The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Cannery

By Kenneth M. Hawks © 1988

Issue: April, 1988

It was late, almost midnight, by the time my oldest brother Harold and I banked the fire in the cannery boiler. The night was warm and still with that dark softness you feel in the mountains after an endless, hot summer day.

The first days in August in Carroll County, Virginia are a magic time when the promises of summer are fulfilled. Blackberries, huckleberries and raspberries grow in thick profusion - you're watching the world doze in the steaming days of summer as it has a million, million times before and as it will again and again on into infinity after you have ceased to watch and suffer.

The small community of Lambsburg, Virginia extends from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the gentle tobacco country along the North Carolina line. It is a remote farm community with a mosaic of farms and strong log buildings standing against the wooded hills along Stewart's Creek. When seen from high in the mountains, along Piper's Gap road in late summer, it's like one of Grandma Violet's patchwork quilts as the bright green cornfields highlight the light browns of ripening hay lots. The cardinal flowers and trumpet vines add their accents of red and orange.

If you asked one of the old-timers how he earned spare money in the hard autumns of the 1930's he might tell you, "Working in the Dixie B. Hawks' cannery," or "Selling berries to the cannery." The cannery was Lambsburg's first and last factory and gave me my first job.

We laid our corn by as the blackberry season dawned in August. It's just as well as my brothers Harold, Dale, Beryl, sister Audrey, and I were losing the battle to the crab grass and redheaded briers, I remember clearly asking Audrey if I could use her hoe for awhile when it looked so easy for her to chop the weeds and my hoe seemed so heavy and dull. Even though they were the same, hers seemed to help me finish the hardest rows. So with a deep sigh of relief, and shouts of joy heard all the way to Burt Ward's store, we hung our hoes in the barn and made ready for berry picking time.

Once my Grandma Violet, then a spry ninety one years of age, told me about the time the ticks were so bad in Carroll County that she and my father Jerome had to dip strings in lamp oil and tie them around their wrists and ankles to repel the chiggers and crawling carriers of Rocky Mountain Fever. That was sometime around 1909, shortly after she settled in Lambsburg along Elk's Creek on land given to her husband Hugh by his father, Mr. Osborne Hawks. So, while the horse corn grew long tassels and ears, while the chickadees sang their summer songs and the summer solstice came and went, we shouldered our lard buckets and marched off bravely to face the snakes, briers and sweltering heat. Old Jack, the family shepherd, was with us to explore every thicket for copperheads and other silent creatures hiding from the sun under brown sycamore leaves.

Along about sundown, as the sky turned sober and ashen, I left the berry patches to help my father collect and haul berries to the cannery. Grandma had taught me to cipher by the time I was four years old so I proudly helped my dad pay for the day's pickings. We traveled miles and miles over wagon roads and cow paths filling his Chevy pickup with cans and cases of ripe berries. We returned to the cannery about dark and I worked until midnight for fifty cents. As I recall, my brother Harold was one of the best paid workers, making a dollar a night.

The cannery closed at midnight and we gathered in small tired groups for the long walk home. On those black, moonless nights the lightly colored gravel road guided us through the sleeping village to our farm houses. Now and then my father would be reading by lamp light, usually a western book borrowed from Clifford Carlan. Clifford collected the paperback books by Zane Grey and loaned them to his few friends who could read and write.

When Mr. Dixie B. Hawks, Sr. (a distant cousin of my father) built the cannery it opened a new world for those of us who were born into an uncomplicated world of farm chores. Growing up on a depression farm was no picnic and while there was plenty of family love, it was mostly a time of endless work. A water well windlass was often the most complicated piece of machinery on the place. We lived and worked in a world of horse drawn plows, hand me down clothes, and out of date school books. The seasons were our timepieces as we lived in concert with nature's changing world. The squirrels told us when to store food for winter, the size of the poplar tree leaves when to plant corn and the wild geese when to gather the corn, grain and apples.

