The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

George Shelor's Steam Tractor and Memories of the Old Huff Cannery

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1985

Issue: September, 1985

George Shelor's Steam Tractor.George Shelor's Steam Tractor."I never did fire one of those old steam engines, but I've been around them enough to know how they work. There's right much of an art to it, a lost art of course. You had to know when to put the wood in it and what time to put water in it. I've heard the expression that it took a lazy man to be a good fireman because if you were too eager and put too much wood in, you'd drown the thing down; it wouldn't burn.

There were a lot of hazards to a steam engine, like sparks, particularly when they were using it for thrashing. It could be highly combustible and present a problem especially in the fall with dry grass and straw around.

Steam engines could also be a danger when they were used at sawmill sites. Once, my father was doing some sawing within a mile of our house. That night some of the neighbors alarmed him that there was a fire at the sawmill. That fire destroyed several packs of lumber. I still have some of that lumber here today and it has charred ends. It was chestnut lumber.

Steam engines are a page in history. My generation was the last to see them in operation."

George Shelor was born in 1926 in Floyd County, Virginia. His father, Carl Shelor was born in 1884 and died in 1943. His mother was Henrietta Dillon Shelor. She was born in a house still standing on George Shelor's property in 1885 and died there 91 years later in 1976. George was named for his paternal grandfather. The grandfather, George Shelor, was a blacksmith by trade. He had a shop near the Old Huff Cannery on Hwy. 221 and traveled away from home to do blacksmithing as well. When they were building a railroad tunnel through Christiansburg Mountain he was a blacksmith on that job. One of my uncles told me that when the tunnel job was finished that my grandfather came home with his wagon bed full of "pick eyes." "A pick is a tool that's used to dig dirt. It has a handle and a spike on both ends of the head. After they're used for so long the spike ends wear down and they get dull. My grandfather's job as a blacksmith was to heat them, weld more metal on them and hammer the edges sharp. They didn't have grinders. After this was done so many times, the picks would wear completely out, so they would just scrap the "pick eyes." The picks were still good metal, so my grandfather brought them back here and made them into other things."

"When I was growing up, there wasn't a lot of surplus vegetables to sell, but we did grow a lot of beans. We'd haul them to Roanoke in an old car we had. That was the only cash crop we had. I remember my father put out acres of beans. The car we had was either a 1925 or '26 4-cylinder Dodge with a cloth top. We'd nearly freeze in that thing. My mother would heat a big rock and lay it in the floorboard to try to keep us warm. The car was a 2 seated job with leather seats, but that's what we'd haul those beans in to sell them.

My dad was one of the main instigators in getting the canning factory going. A man by the name of Bill Cherry had operated it at one time, but had left it. S.D. Huff who owned a Nehi Bottling Company came here and saw the potential of it, with what was happening at that time (early 1940's) during the war, people needing food, Huff said if he could get a lot of acres assigned to him, so many contracts to an acre to raise beans, that he could get that cannery going. Well, my dad saw it was a challenge. Huff gave him pound bags of seeds and a handful of contracts. They paid a dollar for a pound of tomato seed and canned tomatoes too. A pound of seeds, the contract and that made it binding.

Dad went out and passed the whole expectations of what Huff wanted to get the factory going.

Things got busy and there was a lot of employment for people in the neighborhood when the tomatoes and beans started going ripe. There was a right smart income to people in this area. It was a right good, little industry, right profitable. A lot of housewives would come down and work. I know some today that wouldn't be drawing social security if it hadn't been for that cannery.

The old Huff Cannery.The old Huff Cannery.

The blight hit the tomato crop sometime when I was in the service in World War II. My family wrote me there wasn't even enough tomatoes out of the two acres to even put on the table to have to eat. So, they discontinued canning tomatoes altogether and went with just canning the beans.

During the war, the State Inspectors wouldn't pay any attention to the building. They'd just say, 'We gotta have more beans, more cans.' They just wanted more stuff canned. But as soon as the war was over, they didn't play that song no more. What the State Inspectors did then was look around at the ceilings, the big cracks in the floors, finding something wrong. In other words, they didn't care nothing about the beans anymore. Everybody had a full stomach. The war was over and they were getting their food somewhere else. The economy was good. The inspectors pressured Huff to put in a better building, but Huff could see the handwriting on the wall. After that, the cannery went out. It went up for sale and my brother bought half on one side of the creek and I bought the other half.

When I got back from World War II my motto was, 'Any land that you couldn't get to safely with a tractor, wasn't suitable for farming, was to be put out in trees. Some of the land was pretty steep. I kindly got the feel of tree planting and it's been something that I've been interested in ever since. I've set trees all over the county. When I first bought my tree planter, the state came up here from Salem Virginia and looked at it. They were real interested in it cause they had never seen one like it. Of course, later they got planter like that one. This past year, I set 10 to 15,000 trees with it. In 1982, they gave me a plaque for 'Outstanding Conservation Farmer'."

George Shelor talks of three generations in his family in one section of Floyd County within only a few miles distance. He has an 1843 bill of sale for slaves, a report card from April 12, 1866 and quite a collection of the past. Through that collection and the family stories handed down to him, you can see a community as it took shape, the roads, the industry, the ups and downs in economy. Through this story you learn of a small section of Floyd County's way of contributing to the efforts during World War II by producing canned food at a time when there was a serious shortage. Some of you readers may be old enough to remember those days. Others may not realize that they were lean times, when a trip to the grocery store found almost bare shelves and purchases were allotted to you with government ration stamps. It wasn't an easy time. Who knows how many people may have survived on those beans and tomatoes canned at the Old Huff Cannery? The community may have been small, but they certainly did their part.