by John Hall

As World War II dragged on, the number of men available to work in factories became less and less, especially for low paying companies such as those who canned peas, corn, tomatoes, etc. There were many more canning factories than there are now and almost every town had at least one. In Port Hope Canadian Canners had a factory on Cavan Street and I remember Nesbitt's Canneries in Colborne and/or Brighton. By 1943 the labour force in most factories was almost entirely women with a few older men to do the heavier jobs. The larger companies such as car plants paid much better and most of the men available naturally took the better paying jobs. The canning factories still had jobs women wouldn't do and resorted to hiring boys of fourteen or fifteen and that's how I got on the stack.

I was offered a job at the canning factory in Port Hope to work on the pea harvest at the rate of 25 cents an hour, straight time. There was no time and a half for overtime, you just got 25 cents an hour and during pea season you were expected to work until all peas brought to the factory had been processed. The farmers started bringing loads of peas on the vine to the factory at eight in the morning and usually completed their work about seven at night. This meant those of us working in the factory stayed until all deliveries had been processed to peas in the can. Most nights we worked until midnight and some as late as two in the morning. My first job was to pitch peas on the vine from the farmers load onto a moving conveyor belt taking them into a machine called the viner. This stripped the peas from the vine and loaded them into boxes which were then transported to the factory for canning. I enjoyed that job and looked forward to getting the first farmers load early in the morning when the peas were fresh and juicy. There's nothing tastier than peas taken from the pod just after the vines have been harvested, and as I sit here so many years later, my mouth still waters at the thought. We were out in the fresh air, the sun was shining and for the first time in our lives, we were men making money, not much money, but still it was our first time really working at a man's job. Just think, if we worked twelve hours a day, six days a week we might take home fifteen dollars after deductions! We didn't always get Sunday off, but most farmers refused to work on the Sabbath, so we did get an odd Sunday or two at home.

After I had worked on the viner putting pea vines into the machine for about a week, I was told I was 'a good man with a pitch fork' and was being moved to the other end of the operation, the place where the vines came out of the machine, commonly known as the stack. This was a much harder job, because space was limited and only two men at a time could work on the stack. It was also much harder because those two men had to move and place the vines fed into the machine by six or eight men. There would be no increase in pay of course, but it was a promotion because it required good men to do it, 'good with a pitch fork', that is. There was also another drawback nobody told us about, but we soon found out. I should point out that after I had been working at the factory for awhile, I got Hager a job there too. He was younger than me, but bigger, in fact just about anyone was bigger than me, but there was supposed to be an age limit on hiring. I think it was fifteen, but the manager didn't ask too many questions, he just hired us. I told him Hager was the same age as me and really needed the job, so he hired him and put us on the stack. After awhile, I soon found out nobody was ever going to question us about how old we were, in fact we smelled so bad nobody, but nobody, wanted to come near us. We were called, 'the stinking stackers' and we sure were.

There was a conveyer belt to take the vines into the machine and there was one to bring them out once the vines had been removed. This one pointed up in the air at about a 45 degree angle and the vines poured off the end. A rectangular plot of ground had been staked out with the end of the conveyor belt placed roughly in the middle. When the vines came out of the machine, our job was to spread them around the marked out piece of ground gradually building it up into a stack. As the days passed the stack grew and we continued to add vines until we almost reached the end of the conveyor belt which was about ten to fifteen feet off the ground. Once we reached the conveyor belt, a farmer came with his wagons and they loaded what they now called, 'insulage'. As the days passed the vines started to ferment and as we moved up the stack, we noticed the vines were becoming warm under foot and starting to smell pretty strong. We also noticed that Hager and I were avoided like the plague and people started to hold their noses when we came anywhere near them. I remember finishing early one night and Hager invited me to go to his house for some ice cream. When we got there his mother wouldn't let us in and made us jump into the file pond clothes and all. She gave us a bar of soap and told us to wash ourselves all over and to wash our clothes too, and we did by just standing there in wet clothes, soaping ourselves and diving into the pond. I can tell you, after spending all day on the hot stack, we sure appreciated that bath and didn't feel put out because she made us do it. It felt wonderful and so did the ice cream, and all that for fifteen dollars a week!