Iowa Canning Company
The S. H. Watson Canning Company started Nov. 1879 on the corner of what is now First Ave. and Second Street. Two buildings, one for corn and one for tomatoes were built. Each building was 30 X 100 feet, two stories tall, except for the back 40 feet where the processing was done. An engine was placed between the 2 buildings to power the equipment. The brick block on A Avenue (Beckett Street then) “as much as may be needed, will be used for a tin shop." The first season both corn and tomatoes were packed. Farmers were paid 20 cents per bushel for tomatoes and $5 per ton for corn snapped from the stalk. Annual output was 1.5 million cans annually. “Kelley’s Cream” and “Golden Sweet” were the high grade brands. The standard brands were “Iowa’s Pride”, “Vinton Blue Label”, “Vinton Red Label”, “High Grade” and “Early Sweet.” Cans were shipped west to Denver, San Diego, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle and Tacoma.
The next canning factory here was organized in 1892 as The Kelley Canning Company, with W. C. Ellis, F.G. Ray, Dr. C. C. Griffin and George Knox as the directors. The plant covered a half block, running from Fourth to Fifth Avenues along the north side of the railroad tracks. The brick store room was 40 X 260 feet and 2 stories high. The process building was 40 X 100 feet and also 2 stories and used as the cooking and cutting area. The husking shed, across the alleyway, ran the length of the entire block. Although the company grew some of its corn, the bulk was grown expressly for it by farmers in the surrounding area. Both men and women were employed-up to 250 during the pack season. Mothers would often take their small children to work with them and put them down on piles of husks where the children would sleep.
In 1898 another group of men incorporated as the Vinton Canning Company and bought the Watson buildings, remodeling and putting in the most modern machinery available. When the remodeling was completed, the factory had 265 X 265 feet of space, covering almost an entire block. The plant was run by steam with 3 boilers and a 40 HP engine. The first season, they contracted for 600 acres of corn, and practically the entire output was sold in advance. Their fancy brands were: “Perfection”, “Standard”, “Iowa Sugar Corn” and “Gold Medal”. Daily capacity was over 70,000 cans.
“On account of the number of boys and girls at work in the two canning factories, the schoolboard has postponed the opening of school until Monday September 15.” reported by The Vinton Eagle Sept. 5, 1899.
Around 1910, the Kelley Canning Company absorbed the Vinton Canning Company and the name was changed to the Iowa Canning Company. The Vinton company bought plants in La Porte City and Garrison and later built a plant in Shellsburg-for a total of four plants. The factories would often run day and night when the vegetables were ready for processing. Shifts would be called to work by a steam whistle that could be heard all over town. Vegetables were hand-picked and hauled by team and wagons to the factory. It was not unusual to see wagons lined up for 5 or 6 blocks on Sixth Street waiting to be unloaded. The trade name of the fancy brand was: “Tendersweet.” The company averaged 8 million cans a year and owned over 1,000 acres of land in the Vinton vicinity. Locally grown pumpkins, tomatoes, lima beans, peas and asparagus were added to the product line.
During World War II it was impossible to modernize the plant, but plans were made for many improvements.
In 1947 negotiations were started with the Minnesota Valley Canning Company, whose trade name was “Green Giant”, for the sale of the Vinton company. The sale was consummated Sept. 18, but the Iowa Canning Company continued with the pack of corn and tomatoes and marketed it. On Nov. 1 the Minnesota Valley Canning Company took over, and the Shellsburg factory was closed.
The first pack season had harvested 1,520 acres of peas and between 180-190 people had been employed, 85 on inside work. The 80 Jamaican workers who had been imported to help with the harvest were held over for the corn season. About 700 acres of corn out of 6,100 planted were lost due to excessive heat maturing the corn too rapidly. Three lines were operated in the Vinton plant, with a daily total capacity of 15,000 cases of corn packed. At the peak of the season, there were 700 people working in the Vinton, Garrison and La Porte City plants, 300 in Vinton alone. When the factory closed down on Sept. 14 for the season, there had been 630,000 cases packed. The brand names were “Niblets” and “Mexicorn.”
On Sept. 15, 1959, the Green Giant Company announced it was closing the Vinton operation. Lagging profits was the key reason given. At the end of the pack season the machinery was dismantled. The La Porte City and Garrison plants had been dropped previously.