrights operated factories in both Caroline and Talbot counties that canned tomatoes and string beans with the brand name of “Pride of Talbot.” By the 1940s the firm of H. B. Wright and Son employed 175 workers, in addition to operating a 90-acre farm that provided the produce for the company plants. The Wrights also possessed a basket factory and their own trucking facilities.
Most of the canneries in Caroline County, however, were small locally-owned plants that served farmers who lived nearby.
The largest packing plant in Talbot County was located on Tilghman Island where the Harrison brothers, S. Taylor and J. Camper, opened a packing plant in 1897. A few years later the Harrison brothers, with a younger brother, O. N. Harrison, established the Tilghman Canning Company, which canned both oysters and vegetables. The company owned its own farmlands and operated the first electric ice manufacturing plant on the island. In the 1940s the Tilghman organization packed oysters, crabmeat, shad and herring and other seafood, in addition to corn, tomatoes and other vegetables. During this period the Tilghman Packing Company employed between 400 and 500 workers and produced over a million dollars worth of goods, a large amount for a rural plant in this era.
Cambridge, a seaport in Colonial times and the county seat of Dorchester County, early became the major packing and canning center on the Eastern Shore. Located on the Chesapeake Bay and surrounded by fertile farm lands, the city was an ideal place for the location of canning and packing plants. The industry not only stimulated the local economy but provided employment for hundreds of workers. By 1900 the town’s population reached 5,747, making it the largest community on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
One of the earliest packers in Cambridge was James Wallace, who started a firm in 1870. By 1896 he was one of the largest packers on the Eastern Shore, producing about 25,000 cans a day, a large amount for this period. During the early 1900s his products were sold under the labels “Abbasco Brand” and “Pride of Cambridge.”
But the superstar of the canning industry during the early decades of the twentieth century was Colonel Albanus Phillips of Cambridge. Born in 1871, he entered the oyster packing business at an early age. In 1902 Albanus and his brother Levi, together with a business partner, William Grason Winterbottom, established the Phillips Packing Company. Their enterprise expanded to include the Phillips Hardware Company in 1904 and the Phillips Canning Company in 1914.
The Phillips properties eventually included nine factories in Cambridge and several branches in the smaller towns of Dorchester County. Cambridge became known as “the tomato canning capital of the world.” During World War II the Phillips plants employed nearly 2,000 workers to produce “C” rations and “K” rations for the armed forces. The company was proud of the four awards for excellence that it received from the Army and Navy during this period.
In nearby Somerset County, Crisfield was a flourishing sea port and seafood processing center. By 1900 the bustling little town had a population of 3,000, making it as large as the much older communities of Chestertown and Easton.
The Crisfield Packing Company, started by M. Ewing Ward and his brother, Vernon, processed and packed all kinds of seafood. Another thriving outfit was the John T. Handy Company, which canned both seafood and vegetables. By the 1940s the company, under the leadership of John T. Handy, Jr. and the Sterling brothers, employed 400 workers and was also involved in frozen food operations. Somerset County was famous for its large strawberry crops, which were boxed and crated for shipment by railroad to the northern states and Canada.
By 1908, Wicomico County had canneries located every ten or fifteen miles. Many were located in Salisbury, Fruitland and Whitehaven. John H. Dulaney of Fruitland introduced canning to the area in the early 1900s and his son, Ralph, continued the company’s operations. By World War II the Dulaney factory was involved in the packing and dehydrating of foods and in the processing of frozen foods.
Another large canning company was organized by Walter T. Olney, who operated plants in Girdletree and Snow Hill in Worcester County. At one point in history the Olney factories employed 500 workers while the company farm of 1,800 acres produced much of the produce for the plants.
Three generations of the Phillips family (apparently unrelated to the Phillips of Cambridge) operated a canning factory in Berlin in Worcester County. Founded by Dr. James Richard Phillips, who was both a physician and a canner, the plant continued to can tomatoes, lima beans and string beans under the leadership of James Richard Phillips, Jr. and S. E. Douglas of the third generation. The family properties included extensive farmlands whose produce was processed at the Berlin factory.
There were only a handful of small canneries in Accomac and Northhampton Counties on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The sparse population and the lack of important towns may account for the dearth of canning plants in this area.
