The Almond Pea Vinery
One of the most delightful experiences involved in writing this newsletter is observing the response one gets from the mention of a unique person, place or thing from the past.
The subject of the Almond pea vinery, in operation here in the 1940's and 50's, has been no exception. From the young men who worked their first summer job there, to the kids who ran behind the wagons "stealing" vines containing precious fresh pea pods, to the neighbors who remember the stack's pungent aroma wafting down the valley, from the area farmers who struggled to make a living - all begin to grin and come forth with a story or two worth retelling.
The plant was located in the vicinity of Norm Guthrie's home, near the intersection of the McHenry Valley and Whitney Valley roads. Don Zirkelbach recalls working there the summer of 1941, and explains it this way: Many farmers raised peas as a cash crop in those days, and because of the wartime shortages and gas rationing, Birdseye-Snider food processing plant in Mt. Morris set up satellite thrashing stations near the growing sites. "I had a great time (working there). I thought the money was great, and I was glad to have a job, even though the hours were long and it was hard work!" Don said.
Harold Snyder of Alfred, writing one chapter of his memoirs entitled, "Pitch Fork Farming," remembers his father, Ernie, planting peas and enlisting the help of his sons in the backbreaking job of harvesting the crop. "We always had 10-15 acres of peas planted solid in rows only six inches apart, making a yield of 10+ tons per acre. Dad cut them with a 6' mowing machine pulled by our horses, Don and Duke," he writes. When being cut, the vines had to be protected from trampling so it became the job of the boys to fork the "pesky, tangled mess" of vines out of the way of the horse and wagon. Next the vines were pitched onto the wagon and transported to the Almond pea vinery. "You guessed it, we hauled these 3-4 ton loads of peas with the Allis Chalmers narrow front end hand-braked tractor on the open road when we were 14, 15, and 16-year olds. Of course, there was much less traffic then, but still we were lucky to survive trouble," he recalls. (Most of us gals don't "get the picture" here but this mode of transportation, operated by a teenager, would be considered extremely dangerous today, I'm told.)
Kids loved to see the wagons come by loaded with pea vines. Roger and Don Washburn recalled sitting in the park, waiting for trucks from the Karr Valley farms to come down Angelica Street. "They'd stop at the stop sign at Main Street and we'd run out and grab as many vines as we could get, go back to the park and eat them." Don adds: "Lloyd Sanford drove truck for the pea farmers, and sometimes they'd stop in town for a little refreshment. We'd run over and grab pea vines and he'd come out and grumble at us. Then he'd say, 'Make sure you get enough for your mother...'" Those who were children and teens at the time are quick to remember listening for the trucks, and then running down the road behind the slow-moving, heavy-laden vehicles, grabbing hands full of vines upon which they feasted later.
During pea season, the vinery was a busy place from early morning until night. George and Don Lewis, whose grandfather, George Lewis, raised peas on his Turnpike farm, describe the operation this way: Farmers from all over the area arrived with horse-drawn wagons (later tractors and trucks) loaded high with pea vines. They pulled up to one of the vine stations to wait their turn to unload. The driver pitched off the vines, (which by now, according to Sam Moses, were packed down, more tangled and heavier than ever) and pea vinery workers in turn pitched them onto the conveyors, which carried them up to the thrashing equipment. The vines entered huge rotating drums inside which large paddles circulating in the opposite direction, caused the pods to open and release peas. They were funneled down onto a shaking conveyor which took them through a series of "rubberized" shucking screens, which sorted them out of the debris, separated the peas by size, finally depositing them in wooden boxes for transport to the processing plant. These were tagged with the farmer's name and weighed, and the grower was credited for that load. "There was almost a contest between farmers to see who could get the most boxes from a load, hence bigger and bigger loads," according to Harold.
Ron Coleman was one of the local boys who landed a summer job at the pea vinery. He relates this story: "In 1947, I was just 16 and had to get my Social Security card before I could go to work. Why I was even hired is a mystery, for I must have been very small and green, having never worked at anything much. I don't recall who was boss, but I was put on the feeder belt out front (the hardest job by far!). I can't imagine why anyone would put a 16-year-old boy at the feeder, but as I think back, maybe it was his way of getting rid of me. We made 82.5 cents an hour, which in '47 was pretty good money. I remember one day working 15 hours ($12.38 that day) and making more money than my father."
"When I started, my hands blistered to the point that they bled as I kept feeding the conveyor with a pitch fork. One day not long after we had started was particularly hard, with peas already lined up in the field at probably 6 in the morning. The farmers were relentless throwing the peas off for me to feed into the belt. With my hands blistered, peas piled sky high in front of me and the farmers complaining because they had to wait for me to feed, I was nearly in tears."
"The man next to me, who was also feeding, reached over to my pile and threw in a huge load of peas on my belt and plugged my machine. Then he turned to the farmers and yelled something to the effect, 'You wanted this kid to go faster...you got faster...now you all can sit back and wait until we unplug this machine.' That man was Andy Fenner, a friend for life...the same Andy who had Fenner's store," Ron mused.
An e-mail from Andy's son, Dave, revealed to he too had some stories: "A whole bunch of us who had just turned 16 (the age for working papers) worked there. Jack Harvey had a 1940 Mercury Convertible he had bought for $50 and we often rode to town with him (after work, of course). The worst job was feeding the conveyors, as those big farm men would see if they could bury you with vines that the pitched off their trucks. You were limited in the amount you could feed without clogging the machine. We were paid 93 cents per hour, overtime after 56 hours (time and a half). The pea vinery was many are kids' first real job (as it was mine."
