Friday, June 27, 2014

SOMETIMES HISTORY IS PERSONAL


“The contents of someone's bookcase
are part of his history,
like an ancestral portrait."

                         Anatole Broyard

In the Thursday, June 26, 2014 edition of the Ontario, Canada, newspaper, "The Windsor Star", Craig Pearson wrote:

"LEAMINGTON--It's the day the ketchup stopped flowing.
After 105 years of coating burgers across the land --  of building a town nicknamed the Tomato Capital of Canada --H.J. Heinz, on Friday, will permanently stop its Leamington (Ontario) operation, once the Pittsburgh-based food giant's second-largest manufacturing facility."

It is the end of an era in the 105 year history of a small Southern Ontario town.

The good news is that a new company, Highbury Canco will take over the plant at midnight tonight.  They will hire back approximately 250 of the 700 persons being put out of work and will continue production of all the same baby food, juice and condiments  (ketchup NOT included) that were previously manufactured there.  The annual Tomato Festival will continue to take place each and every summer, and Leamington will still continue to be labeled the Tomato Capital of Canada.  YEA!!! ??

The announcement, last November, that Heinz would close this Canadian plant brought tears and anger, feelings of devastation and loss to many.  I was one of those whose heart broke upon hearing the news and felt as though a piece of my history was about to be lost to the history books.   Farming, tomatoes, pickle relish, the Heinz plant……..all are a huge part of my family's history and my childhood.

When my Grandparents, Walter Maison Ives and Ila Gertrude Thomas/Ives gave up farming after World War II, they moved to town and settled in a quaint three bedroom home on Talbot Street, in Leamington.  They changed their lifestyle from planting and harvesting tobacco and tomatoes and loading heavy baskets of picked produce onto trucks for transport to the Heinz plant (often dropping baskets on toes according to my Grandmother).  Like so many others in Leamington, the consistency and reliability of a weekly paycheque lured both my Granddad and Grandmother as well as my father, Albert Francis Ives, to work the production lines at the Heinz factory. 

All had either retired from working or moved on to a new career by the time I was born, in 1957, but spending every day at work in what could be considered the world's finest, and most famous, food production facility was what story-telling in my family was all about. 

My daughter, Tania, treasures the silver pocket watch Daddy had to purchase after his first week at Heinz because wearing a wrist watch was strictly forbidden.  One couldn't possibly have one's hands around food production and drop your watch into the mix.  His first week's paycheque went toward the purchase of necessities required for the job.

Grandma used to giggle with delight when telling her story about stirring a day's production of spaghetti and, upon finishing the routine task, thoughtlessly smashed the large ladle down into the mass of noodles chopping much of the tangled mass in half.   When the quality-control inspectors arrived within minutes they declared the mixture unfit for retail sale due to the shortened length of the noodles.  The entire batch would be canned and shipped to the D&R (Dented and Returned) warehouse that offered "substandard quality" products to Heinz employees at a dramatically reduced rate.   Grandma turned and swore herself to secrecy as to how the batch of spaghetti included such short noodles.  To us grandchildren, she giggled and smiled broadly.

There were always steel-blue Heinz jackets provided free of charge (I am betting there is at least one in Daddy's closet today if I were to look) as well as black and white striped overalls with silver strap buckles and the Heinz logo clearly printed on the breast. 

To this day Daddy will not eat mushroom soup because it reminds him of the burnt and scalded milk that often ruined a batch of soup and the smell permeated the air of the production floor for days as it continues to do in his olfactory memory.

By the time my brother, sister, and myself came along in the late 1950's, Heinz brought a different set of memories as we spent each and every summer at our cottages on the Leamington shores of Lake Erie.

Throughout our childhood a variety of boating craft set sail from our beach to fish for sunfish, perch, and catfish.  Lake Erie is small, by comparison to the other Great Lakes, but ginormous to a ten year old child.  It was by the, then double, Heinz factory smoke stacks that we navigated the Erie shoreline and found our way toward home at the end of the day of boating.  (NOTE:  Only one stack remains today as the other was disassembled some years back.)
 
Leamington streets were packed with summer tourist traffic headed for Point Pelee National Park, summer cottages, sandy beaches, and traffic was slowed by the continual convoys of flatbed trucks carrying rows upon rows of stacked tomato baskets.  Squashed tomatoes marked the streets from farmland to factory and railroad cars bumped and banged with tremendous force along railway lines transporting picked produce in and retail product out, and away from, the bustling Heinz plant.
 
