Bethel Cannery from Year to Year (1945-1976)
A 1958 news story headline stated, “Haywood Community Canneries – Big Asset for Food Conservation.” Thousands of housewives had taken advantage of the four facilities in Haywood County which were growing in popularity, according to Mrs. Rufus Siler, director of all four canneries and supervisor at the Waynesville facility. Agriculture teachers at the schools where canneries existed were charged with oversight of the cannery operations in their communities. Bethel supervisor was M.C. Nix, and Mrs. David (Edith) Edwards was manager. Bethel was the second busiest cannery in the county.
A second article in the same newspaper indicated that as the 14-year existence of the canneries wound down for the year, production records were set. Haywood County clients processed in excess of 60,000 cans. Haywood was listed as one of the few counties in the state in which canneries continued to flourish. Mrs. Rufus Siler was supervisor not only of the Haywood County cannery program but also of the county lunchroom program; she handled administrative duties and maintenance. Patrons paid 10 cents per can, and the sale of cans enabled the canneries to remain financially viable. Siler indicated that thousands of pounds of food would be wasted if not for the canneries because few homes were equipped to perform the high-pressure cooking required. The canneries alleviated concerns about pressure cooking and ensured that spoilage was kept to a minimum. Continuation of the canneries depended on availability of produce and patrons.
Details revealed that canning started at 7 a.m., after registration, indicating that an extra hour had been added from the original 8 o'clock opening. Apples, applesauce, candy-roasters, sweet potatoes, beef, chicken, and soup mix were popular items in the October session.
Food was first cooked in steam pots at 180 degrees and then transferred to the cans. Lids were placed on the cans and crimped by a sealer. A photo clearly shows the cans to be made of metal rather than glass. Cans were placed in a 100-can containing hoist. Cans were sent through a pre-heater which heated the cans themselves. Next step was a retort where a line of steam further cooked the food. Total cooking times varied: pumpkin and potatoes – 90 minutes, corn - 70 minutes, beef – 20 minutes, and apples – 12 minutes. After the cooking process, cans were left in the hoist and transferred to a cooling pool
Siler's statistics revealed the growth of cannery usage at the cannery facilities: 13,000 cans in 1944, 70,00 cans in 1951; 88,000 cans in 1952. There was an additional 25 to 30 new patrons over the previous year in some of the facilities. Siler warned that keeping in front of maintenance was key to ensuring continuation of the program. According to her, there was no program involving food conservation that was comparable to the cannery operation. (The Waynesville Mountaineer – Monday, October 20, 1958)
The four Haywood County canneries were still in operation with the Waynesville and Fines Creek programs open on Tuesdays. Crabtree cannery was open on Wednesday, and the Bethel cannery was open on Thursdays. (The Waynesville Mountaineer – Thursday, July 21, 1960)
Troubling times lay ahead for Haywood County canneries caught in an economic squeeze. The cannery venture in Haywood County had been in existence since toward the end of World War II, but financial disclosure at each of the four locations in Haywood County revealed an unsustainable revenue deficit. Publicly operated canning proved a Godsend for county farmers and housewives, but local government examination of the bottom line revealed a great deal of red ink. As a result, the canneries were closed in 1961 by order of the Haywood County Board of Education and Commissioners. Obsolete equipment, an estimated cost of $30,000 in repairs, additional cost to purchase cans, a lack of federal funds (slated originally for the canneries that was no longer available), maintenance crews pulled from necessary work at the school in order to service the cannery, and agriculture teachers required not only to teach but also to supervise the canneries, led government officials to state that the expenditure was not justifiable nor sustainable. The conclusion by public officials was that canneries had not paid their way but were, instead, being subsidized by the school system which needed funds for school programs.
Officials considered alternative management options. The equipment could be leased to an individual to operate, the best equipment from all of the facilities could be combined into one cannery, or the canneries could be sold to private individuals for operation. A disgruntled group of housewives indicated that hundreds of families had planted gardens in anticipation of being able to use the canneries. Even though the cost of cans had risen, compounding the expense of operation, these women indicated their willingness to pay the extra cost in order to salvage their crops.
Outlining funding history indicated that the original cannery project, primarily federally funded, had become the total burden of the local school board and county commission who believed that school funds should not subsidize, either financially or with personnel, the non-school project. If cannery operation costs ran short, funds were pulled from school programs to cover the deficit. Commissioners pointed out that canneries had become victims of rising costs of operation and lack of replacement of equipment. Housewives, likewise, alluded to the fact that they had become victims of an economic squeeze that would be made worse by closing the canneries. Both sides longed for a commercial cannery to replace the county-subsidized operation. (The Waynesville Mountaineer – Thursday, July 25, 1961)
Somehow over the years, the fact had been missed that school boards and county commissions were not legally allowed, by NC law, to use tax money set aside for schools to operate facilities such as canneries. The school board indicated that it was open to allowing individuals to lease the properties and operate the canneries which were on school grounds, but utilizing school personnel to support the cannery program was an inappropriate use of school workers. School maintenance crews had maintained cannery facilities and equipment; agriculture teachers at the four schools had managed the operations - both unsustainable usage of school personnel to operate programs that did not directly benefit the school.
A cannery equipment list cited an inventory of $700 in cans and $400 in cash. Agriculture teachers indicated that the condition of equipment would necessitate a considerable expenditure before units could operate, and a large investment in cans would also be required. The school system had already granted a $3,000 loan from school funds to cover cannery costs. Even though those funds had been reimbursed, commissioner mindset was that the set-up was not financially practical.
Every cannery started under the 1935 food conservation program in the state which was no longer in existence. Canneries were initiated by the WPA concept to serve a dual purpose – to conserve food and to train people in proper methods of food conservation. Neither state nor federal funds were any longer available to sustain the cannery program. (The Waynesville Mountaineer – Monday, May 14, 1962)
The newspaper made no reference to canneries after their 1961 demise until a 1965 news article discussed use of the Bethel cannery building for other purposes. M. C. Nix, vocational/agricultural teacher at Bethel, had once supervised the Bethel cannery. By 1965, however, he was involved with an educational extension program that would blossom into the eventual community college programs that are still in effect today. An industrial education center began development with assistance from the Asheville Technical Institute which provided direction and jurisdictional control. Local leaders planned 15 courses that would require 32 teachers, 34 classrooms, and 7 shops. A total of 622 students enrolled. Included were courses in basic adult education, electricity, blueprint reading, auto-mechanics, bricklaying, welding, and secretarial classes such as bookkeeping, typing, and shorthand. Classes were scheduled for Bethel, Canton, Waynesville, and Crabtree High Schools. Bethel cannery was the location of the bricklaying class while Bethel School held welding classes. (The Waynesville Mountaineer – Friday, October 8, 1965).