Got cans? The Hopewell Valley once had a thriving canning industry, and, yes, the Tomato Factory Antiques Center on Somerset Street in Hopewell was indeed once a tomato cannery.
In fact, tomatoes were a favorite crop with New Jersey farmers, who routinely canned tomatoes and other produce for their families. Starting around 1850, and continuing until around 1925, New Jersey developed an extensive commercial canning industry, with business people and farmers investing in local factories to more efficiently reach larger markets.
In the Hopewell Valley, for example, the Pennington Canning Company factory on Brookside Avenue operated from 1902 into the 1930s, and the Titusville Fruit and Vegetable Canning Company on the north end of River Road operated from around 1889 to 1905.
In Hopewell, the Tomato Factory building operated as a canning company for almost 60 years, from 1892 to around 1950, through four different companies. It then became the Antiques Center in 1964.
Amazingly, the canning factory typically would operate for only about six weeks a year, since the harvest period was from early August through late September (or to the first frost). During that short season, the Hopewell factory would take in some 350 to 680 tons of tomatoes, and produce a total of some 140,00 to 300,000 cans (of quart size or more).
We’ll have more on the history of canning in the Hopewell Valley coming soon, but first we can get a glimpse of what it was like trying to get tomatoes to market in the midst of World War II, with strong demand from the government for the armed forces, shortages of local workers, and damage to the crops from weather and insects. Even the school kids pitched in!
These vignettes come from Dean Ashton’s Hopewell News newsletter that was distributed to Hopewell folks in the armed services throughout the war, and then expanded on in Ashton’s 1947 book, Be It Ever So Humble, covering hometown life and experiences in the armed forces during the war (see earlier post).
Tomato Crop Damaged – Sept. 22, 1943
Tomato worms severely damaged the crop in 1943. Some farmers tried removing the worms by hand, with one farmer finding 71 worms on only four plants. Oh, and the factory did have a distinctive odor!
Tomato worms — fat, green cusses two and three inches long and ugly as sin — have been playing havoc with farmers’ tomato fields. The yield for the canning factory will be reduced as a result, for the worms eat all the green vines, then the green tomatoes. With ripening tomatoes on the vines, the growers didn’t dare use poison. In desperation, some tried to gather the worms from the vines. Jack Voorhees had five gallons of them in no time at all. Marvin Conover counted seventy-one worms on four plants. Going over a half-acre of late tomatoes, he filled a ten-quart pail with the worms.
Still, the canning factory has handled a big volume of tomato’s, sending off that familiar odor that is all right if you’re just passing by, but a little disturbing to your “inners” if you’re working at the H. A. Smith factory or in the cannery itself.
Cannery Horse-Play – Oct. 19, 1943
Besides the smell, the cannery also produced unpleasant waste from juice and tomato skins, which could become a problem when kids were playing around.
Wayne Lowe, who is nine years old, isn’t going to forget what happened to him at the tomato factory. He was standing on the edge of the big waste vat into which excess water, tomato juice, peelings and the like were being dumped. There had been a little “horse-play” going on and Johnny Cromwell threw a tomato that made Wayne Lowe duck. In fact, he not only ducked but took a ducking, for in he went – right down in the juice, the peelings and all. He lost no time in climbing out — a sight to behold!
Cannery Still Running – Oct. 19, 1943
The canning factory was taken over by the Urban Food Company in 1943, which quickly posted signs promoting healthy eating to its employees – no more coffee or cola – or chocolate!
They are still canning tomatoes at the Urban Food Company factory. The pack hasn’t been up to average in quantity because of the tomato-worm plague. One report was that the pack wouldn’t take care of the Army’s order, let alone the civilian demand. The new owner, the Urban Food Company, even advertised for Hopewell gardeners to “pick every tomato” for delivery at the factory.
Under new management, the factory has been decidedly different this year. The new signs around the place were “killers.” They read something like this: “Attain good health by avoiding tea, coffee, chocolate, cola, tobacco, liquor.” As a matter of fact, those signs probably are only the beginning of a campaign to sell a new idea called “Human Engineering” to Hopewell. It seems that the new owners feel they must warn people that they’re reducing their efficiency if they drink tea, coca cola, chocolate and coffee – as well as other items.
The argument given is that your personal efficiency will hop up if you cut out all these “vices.” Several Hopewell people have been approached about it recently, being given this suggestion: “You can run your car on 45 octane gasoline, but it runs much better with 85 octane, so why not give your body the same chance?”
Busy Days at Tomato Cannery – June 17, 1944
In 1944 the cannery was still limited by the number of skilled peelers to remove the tomato skins (which they did by hand).
Tons and tons of tomatoes are being delivered these days to the tomato cannery, with the management struggling to get them canned despite a shortage of help. For the first time, the factory is also producing tomato juice, having installed new equipment for that purpose. The plant is being operated again this year by the Urban Food Company with Mr. E. F. Dorl, of Summit, in charge. The farmers are right at the height of their tomato season now and maybe the peelers don’t know it! Reports are that the tomatoes have tougher skins this year, due to the dry weather. However, some of the expert peelers can zip through as many as sixty bucketsful a day, and that’s a lot of tomatoes. About twenty peelers are on the job but the management had hoped to get about twice as many. Most of the crop will be sold to the Government, as in the past year.
Pupils Become Tomato Pickers – Oct. 23, 1945
Then in 1945 there was a last-minute push to finish picking the tomato fields before the first frost, so kids from the Elementary School pitched in.
An emergency call for tomato pickers came to the Hopewell Elementary School a few days before the visit by Jack Frost that finished off the crop, Help was needed to harvest the crop on the Joe Svetan farm near Ringoes. School Principal Whitecraft gave permission for pupils to work a half-day if they made up their class work and about a dozen volunteered, They were paid 10 cents a basket, but when some grew a little weary and began to throw tomatoes at other pickers, a fine of 10 cents was imposed for everyone caught in the act. That wasn’t adequate in one case, and one boy had his face washed with a tomato as a further penalty.
There’s more to come on the Tomato Factory building and the Hopewell canning companies, so we would welcome information and especially photos from over the years. Does anybody have cans or labels or other mementos of this history?
For more information:
- The Titusville Fruit and Vegetable Canning Company,
Larry Kidder, Howell Farm – Read PDF
- Commercial Canning in New Jersey: History and Early Development, Mary B. Sim
New Jersey Agricultural Society, 1951 – Read online
- Hopewell: A Historical Geography, Richard Hunter and Richard Porter
Township of Hopewell Historic Sites Committee, 1990
(Available through the Hopewell Museum)