Dysart Canning Company
A Small Town Story
According to an article in the Dysart Reporter on April 9, 1914, the first canning factory in Iowa was established in 1860 with an output of one million cans. By 1914, the state was producing one-fourth of the sweet corn for the entire country.
"The factory wheels are ready to turn and when the season opens their hum will be heard mingling with the rattling cans, rolling trucks, and rumbling wagons coming and going"
April 20, 1906 Traer Star Clipper
The Dysart Canning Company was located on the fifth block of the Crisman Addition on lots 1-5, on the southwest corner of the intersection of Grant and Estelle Streets, just north of the railroad tracks in Dysart, Iowa. Later this was the site of the Pioneer Seed Company. Based on a lawsuit filed in 1917 it is known that the land for the factory was acquired from H. Walton and his wife who in 1902 acquired the land from J.J. Walton, J.W. Crisman, Christian Fike and Harrison, Yeiser & Co.
Built in Less than 3 Months
The plant was further described as a "space of ground about 185 x 72 feet and consist(ed) of the following: main building 32 x 60, two full stories in height, in the lower room of which are the machinery and tomato peeling rooms and on the upper floor the storage room for empty cans, etc. To this building is attached an L addition 32 x 40, which contains the process room and the boiler and engine room. Running from this addition is an open cooling floor 40 x 40 which consists of a platform about five feet high. At the end of this is the warehouse, a closed building 40 x 48. Beside these buildings there is a husking shed 28 x 40 from which a chain carrier runs to the main building. The factory is equipped with a 15 h.p. engine and a 50 h.p. boiler, which are of the usual capacity for a factory of this size and undoubtedly large enough. The total cost of the factory was a little less than $13,000. Work on the buildings was started on January 15, 1906, and on April 6th everything was completed, a little over two and a half months in all." In June of that same year, the canning company received a load of lumber from Washington state with which to construct boxes and crates.
Steady Progress Through the First Decade
In the following years, a steady trajectory of improvements was seen with increasingly more acres being either purchased or contracted as well as additions to the plant. In 1907, green beans were added to the corn and tomatoes that were already being canned. By April of that year, the company had secured contracts for 100 acres of tomatoes as opposed to the thirty they had the previous years. Reports from the railroad depot showed that products were being sent to distant locations like Oklahoma and San Francisco. In 1910 participating farmers growing on contract included John Brandau, Will Lindeman and H.P. Jensen. 1911 was reported as a bumper year for the canning factory, producing about 75,000-80,000 cans.
The decade of 1910 was marked by steady growth. The officers of the Canning Company in 1912 were listed as H.P. Jensen, D. Lindeman, Ervin Moeller, E.F. Douglass, F.F. Trottnow, John Messer and H. Christiansen. A 40 x 100-foot storeroom was added. In 1914, Henry Hansen and William Rueppel’s names were added to the board of directors. That same year the plant was wired for electric service and a new boiler with a much larger capacity was installed.
The Canning Factory is Sold
In February of 1917, by a two-thirds majority vote, the company was dissolved. Almost simultaneously to the United States’ entrance into World War I, the business was sold to the Waterloo Canning Company established in 1914 with George E. Lichty as president.
“To the Patrons of the Dysart Canning Company: As new owners of The Dysart Canning Company you are interested in knowing something about us, our plans, etc. With the addition of the Dysart plant, we now have in Iowa four modern canning factories located at Waterloo, Dyersville, Hamburg and Dysart. You may be interested in knowing that Iowa produces 20 percent of all the sweet corn packed, and leads every other state, Illinois being second.
Regarding the Dysart plant, it is our desire to double the capacity of this plant in 1918, and this we can do with your cooperation. Sweet corn factories are valuable in any community giving a home market for one of the most profitable crops. A cash market established before the seed is planted so that you as a grower do not have to guess at what you will receive for your crop. The price this year $10.00 per ton is 43 percent higher than one year ago. A canning factory keeps the money at home and is a real community builder, furnishing employment to home people.”
