David, 74, is a big man with a wave of white hair, a Tom Selleck mustache and meaty hands. With help from his wife, Carol, he has run the cannery since he retired from DuPont 25 years ago. Back then, the Davids would know when to show up to work when they saw the cannery’s opening day advertised in the local paper. Now, the couple just shows up sometime in early July. Though if a regular needed to get in early — to put up a bumper crop of, say, greens — he could probably just call up and ask if and when Ronald David was available.
There’s nothing fancy about the Glade Hill Cannery. The wooden tables have sheets of stainless steel screwed on top, and the only source of heat is an ancient wood-burning stove. The narrow cinder block building sits behind the “new” elementary school, which was built in 1958, though this, and most other details about the cannery’s history, are fuzzy and change depending on whom you ask. This much is true: The cannery building replaced the old wooden school that served this corner of southwestern Virginia, the school that both David and his mother attended. The space was used as a farm equipment repair shop and, later, to house the county firetruck — hence the roll-up garage door on the east side of the building. Some time after, they moved the cannery in.
Glade Hill is one of a fading constellation of publicly funded canneries in Virginia, and across the South. They began in the late 1800s, as rural communities banded together to preserve food for the offseason. But the network boomed in the 20th century. During World War I, the federal government encouraged Americans to counter food shortages by growing their own with slogans like “Can vegetables, fruits and the Kaiser, too.” During World War II, some 20 million citizens did their part by planting “victory gardens.” So abundant were the results that the U.S. Department of Agriculture demanded that restrictions be eased on the production of pressure canners. In 1945, 630,000 were manufactured, up from just 40,000 the year before. Many ended up in the country’s 3,800 public canneries.
While the equipment continues to chug, the vast majority of community canneries, starved by budget cuts and rendered irrelevant by Americans’ love affair with convenience foods, have disappeared. Today there is no official tally of public canneries, no federal funding and little, if any, state support. Most of today’s canneries charge a per-jar processing fee, and a few add an hourly facility fee. But the survivors — 26 in Georgia, 16 scattered from Virginia to Florida, according to our tally — exist thanks for the most part to a respect for tradition and some old-fashioned stubbornness.
Take the Agricultural Canning Center in Jacksonville, Fla. It was open weekdays until the city decided some years ago — no one can remember exactly when — that it could no longer afford staff salaries. If it hadn’t been for the local Master Gardeners, who volunteered to staff it a few days a week, it would have closed. The cannery still has a clientele, says Terry DelValle, the horticulture extension agent who oversees staffing. But they are mostly people well over 50, and each year some regulars, such as the women’s group that came every year to make Jerusalem artichoke relish, disappear.
This summer, the old boiler broke down, which means regulars who want to seal large quantities of tin cans are out of luck until the city comes up with some money to fix or replace it. “Canneries are a dying breed,” DelValle says.
Visits are down, too, at the Eastanollee cannery, 100 miles northeast of Atlanta near the Chattahoochee National Forest. The center no longer goes through a truckload of 55,000 cans each year, says Brad Dalton, a teacher at Stephens County High School. But with a state grant, the school district built a new facility with walk-in freezers, refrigerators and even a curing room — though locals insisted that it stay in the same location behind the old high school because, well, that’s where it’s always been. The regulars include a lot of German Baptist families who come in to do a big batch of something or homesteaders and moms “who want to know what’s in the can.”
“We can a lot of meat,” Dalton says. “Chicken is real popular, and of course tomatoes and apples and green beans. But I have canned everything.”
“Well, the government paid the canneries to can water during the Cuban missile crisis. But we ain’t had no missiles pointed at us, so no, not recently.”
The DIY craze has inspired a small group of young food lovers to try out their local cannery. Aaron Deal, the chef-owner of River and Rail in Roanoke, was introduced to Glade Hill by a friend whose family puts up as many as 250 quarts of tomatoes each summer. And while he doesn’t make the 30-mile trip south as often as he might like, Deal says that having access to the equipment — not to mention Ronald David’s know-how — makes big-batch canning a cinch.
“At the restaurant, we’d do 10 to 15 jars in a 20-minute period,” he says. “Here, we can do 50.” Along with tomatoes, Deal likes to make big batches of chow chow, which he serves with baked Sea Island red peas or pulled pork eggs Benedict.
On a recent visit, Deal arrived at 7 a.m., and found Ronald David already busy, lowering a basket full of cans of stew beef into the pressure cooker for his friend Douglas Brown. They used to work together at DuPont, and Brown comes as many as 10 times a year to put up green beans or tomato juice from his three-quarters-of-an-acre garden. Deal set to work peeling tomatoes and eavesdropping on David and Brown reminiscing about an old radio ad that lured patrons to the local steakhouse by announcing that Evelyn Preston, the mother of another cannery regular, was cooking that day.
A few hours later, Deal had eight quarts of tomatoes, 16 pints of early-season applesauce, and 16 pints of pickled okra. As old-timey as the experience was his bill: a total of $4.80.
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