My hometown town of 600 in Northeast Iowa had much to be proud of what with its bank, library, furniture store, funeral home, grocery store, hardware store, lumber yard, two gas stations, three car dealers, a doctor, a vet, and a lawyer but the crowning glory was the Elgin Canning Factory which put Elgin on the map to Everywhere because one of the products was Delmonte’s Creamed Corn.
Every summer Elgin grew by about 100 Mexican migrant workers who set up shop in the temporary housing provided for them down by the creek near the canning factory. The migrants picked the asparagus fields by hand and also shelled sweet corn and did other really hard labor stuff nobody else wanted to do but more workers were needed to do all jobs necessary. Folks from town often did double-duty during the summer adding another job handling everything from sorting corn, to mixing ingredients, to manning the canning process, to labeling boxes and other shipping stuff.
Kids home from college or those new high school grads headed to college in the fall were tapped for the grueling job of taking the cans out of huge iron kettles and filling cardboard boxes with 24 cans time after time after time. The iron kettles were strung along a quarter mile waterway. They were filled with hundreds of boiling hot cans of creamed corn which then took a slow ride down the cold water canal to cool them from the canning area thru the entire stretch of the water bath until the waterway turned a corner in that canal and slowed them down as they entered the warehouse to await unpacking after which the empty carts were pushed around another corner as the motorized trolley sped them back up the adjacent quarter mile loop to get more cans.
The warehouse room was almost a city block long. The water canal framed the east wall. Long narrow benches came next, positioned parallel to the canal about a yard from it. Next came pallets: half with empty cardboard boxes and the other half with rapidly growing piles of boxes filled with the still lukewarm cans of creamed corn. The rest of the room consisted of piles of palleted boxes of creamed corn waiting to be loaded into semi-trailer trucks for delivery to Delmonte plants for labeling and distribution.
So as my rite of passage into college life, this first job of mine was not only intended to provide gobs of money for school but also to make me keenly aware of the reason I was going there. I got my father’s message loud and clear that a life of hard labor awaits if you don’t set your sights on a college diploma.
My hands became a bruised, battered, taped patchwork worthy of a prize-fighter. My back ached constantly from being hunched over the iron kettles and low benches as we packed cans two-by-two for hours. I got so tired of standing that I would count the minutes out loud with my partner until the next fifteen minute break.
We tied colorful bandanas around our heads to keep the sweat out of our eyes and kind of wore them like badges of honor to prove that we were tough Iowa kids able to take the humidity and heat in stride. Oh yes, I got the message.
The town fire siren went off each day at 6AM, 12 Noon, and 6PM to signal when to begin work, when to have lunch, and when to end work, so there was no ambiguity over that stuff. I rode my bike to work, home for lunch, back to work, and home for dinner. But my work day didn’t end then.
Most of us at the Factory went back for a night shift (because the work was, after all, seasonal) and labored until midnight when the factory whistle blew to set us free. By that time I was almost too exhausted to pedal home but somehow I did, often just falling into bed and to sleep before I cleaned up.
At the end of the proverbial day you could say I learned my lesson well. I went to college. Got my B.A. Got my M.A. and almost my got doctorate.
And, to this day, if I open a can of creamed corn I know why I went to college.
NOTE: My apologies if this memoir isn’t totally historically accurate. As I get older my memories muddle a bit and so if the resultant story doesn’t perfectly match your recollection, by all means feel free to write your own.
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