Phoebe Thomas, Page Seven

The following is edited from a 1976 interview with Minerva (Sharman) Gray, who worked in the summers from about 1912 to 1914, in her teenage years, at the Sea Coast Packing Company in Robbinston, a town about 20 miles north Eastport. Phoebe worked for the same company in Eastport. The interview was conducted by Stephen Robbins. Mr. Robbins has graciously granted me permission to reprint this excerpt, which contains a vivid description of working conditions in a Maine sardine cannery just several years after Phoebe was photographed.

Minerva was born on September 18, 1896, in Robbinston, the daughter of William Allen Sharman and Clara Estella (Nash) Sharman. She died on December 16, 2000, at the age of 104. In the interview, she refers to her mother "Stella," and her sister Ruth.

"Captain Diggins ran the Seacoast Packing Company in Robbinston. He was a pretty good old fellow, a sea captain. And he knew that we used to work summers in the sardine factory, Ruth and I. My mother was working there, and the tables were about all taken up. It was about time for school to close in Calais, where we were going. The packers were coming in, and he had two vacancies left. So he asked my mother if we wanted a job. School wasn't quite done, but she said yes, we would like to have a job, when school closed..."

"There would be a packer on each side of a table. Perhaps one side of one table would be vacant, and a side of another table. We didn't work together. Where we had come in late, we had to take where there was a vacancy... A side on a table he'd keep for each of us. I thought that was real good of him. He knew we were going to school, and we wanted to earn some money during the summer..."

"They had the sardines on flakes, and the flakes were put into racks. And then they were cooked in these racks, steamed and then dried. Then they were wheeled into the packing room. And then a man took them, a flake of fish at a time, out of the rack, and put them on the tables, and he'd take off the one that you had been working with. And we packed fast as anyone wanted a flake. The flakes must've been pretty near four feet square."

"[We] put the fish in cans -- five, seven, according to the size of the fish. Mustards and oils was what they packed mostly. The oils were -- one-quarter-size they would call them -- quarters. The larger cans were mustards and they called them three-quarters."

"In the mustards, we put the mustard in and one bay leaf on top. We had the mustard on the table in a pail, and each packer had a ladle that stayed in the pail. We would pack those cans and put a ladle-full of mustard in each can, and add a bay leaf."

"But the oils were just packed in the dry can, and they were taken from our tables and run through an oiler, and then taken from the oiler to the sealing machine, where they were sealed."

"The cans used to be sealed by hand. After that, they got machines that would seal. There in the Seacoast factory they had four machines... A chain along to the machine. A girl worked on one side and another faced her on the other side. And this chain belt was going along. One girl would feed in the sardine can, and the other girl would put the covers on. There was links in this chain -- spaces a can would set in -- and then it was chained across on another chain. But they couldn't do it fast enough to keep every one of them full. They'd perhaps get two and skip two or three, then put in two or three more."

"Well sometimes they'd come down, and I'd be packing. They'd want me to go up and work on a machine. Well, I didn't make much money, but I did go up and work on the machine. I didn't like it so well. ‘Course you was responsible for getting a cover on every one of those cans or else it was lost... It would get through and the machine would seal it and drop it into a basket."

"When they got the basket full, why, they'd set those baskets off and then, when they got enough for a tank ready to bath [sic] those, they would. I don't know how many of those baskets of cans they would dump into a long tank. It would be as long as that set of drawers there. From the floor up it would be about so high [about three feet]... That tank would be filled with boiling water, [that] they'd run in with pipes."

"They'd dump those baskets of cans right into the boiling water, and let them boil for a certain length of time. They'd reach in with these dip-nets -- long-handled, a hoop around it, cloth net -- dip up the cans, throw them on the floor, and chuck in a lot of dry sawdust on them... That would help dry them, pick up the moisture."

"When they were cooled, they would take them from there. I guess they had a sluice or something into the shipping room, downstairs. There they'd put them into wooden cases, which held 100 cans. The narrow of the can, they'd be five wide; from the length of the can, they'd be five long. And there would be four stacks, one above the other. They'd pack in these cans, 25 on the bottom of the box."

"Uncle Will [Nash] worked in the shipping room, and I've been in there -- seen him packing those cans. He had a round brush I think it was, with a handle on it. It brushed all the sawdust off. Perhaps he'd brush these cans some before he put them in -- I can't remember that -- but I have noticed that when he got a layer of those cans in there, he'd take that brush and go all over it. But it must've stayed right in the box down there, just the dust of it."

"Those kind of cans had a lip on the corner of them that tipped up against the can, and you had to have a key to open it. Well I think instead of counting in 100 keys to go in with that case of 100 cans, I think he had a pair of scales there. He'd weigh out so many, and dump it right in. They'd go down all among the cans. And then he'd nail them up."

"They [the sardine factories] was an awful fire trap -- they was so greasy... I didn't want to work in a sardine factory, you know. I wanted to do something else. My mother didn't want us to just depend on work in a sardine factory. So she always talked it that we were going to high school... Well, we [Minerva and Ruth] both went to high school. [We] quit working in the sardine factory. Guess a good thing we did, because the sardine factory kind of failed up."

"But a lot of people -- they would kind of turn their nose up: ‘Sardine factory -- work in a sardine factory!' But I'd say that the sardine factory helped us out -- helped me get through school. I used to work there summers. So I don't condemn the sardine factory too bad, although I know it wasn't the place that I wanted to spend my life in. But it did help me through school."

*Story published in 2009.

Entire interview with Minerva

More photos of Eastport and vicinity by Don Dunbar

Back to Cannery Workers, Eastport, Maine

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