Martin "Bud" Gillette was only 14 during the war years when he worked in what they called the "glory hole." He described this as the place where the beaten, wet, "stinking" vines dumped onto the conveyors on their way to the stack. "I worked there for two years, making 25 cents an hour the first year, and 35 cents an hour the second year. A kid making that kind of money was rich in those days! I bought myself a new bicycle," he recalled.
He confirmed the thought shared by others that German POWs and Jamaicans were also hired by Birdseye. "The POWs did not speak English, and they had guards and interpreters. They came in Army buses from Stoney Brook, where they were housed in Army barracks across from the entrance to the lower glen," he recollected.
Bud's younger brother, Dick, although too young to work at the pea vinery, recognized an opportunity to make some money, Bud recalls. "My dad made baskets for Dick's bike so that he could bring meals up to me. He would stop by Kellogg's and buy quarts bottles of orange pop, and carry twenty of them on his bike to sell to the Jamaicans. They gave him 10 cents plus a five cent deposit. He did that twice a day, at lunchtime and in the afternoon. He made more money the second year than I did!" Bud laughed.
"Working the stack" was one of the better jobs, according to several men. Those assigned this task were responsible for distributing the discarded vines evenly around the top, keeping it level, and making sure they did not fall off in the process. "A ramp of pea vines was packed beside the stack to get up on top," according to the Lewis boys. Early on in the operation, mules and horses were used to draw the equipment used to level the stack, they said. "The pea vinery was set up on 8' concrete piers, and there were stalls underneath where they kept animals. They had to change the mules a couple of times a day, because they would not work all day long," Don said.
Later on, a Ford Ferguson tractor was attached to the buck-rake contraption (which Dave describes as a large set of tines on which the stacks of vines were impaled, hoisted and moved to the area where the big stack was being built.) He continued: "The best job, in my mind, was driving the buck-loader equipped Ford tractor to the stack of discarded vines. One of the keys to success in working the stack was to back the tractor to a point where the vines coming off the conveyor dropped onto the buck-rake. Often the driver's guess would be a little off and he would be covered with crushed, stripped vines!" Picture this: Kids driving a tractor pulling a buck-rake around the edge of a 12 to 15 foot high stack with no railings... today OSHA would have a heyday writing violations!!
The stack was not remembered graciously by some area residents, especially close neighbors. As the moisture from the pea vines composted, the squeezed-out juice "ripened" in a trench dug around th base of the stack. "The leftover vines and empty pea pods (silage) were constantly stacked next to the vinery until by mid-summer a humongous wreaking mound of fermenting residue the size of McLane Center fouled the air over Almond," Harold describes in his writing. The stench is still remembered fifty years later as folks wrinkle their noses and fan the air with their hands!
"In the winter, these same farmers would, with pitch forks and hay knives, eat away at this tightly compacted mass of stifling cow food, using it to supplement their hay supplies. Cows loved it, and produced well on it. So you can see by the time you followed the mower, pitched on or loaded, pitched off, later pitched silage on truck, off truck, down hay chute and then to cows, you would have handled these cling pea vines six to seven times, all for $60 to $100 per ton of final shelled peas plus feeding value of silage. Oh well, this was just an era in the process of technology, I guess..." he recalls.
Several teachers at Alfred-Almond took summer jobs as crew boss at the pea vinery. Among those Ron remembered were Curly Norton, a science teacher, Bob Torrey, "a wonderful teacher of history," and Ernie Moore, phys ed coach. He also spoke of George Merrill, who "had to be very old" in 1948, and who had appointed himself in charge of the stack. "That was a good thing, too, because Dale (Lorow) and I worked the stack and without George's persistence, the stack would have come right to a peak," he joked. "He was deaf until you said something about him behind his back, which Dale and I delighted in doing. Then he would curse you out. I think he really enjoyed the whole thing, though. He was a very short man, 5'1" or so, and because of his extreme age, he had taken on a look that he resembled Charlie McCarthy. But if he was 80, which he could have been, he was still the best worker on the stack," Ron recalled.
Boxing peas sometimes was a challenge, because now and then snakes came in on the wagons with the vines, traveling through the thrashing process and finding their way to the final conveyors. It is told that even those who hated snakes would reach in and grab them, snapping their heads and throwing them off the conveyors. Audrey Torrey Connell, Bob's widow, smiled as she related this story: "Sometimes kids would put little green snakes in Bob's car. I learned that I always had to look before we got in - if not, we leaped out rather fast!"
"We got a lot of education there," the Lewis's recall. "It was the first job for most guys. When it was a good season, we got good money," they said. Keith Doty remembers a lesson forever learned: "They always played poker up there on Friday night. After my first week of work, I stayed to play poker with the guys. I lost my whole paycheck in that game. It was the last time I ever gambled to this day - and it was the best thing that ever happened to me!"
Other lessons learned are a tad embarrassing. Ron tells this story: "Dale Lorow, Don Biehl and I were playing on the stack after pea season was over, smoking cornsilk with corncob pipes (probably stolen from Palmer's pool room). As we left, we looked back only to see that the stack was on fire! First order of business was to throw the pipes far into the bushes, then to run to a neighbor to call the fire company, then back to the stack to fight the fire. Percy McIntosh soon arrived and the fire was extinguished. Percy declared the fire spontaneous combustion and we were considered somewhat heroes! Not our finest hour," Ron laments.
The closing of the pea vinery, believed to have happened in the late 1950's was, indeed, the end of an era. Back then it was an important source of income for persevering farmers and hardworking young men. Today it provides endless tales of good-natured pranks and life-long lessons learned. "We had lots of fun," Bud recalls, "I miss those days!"