Tomato Canning and Reeds Spring

The Reeds Spring Tomato Cannery History

by Tara Wolf
The tomato canning industry lasted for nearly 70 years in Reeds Spring, MO.
The first cannery in the two county area was built by Waldo Powell in 1895 in the central part of Stone County, near Talking Rocks Cave. Accurate records, if they still existed, have been lost, but by the 1920’s there were probably 60 small canneries in Stone and Taney Counties. In the 1930’s, when production peaked, large canneries expanded and drove some smaller ones out of business.
While the canning season was filled with hard work, it was also a festive occasion because families, relatives, and friends would come to the canneries- sometimes from miles around- to work, laugh, and play together. While they worked, hillfolk could catch up on community gossip, and discuss politics, religion, and family matters. Though laborers often lived in crowded bedrooms, abandoned houses, and tents during canning season, the season was always anticipated because of the camaraderie and because, for some, picking and canning were the only source of cash income.
Workers would receive a token for every bucket of peeled tomatoes, and by the end of the week they tokens were redeemed for wages.
By using ultra-sharp skinning spoons to core the tomatoes, workers (mainly women) could pop-squeeze the fruit right out of its skin. If the skin stuck to the tomato, the the sharp blade of the “tomato spoon” was used to cut the tomato skin off.
But let a spoon slip, and a woman would find her hand gushing in blood!
Before the railroads were built, canners hauled a few tomatoes to Hollister and shipped them by boats to markets down the White River. But with the coming of railroads, industry buyers for food wholesale companies began arriving by rail.
Ironically, the very conditions that which improved the production of the tomato industry also brought about its demise in the Ozarks. The innovations – the use of fertilizer, hybrid seeds, the tractors – were suited for large field in California and Florida than the hillside patches in the Ozarks.
In the fall of the year, buyers from midwestern grocery wholesalers would arrive at Reeds Spring by rail and travel to the canneries throughout the area to purchase tomatoes. They would arrange for tomatoes to be delivered to boxcars at the Reeds Spring siding and then the buyers, would depart for another year. Boxcars of tomatoes were shipped from Reeds Spring until Bob Emerson closed the last remaining cannery in 1968.
Frank Mease of Reeds Spring was, no doubt, the first canner in Stone County beginning his operation in 1900. The story of how Frank Mease got into the canning business according to an article in the Crane Chronicle went like this: Frank, and his wife Elizabeth (Teter) started with a large tomato patch that did exceptionally well. He had little money and had to figure some way to preserve all those tomatoes. He decided to can them and to raise money for the cans he led his only asset, his cow, on the day-and-a-half journey to Springfield. The cow brought $16.50 on the market, and that was just what he needed to purchase 1,000 #3 cans.
Frank often described his first “factory” as a “Ten-Dollar Outfit”, consisting of a wash boiler on the family cookstove and a gasoline-fired soldering iron. Frank set off to Aurora with his canned tomatoes. Money was tight and swapping was popular in its day. He went door to door, house to house. At the end of the day all the tomatoes were gone and Frank had a little money, a wide variety of groceries and a horse. Thus was born the Stone County Tomato Canning Industry.