Canning Factory–late for their Senior Year

DorisBetty (2)

Doris Wilson and Betty Neal, in their senior pictures, look like they came from well-to-do families.

But they both missed their first two weeks of their senior year in order to earn enough money to pay for school clothes, books, a class ring (which cost $6.50), senior pictures. . . . working at the Dexter Canning Factory.

Betty Neal’s grandfather, O.S. Neal (age 67), contracted with Iowa farmers to grow so much corn. He also checked the fields and hired the workers for the canning factory.

O.S. and Nellie Neal were Wilsons’ good neighbors in Dexter. When Wilsons’ youngest twins (there were two sets) died of whooping cough in 1929, Nellie had made bean soup for them the day of the funeral. Doris remembered it as the best thing she’d ever tasted.

The summer of 1935, the canning factory was getting ready for sweetcorn, if only it would rain and fill out the ears of corn. Mr. Neal had just told Leora, Doris’s mother, that if it didn’t rain that week, there wouldn’t be any canning.

In spite of the 100 and 104 degree heat, they got rain twice in one week. When Doris asked Mr. Neal about jobs, he told her that she’d get a job all right, and her dad, too.

So Clabe and Doris, and also Betty, got jobs canning sweetcorn. When the whistle blew, (while Doris was still asleep) Clabe walked to the factory, east of Dexter along the railroad tracks, to set things up.


The other workers had an hour more until they needed to be at work. They worked long hours–from 8 in the morning until midnight or after. Then Clabe and others stayed to wash the canning machinery and floors, scalding them with a hose and taking up to four hours longer.

Doris soon had blisters on her hands from shucking corn. And her feet and legs got so wet from the corn, and by the end of August it got cool at night. Leora rigged a sort of lap robe for her, with an oilcloth bag around a gunny sack that she’d put her feet and legs in, then sit on the top part of it. Soon others brought had made “similar contraptions,” which they hung to dry in the warm engine room to dry.

Clabe weighed the sugar, salt, and cornstarch, mixed it and put it in the cookers. Leora said the place was a noisy, sloppy place. Clabe also kept sieves clean and machinery going.

Doris hated it when corn arrived at the plant late in the day, as it was getting dark, but corn has to be processed right away or it will spoil. If not, it would heat up and the cans would bulge and explode in the boxes. So they worked as long as farmers brought in corn, most of the time hauled by horses, and stayed until the work was done.

Doris’s younger siblings took turns taking meals to Doris and her father, and a late lunch for their dad when he worked extra late to get ready for the next day.

Doris turned 17 on August 30. She’d just gotten her first pay envelope for a week’s work – $6.55 (20 cents an hour). That paid for her class ring. She got $12.50 in her second pay envelope.

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Well-to-do families indeed. . . .

This story is also told in Leora’s Dexter Stories: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression.




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