01 September 2015
From the 1920s through the end of World War II a remarkable industry – now almost forgotten – sprung up in Fluvanna County. More than eight tomato canneries were spread throughout the area from Cohasset to Wilmington, and Columbia to Cunningham.
The long, low buildings bustled with tomatoes being delivered and canned goods being hauled off to market in the months of July and August every summer. Today there are few people who remember the hiss of the boilers and the chatter of the women as they peeled and cut up scalded tomatoes; the smell of the tomatoes processing and the oppressive heat of the canneries themselves.
July and August of each summer were an “off” season for local farmers. By growing and canning tomatoes, one of the county’s two cash crops (the other was tobacco) farmers or businessmen who owned the canneries could make enough money to get them through until their next crops were ready. Tomatoes ripened on the vine and canneries all over Fluvanna processed them, putting tomatoes into tin cans decorated with beautiful labels and sending them out to sell.
“Tomatoes were the only vegetable he canned - nothing else - and that was just a short season in the summertime,” said Ruby Schumaker of her father, George Glenn, who owned Glenn Acres Cannery in Cunningham. “He grew tomatoes – not all of them, he had a few farmers around who would furnish a few bushels at a time - but most of them he grew himself,” she recalled.
Though mostly tomatoes were canned in Fluvanna so were sweet potatoes, peaches and beef.
“I can remember as a child helping to plant the tomatoes and when they came ripe I picked them,” Schumaker reminisced. “Then as I got older I was able to peel tomatoes. The local women in the community were the ones who came and peeled the tomatoes and my mother packed them. Then they were processed in tin cans of course – and they were sold to surrounding stores in Charlottesville.”
John May has memories of the canneries as well. “I sold tomatoes during World War II to Francis White’s cannery at Cohasset,” May said. “The bucket there is a peeling bucket,” he explained, gesturing towards a blue enamel bucket, “and the peelers had a card hanging around their neck, and every time they turned in a bucket full they punched a hole in it and they got paid by the bucketful. The people who grew them didn’t get paid until they sold the cans of tomatoes - you didn’t get paid until way in the winter.