Dysart Reporter April 19, 1914
The letter went on to provide quite specific instruction to farmers on how to plant and grow sweet corn. An endorsement of the benefits of the fodder left from the growing the crop was given. The financial benefits are again stressed. The letter ends;
“Now we realize that we cannot operate canning factories successfully without your cooperation and we earnestly desire to make the Dysart plant one of the best in Iowa. We will do our best if you will cooperate with us. Please don’t depend upon your neighbor to do this cooperating, but grow sweet corn and grow it this year, and let us get acquainted and get off to a good start….” Yours very truly, WATERLOO CANNING COMPANY
Dysart Reporter April 19, 1917
A list of farmers who had contracted with them to grow corn was included in that story.
In June, the following ad was found in the paper:
In 1918, as a result of the war, the Waterloo Canning Company was informed that 25% of their production for the year would be required by the US Army and Navy. It was predicted the Armed Services would be taking eighteen million cans of corn from Iowa alone. More corn was contracted than at any other time in their history. A call was put out for help in the canning process encouraging people to help themselves earn money and “help Uncle Sam secure the necessary food for our boys oversees and our domestic army as well.”
The plant was inspected by a US Naval officer for safety. The company stated “Each employee will be be required to take the Oath of Allegiance. The oath, however, is something which all true American men and women are glad to sign.” Forty men and women were employed at between $3.50 and $6.00 per hour. In the later part of 1918, the nearby town of Traer started negotiating with the Waterloo Canning Company for another plant in that community and despite many conversations over multiple years, this did not come to pass.
The plant expanded again in 1922 but by 1926 the Waterloo Canning Company was in receivership. In February of 1928, the company announced whereas they had been operating five farms in the Dysart area for several years, they had decided to discontinue operation of three farms owned by John Mehlhaus, Theodore Jessen and Charles Goken. A public sale was held at the Goken farm on February 28 including horses, mules, cattle, milking equipment and much more.
The canning factory had its own well which could not keep up with the demand and so a new water reservoir was added in the city in 1929. Drought conditions in 1929 led to a much smaller yield than in previous years. 1,100 acres were contracted at a rate of $12.00 per ton and approximately 100 people were employed at the plant that year. The stock market crashed in October ushering in The Great Depression.
In February of 1930, the land adjacent to the plant, previously part of the Dysart Brick and Tile Company was purchased for $1,000. Only one kiln was left on that property'; all other buildings having been destroyed by fire.
The land was needed for the storage of other waste created in the canning process. Pigs were kept to deal with this waste products. Due to drought, a lower yield was experienced and production had to be sped up to prevent the corn from drying out. One hundred twenty men canned 60,000 cans of corn in less than three weeks.
In 1931, Tom Thiesen’s 320 acre farm north of Dysart was leased bringing the total acreage leased by the company up to 920. Other farms under lease were two Lally farms and the Rueppel farm. To help offset some of the losses they had encountered, the company increased the number of cattle they were keeping on the leased farms, feeding these on grass and corn stalks. They were also considering expanding into pea production for diversification. Due to the depression gripping the country, there was no shortage of available workers and the plant employed between 150 to 160 people for the season. Continued drought left much of the corn too dry to be acceptable for canning. In all between 1500 and 1600 acres of sweet corn had been planted. The output was considerably larger than before due to improvements in the plant. However, the consumer price for corn had dropped from 90 cents per can to 75 cents. The Waterloo Canning Company was starting to shows real signs of financial trouble.
A Company In Trouble
Confirmation of trouble for the Waterloo Canning Company came in 1932. In April the company announced that they would still be operating in Dysart but that acreage would be greatly reduced. Later in the summer it was reported that due to the closure of the Commercial National Bank in Waterloo the company had no financing plan and was reaching out to banks in Chicago. This, of course, was a hard blow to area farmers hoping to supplement their already limited incomes.
At the end of August, the canning company announced that they were not able to secure financing and therefore no pack would occur in Dysart. The corn was allowed to dry in the fields and was harvested for livestock feed. Around Thanksgiving time, local farmers Dan and James Lally reached a settlement with the Waterloo Canning Company over notes given for rent. The Lallys settled for farming equipment, all of the crops (corn and soybeans) not yet harvested on their farms, and livestock including 40 head of cattle, a dozen or more mules, and about 25 hogs.
Enter the Continental Can Company
Across the country, in 1933, very few canning plants operated and Dysart’s plant was no exception. By 1934, the country had pretty much used up the surplus of canned goods from 1932 and the future looked a little brighter for companies engaged in that enterprise. However, this bright outlook did not exist in Dysart.