Here's a tidy bid of nostalgic memory:  How absurd was it that it was impossible to purchase Heinz Tomato Soup in the town of Leamington, where it was produced?  One had to travel forty miles to the big city of Windsor to purchase the item and bring it back to its home place.  No one could ever explain to me the reasoning behind that seemingly ridiculous geographic edict. 

Mid-summer was my favorite time.  Cucumbers were ripe and the Heinz factory converted to the production of relish.  The entire town of Leamington smelled like………..pickles and vinegar!!!

Where one could close one's eyes and previously smell the cooler, fresh air of the lakeside and know, without doubt, that they had at last arrived at their summer destination, mid-summer declared one's arrival in the town limits with the acrid attack of vinegar upon the nostrils.

I LOVE HEINZ PICKLES AND GREEN RELISH, and using Vinegar as a cleaning product is accompanied with a flashback of fond childhood memories.  Cleaning my household hardwood floors is not a chore, it is a flash from my past.

Once summer production was well underway, Heinz opened its doors and plant tours began!!

It wasn't summer until the three of us grandchildren were allowed to pick out (and agree upon) one movie to be seen at the local drive-in and we anxiously stood in Reception to be escorted through the winding conveyor belts, steam rooms, packing facility and tasting rooms of Heinz. 

Heinz tours ended with each participant being given a pint-sized can of opened Tomato Juice to be drank on the spot and a cellophane covered gift package of one 12oz can of Tomato Juice, one 10oz can of Tomato Soup with one final object long awaited to add to one's collection…………a 1.25 inch long, three dimensional plastic green Heinz pickle pin!!!  

Pickle pins were first given away at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair as an inexpensive gift thought to be necessary to give away in order to draw visitors toward Heinz's relatively out-of-the-way booth located in the upper gallery of the Agricultural Building.  In their early years, Heinz needed all the advertising they could get and the pickle pins were thought to be the perfect marketing ploy.  The public would advertise the Heinz company by wearing a simple branded item.  This was considered a new and revolutionary different marketing concept.

I do not know how many green pickle pins are in my jewelry box.  I do know there are a number of green ones, some commemorative gold ones, as well as the year 2000 Heinz ketchup bottle pins I acquired at an antique mart some years back.  Although each is currently selling on ebay for three to twenty-five dollars, I wouldn't part with my collection for all the money in the world.  It is my personal history and one simply cannot have enough Heinz pickle pins and ketchup bottles!!

When Heinz announced the closing of their Leamington plant I remembered a particularly poignant piece of history for both the company and my family and went digging through my own treasure of family history files to locate a piece of memorabilia I knew I had inherited and had sworn to preserve.

In "The 57 News", Vol. 32, No. 11, November 1949, page nine records the announcement of cash awards given to Heinz employees that submitted suggestions that would improve production methods.  The company listened to its employees and rewarded them for making suggestions that would better improve working conditions or streamline production.  There, in the original 1949 publication, at the upper-left of page nine, was my grandfather, Walter Maison Ives, and two of his co-workers proudly displaying their award cheques and quite obviously, overjoyed by the acknowledgement and generosity of the company for which they worked.
It is astonishing to me to determine that, according to data provided by Oregon State University, the $500.08 cash award given to Walter in 1949 equates to $4,902.75 by 2014 standards.  Quite a tidy sum, to say the least, eh!

Daddy, who is in fine health and still prospering at age 90, tells that his father's suggestion was taken to the international level and put into place throughout all Heinz factories.  However one would improve a circulation system in the Vegetable Department by running liquid through a fire hose (details of the suggestion are in the article) is completely beyond me, but the suggestion was, at the time, deemed to be that of a "brilliant" enough suggestion as to be awarded one of the highest monetary gifts ever given by the company. 

And so………

With today being the final day of production at the Heinz plant in Leamington, Ontario, Canada, a chapter closes in the town's history and that of my family.  I am sure others share my memories and I share the sentiments of those whose lives depended upon their contributions and participation with Heinz whether it be through farming, plant production, quality control, office work, maintenance, or simply acknowledging the existence of a major company's presence in a small town.

The contents of all our bookcases each contain pieces of our individual histories.  All of our ancestral portraits are made up of memories.  The doors of the Heinz plant will close today, but our individual histories with Heinz in Leamington will be well written in our own books to be placed in our bookcases and never forgotten. 

FAREWELL HEINZ.  1909 - 2014.  
It was good while it lasted!
 
The "Big Tomato" Tourist Booth-Leamington, Ontario, Canada