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August heat blanketed our town. By dawn it reached 90 degrees, by noon it went much higher. Out in back of the high school, farmers’ wives and some of the women who lived in town ran the community cannery while their barefoot children played on the lawn. The children were told to stay out of the cannery, to stay away from the sharp knives and boiling pots.
One of the ladies working inside the cannery threw a tablecloth over the big thermometer mounted on the wall saying “You ladies don’t want to know how hot it is in here!”
I looked out the window, longing to go play with my friends outside, but proud to be called a lady. Pride kept me working there. At 14, I was the youngest lady in the all-women cannery crew.
As the Andrew sisters belted out the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B over the radio, we washed and chopped the vegetables we would can that day. Some of those cans would go home with us. Others were destined to go to our soldiers oversees.
We were very patriotic in 1943. President Roosevelt had explained in a radio address that the government provided the funds to build the canneries in rural communities to preserve food grown in our Victory Gardens and on family farms. Canning became necessary because so much food was going overseas. I thought the government must have provided more than just funds for our cannery. That would explain why our biggest kettle was labeled “U.S. Navy.”
The Middleton Community Cannery had opened its doors in June At first, the cannery superintendent Mr. Otis McFarland decided that each family would reserve a day to use the cannery by themselves to process and can food for their own family. A pitiful number of canned good left the building each day.
The women of the community changed Mr. McFarland’s mind about how he ran the cannery. By midsummer, each of us had bushels and bushels of produce destined for canning. Some of it was rotting before the family’s next reserved cannery day. We needed to get the fruits and vegetables canned at their peak so we began working in groups. Gradually Mr. McFarland lost his control over the cannery. Many days, he went fishing and didn’t darken the cannery door. As a result, he stopped keeping accurate records.
The cannery ladies started that hot August day off with snippets of gossip. That morning, a nasty rumor started to spread. Many of the hundreds of cases of canned goods we made for the soldiers had been stolen. Mr. McFarland told the Sheriff they never reached the train depot. We had a thief among us.
It was Superintendent McFarland’s job to count the number of cases as they were loaded on the truck leaving the cannery. When he got back the waybill from the train depot and compared the numbers, he discovered a discrepancy. Almost half of the cases had, as he said, fallen off the truck. They disappeared somewhere between the Middleton Cannery and the depot in Lexington, Kentucky. He didn’t seem overly concerned.
On our lunch break that hot, hot day, the ladies talked about catching the thief. We didn’t like it, but we had to consider that it might be Superintendent Otis McFarland himself. He was a much-respected high school agriculture teacher. I had a hard time imagining that he could, or would, steal.