In 1934 the Waterloo Canning Company which had been in receivership for over a year was taken over by the Continental Can Company. Area residents watched the situation play out over the course of several months, not knowing if the plant would ever open again. It was unlikely that the new owners would operate the plant themselves as they were not in the canning business. They were in the business of equipping plants with machinery as well as furnishing cans. Meetings were held in February with local capitalists looking for financial backing which did not materialize. In June the sale was completed with Continental acquiring all of the properties at Dysart, Waterloo and Dyersville for just $52,000. They acquired the canning plants to settle the debts owed to them by the previous owner. In August creditors of the Waterloo Canning Company including some from Dysart were called to a bankruptcy negotiation meeting were it was announced that the Dyersville plant was sold for just $2,800. Shortly thereafter, Rath Packing Company bought the Waterloo plant, a convenient acquisition for them as the two properties were adjoining.
The year 1935 looked much more hopeful for the factory and also the people of Dysart who were anxious to keep this large employer and outlet for crops. Although it had been announced the plant was leased by Mr. Reed of Waterloo, it was actually leased to the Hawkeye Canning Company which was based out of Des Moines. Newer equipment was brought in from the now closed Waterloo plant. Improvements were made to the building which had been sitting idle since 1932. One hundred contracts were let out to 99 farmers in the Dysart area at $7.00 per ton, significantly lower than previously paid. The average size of the contract was 10 ½ acres. Still, the company had no problem finding farmers willing to participate in the leasing.
The plant planned to hire 150 workers, half of which were to be women. They had 250 applicants. Per company policy, all 150 hired workers came from Dysart. Too much rain and cool temperatures in the Spring just after planting decreased the yield. Some of the corn had to be replanted. As the plant had set idle, some of the mechanical equipment failed. Once up and running the plant ran 15 hours per day. In the husking room the women were only allowed a five minute break every hour and two extra workers were added to cover those short breaks. The third largest pack ever was realized that year with just over two million cans of corn being packed. A total of $11,000 was paid out in wages. The participating farmers were paid between $7.00 and $28.00 per acre. Additionally, farmers were offered corn-hog checks covering the acres taken out of seed corn production.
What Is a Corn-Hog Ratio?
The corn-hog ratio was a system originally designed to calculate the profitability of raising hogs versus growing and selling corn feed. It was a comparison that took the price of a hog and divided it by the cost of the corn needed to sustain the hog. In this case, the cost of raising sweet corn versus seed corn.Investopedia.com
Storage of the canned goods seemed to always be a problem for the Dysart plant and made it difficult for the company to hold their goods until market conditions improved. At the beginning of October, the farmers were paid one-half of what was owed to them minus the cost of the seed. The balance being paid in December.
Starting in 1936, the federal government changed the corn-hog program for a new soil conservation program which was unveiled in April and May. Many farmers delayed their decision about whether they wanted to grow sweet corn until the details of that program were clear. Changes in how the farmers were to be paid were also instituted by the Hawkeye Canning Company whereby the base rate for the corn was lowered to between $6.50 to $7.00 per ton and a premium added for high grade corn. The total number of acres was decreased to 900 from 1050 the previous year. An extensive explanation of the grading system was published in the local papers. Overall, the market for sweet corn was not good going into the 1936 growing season. There was a large surplus of canned corn which had gone unsold from 1935 already available.
In April of 1936, the Waterloo Canning Company’s bankruptcy case was finally resolved and those who were owed money were paid out at 1.7% of the total owed. Among those in the area who received these small payments were local merchants and employees as well as the Town of Dysart itself.
By May of 1936 most of the contracts had been signed by area farmers, although it was noted that the sign up was much slower than it had been before. A conflict with the new conservation program was sited. As had always been the case, the canning company provided all the seed and determined when each farmer would plant their crop so that the canning process could run on schedule. For reasons that are not clear, that year almost all of the growers were located southeast and northeast of town. The growers were:
Farming is a difficult business and what looked like it was going to be a bumper crop in May was clearly struggling by July due to intense heat and prolonged drought. The crops were also heavily damaged by grasshoppers and cutworms. Rain late in August improved things a little bit but not much. In the end only 25,083 cases could be packed (compared to 80,600 the year before). This was the second smallest output ever. The plant employed about 75-100 people with total wages of $6,000. To add insult to injury, because of the drought the price of canned good skyrocketed however, the Hawkeye Canning Plant could not benefit from this price increase as their pack had been sold before canning at a contracted price.
