A review of activities embraced by local communities in the mid-1900s would be remiss if the role of canneries were not included. A community cannery was a location set aside for the canning of fruits, vegetables, and meats by community participants. The Bethel Cannery, as well as canneries in other parts of Haywood County and North Carolina, provided a significant community service at the end of World War II. Changing notions and legal restrictions about the extent to which school personnel and school funds could be used for a program that primarily benefitted residents and visitors caused the Haywood County canneries to shut down by 1961.
Canning history dates to the seventh century when Dutch seaman ate biscuits and roast beef from soldered airtight tin containers. French chef and chemist, Nicolas Appert, perfected canning in the mid-1700s as a means of food preservation - at first with glass jars and later with hand-soldered tins. The tin-can concept eventually led to mass production of food preservation via canning, including at commercial and community canneries.
The origination of the community cannery concept in the United States occurred as a result of the 1934 Food Conservation Program that was implemented as a part of Works Progress Administration – changed in 1939 to the Works Projects Administration (WPA). The WPA, initiated in a May 6, 1935, executive order by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was part of his New Deal plan that was designed to change the depressed state of the economy to one that would provide employment and income for the millions of Americans left jobless by the Great Depression. WPA employed millions of primarily unskilled laborers to carry out public works projects. Included among WPA's ventures throughout the nation were building public buildings, roads, airports, bridges, recreational venues, and housing. In addition, the program hired artists, musicians, writers, archaeologists, and historical documentarians. The aim of the WPA was to end the depression by providing meaningful employment while simultaneously creating structures and systems that would help the public. WPA funds ceased in 1943, but some WPA identified projects continued. The cannery program was instituted as one component of the WPA public works concept and was designed to serve a dual purpose – to conserve food and to train people in proper methods of food conservation. In Haywood County, the cannery program can be dated to 1944 when the first cannery was built in Waynesville.
Initial cannery efforts tied closely with the war effort and feeding the troops while also providing food immediately after the war for war-torn, food-deprived people in Europe. At one time, local school lunchrooms depended on canned goods from the cannery. The cannery originally utilized student helpers from farm to finished products. Production eventually evolved primarily to service local farmers, housewives, and families. Visitors travelling to Haywood for the summer also participated.
Along with the practical aspect of a cannery was also the social component. In his “Just Looking Around” column, Waynesville Mountaineer editor, Curtis Russ, compared the camaraderie at a cannery to the fellowship at a log-rolling or a quilting bee. Russ added, “An hour of watching happy people work together makes you realize that all the old world is not at each other's throats.” (The Waynesville Mountaineer – Monday, October 20, 1958)
Part of the WPA concept, initially, was that local entities would share a meager portion of the cost of the program while the federal government retained the brunt of the cost. Locally, the Haywood County School Board was charged with administrative and financial oversight of the cannery program.
Original planning called for five canning operations located at five Haywood County schools. The program finally settled on four (in the order of initiation): Waynesville, Bethel, Crabtree, and Fines Creek. (Clyde School was the only Haywood County school that did not house a cannery. At the time canneries developed in Haywood County, Canton School was administered separately rather than as part of the Haywood County School system).
Each cannery had a manager who operated under the direction of the local school agricultural teacher. In addition, a hired primary cannery supervisor had oversight over all of the canneries in the county. At Bethel, Mrs. Joe (Tellie) Beverage, Mrs. David (Edith) Edwards, and Mrs. John Nesbitt were alternating chief cannery managers during the years of operation. Agriculture teachers I.A. McLane, R. L. Edwards, and M.C. Nix were technical directors over the Bethel cannery operation. Mrs. Rufus Siler of Waynesville headed the county-wide program. Other trained personnel at some of the canneries, as a safety precaution, maintained control over the lid sealing and steaming process.
Aside from finding an appropriate building for the canning operation, opening a community cannery required investment in a great deal of equipment to ensure usability and safety. In Haywood County, all of the cannery facilities were located in school-owned buildings. Typical equipment included the following: tables, chairs, sinks, colanders, empty container handling equipment, canning crates, pressure gauges, pressure relief valves, temperature measuring devices, temperature recorders and controllers, timing devices, filling machines, dispensing machines, pre-cookers, boilers, mechanical hoist, exhaust tunnel, retort equipment, retort controls and instrumentation, steam supply, steam spreaders, safety and pressure relief valves, water retention tank for cooling water, vent piping, water piping and controls, drains, compressed air lines, cans, can lids, conveyors, dispensing machines, weighing machines, sealing equipment, lid crimping equipment, dividers, separators, crates, baskets, trays, stacking racks, post-process handling equipment, and cleaning equipment.