Women were advised to bring their own knives, pans and other supplies, along with their homegrown fruits and vegetables.
It was 1943. Food and fuel were in limited supply as World War Two continued in Europe and the Pacific. Everything was being rationed – especially sugar.
But you could get extra sugar allotments for canning fruit from your “Victory Garden” and you could take advantage of industrial-sized equipment if you headed to the local canning center.
The U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) set up 14 community canneries in Montana during the war.
Missoula’s site, officially called the Missoula County High School Community Canning Center, was located at the fairgrounds. It was supervised by home economics teachers, including Mrs. Roy Ely and Miss Zoe Williams.
Current Fairgrounds director Emily Brock has the canning center’s sign hanging on the wall in her office. Tom Aldrich, the fairgrounds production manager, says they hope to use the artifact as a model for other signage at the fair.
They’ve also uncovered one of the hand-crank seaming machines used to seal metal cans in the 1940s. It was found under a stairway in the Commercial Building during current renovations.
In all, 26,489 cans were processed during the first canning season in 1943. Hundreds of Missoula families took advantage of the facility.
The Missoulian newspaper reported the “most popular food canned” was the tomato – nearly 9,000 tins of them. That was followed by beans (6,215 cans), peas (3,752) and corn (2,859). Peaches, cherries and raspberries were also popular.
By early September of the following year, it was estimated that 10,000 cans of produce had been processed at the fairgrounds, with the big volumes of tomatoes, corn and a variety of fruit yet to come.
Because of the war, and the rationing of metal, you couldn’t just go out and buy a pressure cooker for canning.
The USDA, though, was able to acquire a number of retorts (large pressure cookers) and other supplies, which they made available to the canning centers.
Missoula got three retorts and four sealers. Tin cans were provided at about 5 to 8 cents each.
Participants were advised: “Carrots and beets may be topped and scrubbed at home. An inch and a half of the beet stems should be left on for cooking at the cannery. Wash and cut green beans, and peas may be hulled before they are brought in for processing. All greens, such as spinach, should be thoroughly washed.”
According to the website womenshistory.org, as many as 6,000 canning centers were opened by the USDA during World War II. “These centers were locally sponsored and financially supported, but with instructional and educational oversight provided by the USDA.
“With the rationing of vital metal goods for the war effort, pressure cookers were not produced for much of WWII. The centers offered women the opportunity to use this equipment if they did not have their own device or were unable to borrow from family or friends.”
In Dillon, the community canning center was open three days a week, producing about 500 cans a day in mid-August of 1943. But according to the Dillon Daily Tribune, “it may be necessary to go back on a full-time basis if public use demands it. Under present plans, the cannery will remain in operation until at least the middle of September and longer if there is need for an extension.”
Meantime, the Flathead Courier reported the Polson community cannery was processing 750 to 800 cans a day. “The recent order for additional cans has not yet arrived and, although the present supply is slowly becoming exhausted, it was believed that more cans could be secured if the shipment failed to arrive soon.”
Most of Montana’s canning centers operated from 1943 through 1945, then closed after the war.
Tom Aldrich says in the future they hope to make many of the fair’s historical items, including that vintage can-sealer, available for public viewing in the fairgrounds office.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at email@example.com.