The cannery was not a fancy factory by today's standards, nor well lighted and air conditioned. Actually, it was a large shed supported by ten foot locust posts covering a variety of machines and was this farm boy's first encounter with things that did the hard work for people.

Harold, then about seventeen, stoked the steam boiler which ran the machines and cooked the berries. The canned fruit was lowered in a sunken pit by a hand-operated windlass where they were cooked for twenty minutes, taking care of any unnamed creatures that had escaped the sharp eyes of my mother and the other picker/inspectors. Harold started work at sundown feeding the hungry firebox as the steam pipes hissed, growled and expanded with reluctant snaps and groans. About dark my father and the other berry haulers (along with the women workers) arrived for the night's work.

I was twelve at the time, and in my dollar overalls, rode with my father and dog Jack to buy berries from the hill people. They were barefooted, of course, as poor folks never used their store bought shoes until the passing of a couple of rabbit tracking frosts. Those shoes, by the way, came from the Sears catalogue and it was an annual August ritual around our house for my mother to line up the youngins and measure their feet on the chart in the catalogue. I remember how proud I was in the fall of 1942 when we learned that I had grown from a size seven to a size nine while my younger brother Dale had only grown one size. So, by the time my father had finished milking old Lil, Daisy and the other cows, Jack and I were in the pickup ready to go.

Families were paid twenty-five cents for a gallon of berries and were given empty cans to fill the next day. Sometimes a large family would pick eight or more gallons but most stops were for less. Often, two or three tow-headed boys would shyly hand me a half filled can for a few pennies. My father carried a canvas money bag from the Farmer's Bank in Mount Airy, North Carolina, which was filled with rolls of quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies. Once, when we stopped at a run-down log cabin farmhouse a dirty, ragged mountain boy told my dad, "Jerome, let me feel that bag of money."

My father built an oak frame for his Chevrolet truck (he once told me, "Boy, always drive a Chevy.") and spread an oil canvas over the frame to keep the fall rains off the berries and cases. Jack and I rode in the back of the truck and I pushed up the canvas when the rainwater collected in cavities. I can still smell the oily, wet canvas as it was when we traveled through the flashing thunderstorms with the wild ivy bushes slapping against the sides of the pickup. Now and then Jack and I ate a few of the best dewberries heaped on top of the cans.

The women workers, wearing their flour sack aprons, arrived for work after a long day in the fields with an aura of hope, happiness and contentment so common among mountain women of that era. They gathered around a ten foot square table and began inspecting can after can of berries for insects, stems and green fruit, all under the stern supervision of Dixie's wife Grace. By midnight their hands were as black as the night sky. There, under a fly specked forty-watt light bulb, they shifted the berries from can to can and sent them on their way through the pre-cooker to the sealer and finally to Harold's growling cooking pit where the berries and other nameless things were plunged to their doom.

So it was there, long before CCC Camps and World War II that we learned about telling time by wall clocks, punching time cards and earning a living away from the farm and soil. We left our homes a few short years later to fight wars and build lives in towns offering jobs and regular wages, no longer to worry about newly born calves in snowstorms, blight in the tomato patch or the drought ruining our corn crop. We had become an itinerant army of clock watchers, sleeping in crowded boarding houses and subsisting on a diet of watery black-eyed peas and store bought light bread.

Still, the memories of those walks home from the cannery through the quiet, black night, the soft lamp light in the window at home and the still warm pot of green beans and cornbread on the woodstove, have never left me. Neither, I might add, have those feelings of darkness that were there during the depression when we knew, lying there in our feather tic beds that we would wake up to another day of sameness, corn mush and hard labor.

Sometimes today when it seems the weeds of trouble in my life are impossible to overcome, I long to turn to the kindness of my sister and to the core of my mountain heritage and ask, "Can I use your hoe to finish this row?" The answer comes back as softly as the wind in the white pines, "Yes, this row will end as sure as Autumn descends upon the Blue Ridge Mountains, this life's burdens will be laid by as winter wraps us in her white blanket to await the resurrection in the Spring."