In the Spring of 1937, the canning company again started signing contracts for one thousand acres with new terms which were supposed to be more attractive to the farmers many of whom had not liked the grading system. The company was switching over to hybrid seeds which promised better yield.
In hindsight, it appears the company was having a more difficult time than before getting farmer to sign the contract. More advertising appeared in the Dysart and Traer papers. Incentives were added for early signing and a promise of payment right after the pack was extended. They also started casting a wider net for farmers including Traer, Geneseo, Buckingham and other townships in Blackhawk County. After a meeting of the Dysart Commercial Club in April, that group posted their support of the plant in the Dysart Reporter recognizing the economic impact the plant had on the local economy.
Soaking rains in May provided hope that the yield would be much improved from the disastrous 1936 season. For the first time in many years there was no need to replant any of the fields. The corn at Claude Sawyer’s farm southeast of town was reported to be knee high by the last week in June.
Hope springs eternal in the world of farming and in July Charles W. Fort who was the superintendent of the plant stated the sweet corn crop was “the best I’ve ever seen.” Large numbers of people applied for work at the factory and about 160 men and women were hired, most of whom were Dysart residents. A “threshing ring” of twenty-two men worked their way from farm to farm bringing in the crop. The first sweet corn brought in that year was from the O.J. Hayward and Charles Hill farms.
Double Tragedy Strikes
All was going quite well with the pack until tragedy struck on 8/14/1937 when August Filgraf, age 59, was crushed by the machinery in the conveyor pit while salvaging feed for cows.
According to the Dysart Reporter,
“It had been his habit to secure some feed for his cows and pigs each morning during the canning season, before the plant opened for work. He had taken one wheelbarrowful of corn to his home near the factory Saturday morning and had returned for a second load. When the machinery was turned on preparatory to starting the day’s pack, neither Howard Marks, who threw the switch in another part of the plant, nor Emil Keen, who was in charge of the unloading shed were aware of Mr. Filgraf’s presence in the pit. Mr. Filgraf was employed at the factory, but in another part of the building, and only the foremen were supposed to be in the plant at the time of the accident.”
A week later, the town was again rocked to learn that Howard Mark, despondent over his role in the death of August, had committed suicide. His body was found by Superintendent Charles Ford and John Reed, the field agent for the plant hanging in a garage. Throughout the previous week, Howard had been questioned several times and by several people representing the insurance company for the plant. All agreed that the accident was not his fault but he remained despondent, nevertheless. Originally from Dallas County, Iowa, he had lived in Dysart for many years along with his wife, Laura (Reimer). They had one son. The son died in 1926 at the age of 16 and his wife three years after that.
1937 Pack Is Successfully Completed
A labeling room was added to the west end of the building expanding the factory’s total footprint. As soon as the corn was canned it was sent to far away places like New York City and San Francisco and Los Angeles. The total pack was between 85,000 to 90,000 and although much better than the year before, it fell about 10,000 cans below what was expected earlier in the summer. The pack took about a month and yielded the workers a total of $13,500 in wages, much of that money spent right in Dysart. Unlike previous years, the farmers were paid right away in September and most made more money than they had previously.
A Surprise Ending
March of 1938 arrived with the promise of another good season for the people of Dysart and the contracting process started anew. The company advertised in the local papers for farmers stating an expectation that 800-900 acres would be contracted. The county had an abundance of canned corn in storage from last year’s pack and so all the factories were contracting for less acreage. The Hawkeye Canning Company had already decided not to operate the Dyersville factory and a canning factory at Garrison was closed for the season. On April 10, the Waterloo Courier reported that the contract process was being delayed because of a need for more information about the government’s allotment program.
Then, on April 15, 1938, the Traer Star Clipper broke the news that the Hawkeye Canning Company would not operate the plant at Dysart that year and as it turned out, any year in the future. The Hawkeye Canning Company seemingly disappeared after that as no newspaper articles about the company could be found after April 17, 1938.
The factory sat vacant until 1941 when it was dismantled.