Wharton Films spur memories of menhaden, tomato packing


by Denise DeVries

Before Wendell Haynie was a menhaden fisherman and ship captain, he worked in a tomato factory like the one depicted in James Wharton’s Northern Neck Movies.

“We started working in the factories at age 14, making about 35 cents an hour,” said Haynie. “We weren’t allowed to work on the menhaden boats until we were 18, but my father was a captain and got me on his boat when I was 16.”

Haynie later went to pharmacy school and worked as a pharmacist until reaching retirement age. He also has been active with the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum since its purchase of the historic William Walker House in 1986.

The museum website explains how menhaden oil bottling plants started in Reedville. Menhaden oil, used in lamps as an inexpensive alternative to whale oil, was originally bottled in New England. Elijah Reed arrived from Maine in 1867 looking for untouched fishing ground in the Chesapeake Bay. His success attracted other families who started their own businesses in the town named for Reed. At one time, these companies controlled nearly 70 fishing boats.

Today, Omega Protein is the last menhaden business in the Northern Neck and Reedville is home to a fleet of 13 modern vessels.

The Native Americans taught colonists to use menhaden as fertilizer. According to House and Home Magazine (Nov. 2004), this practice continued when cannery owners provided farmers with tomato plants in spring. If requested, they included another local product, 200-pound bags of fertilizer consisting of bird droppings and ground menhaden.

Haynie remembers when work was available practically year-round, oystering, trap fishing and doing maintenance on the menhaden fleet.

According to The Rivah Visitor’s Guide (August 2008), community tomato canning factories first depended on steamboats to bring the empty cans and deliver the final product to markets in Baltimore.

Wharton’s film shows people peeling scalded tomatoes and dropping the peels into the water below, with steam from kettles rising in the background. Haynie recalls, “We would start work at about 7 in the morning and work until it got too hot.” When more workers were needed, “Men from the streets of Baltimore were brought by steamboat to work. They were given meals and a place to stay.”

According to a 2000 edition of the Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Magazine, long distance hauling trucks appeared around 1915, competing with the steamboats. Some factories moved inland. Before World War II, there were hundreds of canning plants in the Northern Neck. Blundon & Hinton in Reedville also canned “tomato juice… sweet potatoes, kale, peas, string beans, soy beans, peaches and pears.”

At the start of World War II, the War Department contracted with growers in Eastern Virginia and Southern Maryland to provide the military with 40 million cases of canned tomatoes. According to the House and Home article, restrictive health and environmental regulations after the war made the industry more difficult for small canneries. The Historical Society also cites the appearance of chain stores such as Safeway, which, along with “Buy Boats” from Maryland’s Eastern Shore offered higher prices for produce than the local canneries could afford to pay.

A few canning plants managed to continue over the next decade. In the Rivah article, Andrew Simmons told about his work at the Kilmarnock Wharf plant in the early 1950s. He worked there putting empty cans down a chute into a machine that would fill the cans with tomatoes. “It was a summer job… There were a lot of people there and it was fun being around all those folks.”

According to the Historical Society, Lake Packing Company, opened in 1948, was the last and most modern tomato cannery to operate in the Northern Neck, capable of canning 12,000 cases of tomatoes a day until it closed in 1997.