The families that operated Delmarva’s canning industry during the first half of the twentieth century evolved into a business elite that exerted a powerful influence on the economic, political and social life of their communities, as well as the region at large. The Phillips, Harrisons, Wrights, Dulaneys, Olneys, Handys and other families wielded a strong impact on affairs outside of their immediate business interests. They were heavily involved in religious, fraternal, political and philanthropic endeavors of their local communities. Some of them were active in the state and national arenas.
Albanus Phillips, Cambridge’s “king of the canners,” may serve as a typical representative of this new industrial elite. Active in Masonic activities and an ardent supporter of the Republican Party, he also served on the staff of Governor Phillip Lee Goldsborough and the board of directors of Washington College in Chestertown. For many years he was on the board of directors of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Albanus’ brother, Levi, was another “mover and shaker” in Cambridge. He was president of the National Bank and an active member of the Chamber of Commerce and the Zion Methodist Church. Levi stepped onto the national stage when he became director of the Richmond District of the Federal Reserve Bank.
The sons of Colonel Phillips, Albanus, Jr. and Theodore, continued the family interest in community affairs and voluntary associations. William G. Winterbottom, a partner in the Phillips organization, was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1908.
The Harrisons of Tilghman Packing Company were another canning industry family whose wealth and influence extended their power far beyond tiny Tilghman Island. During World War II, George T. Harrison, a second-generation company executive, served in the War Food Administration and the Office of Price Administration. He was also a member of the Tidewater Fishing Commission and many other organizations. Kenneth E. Harrison, a cousin of George, was a director of the Tilghman Bank and also served on the board of the First National Bank of Baltimore.
Other canning industry moguls involved in banking activities included Walter T. Olney, director of the First National Bank of Snow Hill, and John H. Dulaney, who was a director of the Fruitland Bank.
Canning industry owners appeared to have similar backgrounds and like interests. Most of them were self-made men. Few had attended college or stemmed from the land-holding gentry, the dominant social caste on the Peninsula. The majority, with a few exceptions, were Republican in politics and Methodist in religion. Nearly all were Freemasons and heavily involved in lodge activities. These characteristics differentiated them from the region’s older elites whose members were generally landed gentlemen, college graduates, lawyers, conservative Democrats, and, more often than not, affiliated with the Episcopal Church.
What about the ordinary workers in the canning industry? The employment forces in most places usually consisted of both blacks and native whites, but in later years often included immigrants, referred to as “Bohicks” because of their Italian or Slavic backgrounds.
Work in the company fields and the processing plants was difficult and low paying. Large numbers were involved in picking and peeling tomatoes, a messy job in which compensation often included company tokens that could be exchanged for cash or used as script at the local grocery. During the period between World War I and World War II, skinning a hundred buckets of tomatoes a day could earn a worker $5, good pay in this era in a region offering little other than farm labor.
Labor-management relations varied from place to place. The Tilghman Packing Company paid its employees bonuses based on profits, and wages were substantial enough to prevent a mass exodus of workers to the high-paying munitions industry during the war period. The Phillips canneries in Cambridge, however, were plagued with labor troubles, and a massive strike occurred in 1937 when the unions tried to organize company plants. Workers stoned the police who tried to prevent organizers from entering the factories. After World War II the Phillips operations were finally unionized.
Whatever can be said about employment conditions in Delmarva canneries, the industry offered work to many people in the area. During the heyday of the canneries about 15,000 labored in the plants. The number increased again during the height of World War II.
The number of canneries declined after World War II. By 1980 there were only about 20 canning factories left in the eight counties of Eastern Shore Maryland. Why did this once thriving industry fade away? After 1945, lavish wartime government contracts ceased. High labor costs due to unionization and the introduction of the minimum wage reduced profits, causing many canners to sell out.
Competition from the frozen food industry and increasing rivalry from California fruit canners contributed to a further decline of Delmarva operations. The opening of the Bay Bridge in the early 1950s resulted in the diversification of the Peninsula economy and the establishment of new enterprises offering a wide variety of fresh employment and business opportunities.
An era passed away as cannery after cannery closed their doors and Delmarva farmers converted their tomato fields and fruit orchards into lands planted with corn, wheat and soybeans. The failure of the industry marked the end of another epoch in Delmarva history.