The Pickle Factory, part 1

Pickles in a bottleMy family, like most families, has its share of tall tales, embellished truths, imagined histories, and shared deceptions.  I’ve heard about the Cherokee princess, the honeymoon murder, the drunk-driving triple homicide, and the ornery slave owner.  As I’ll discuss in later posts on these topics, none of these inherited truths turned out to be quite what we believed it to be from the stories that were passed down to us.

When I heard the story of the “pickle factory,” I assumed this was just another embroidered memory.  My grandmother Harriet told me this story later in her life (I believe I first heard this story in 2005).  She told me that her grandfather on her mother’s side, Frank Scott, had a pickle factory in Menahga, MN, and that when she and her siblings visited him, he would give them a huge barrel of pickles that they would take back to Wadena and share with their friends.

Until last week, I knew of no supporting evidence for this story.  I was under the impression that Frank Scott was a poor, hardworking man of modest means.  When asked for his profession by census takers over the years, he alternately stated that he was a railroad worker, a farm laborer, a drayer, and a teamster.  Not once did he mention “pickle factory proprietor” or “pickle maker.”  How does a man of modest means come to own and run a pickle factory?  Even more fundamentally, what, exactly, is a pickle factory, and what does it look like?

When I think of pickle factory, this is what comes to mind:

Or perhaps these more era-appropriate versions:

Heinz factory, Pittsburgh, PA, ca. 1910

Heinz Pickle factory (salting plant), Zeeland, MI

But about all I can tell from the above photos is that pickle factories (or at least these pickle factories) are large, industrial operations requiring a lot of space and employees.

Taking a look for an example of a more modest pickle factory, I found the following series of photos documenting the Pacific Vinegar and Pickle Works in Hayward, CA (all four photos were taken on June 1, 1910):

Still a large operation, though. This and the previous pickle factories were all located in urban areas and were scaled to meet demand.  What, I wondered, would a pickle factory look like in a rural setting?  Here’s a photo of the McNeil and Libby pickling station in Wausaukee, WI, ca. 1917:

Now this seems achievable for a man of modest means.  Here’s a brief description of the operations at the McNeill and Libby pickling station pictured above, according to the Wausaukee Area History:

“There were five or six big wooden vats filled with brine. The vats were two stories tall and went into the basement with about two feet exposed above the ground floor. The cucumbers picked in the fall were stored in the brine until they could be trucked out to be processed at the main plant in Green Bay. The factory was only in use for a month during the cucumber harvest when Joe Alsteen weighed in the gunny sacks full of cukes and gave the farmers a receipt.”

About a week ago, while helping my grandmother move to her new home, I found an old photo album that appears to have belonged to Frank Scott and that was filled with photos he appears to have received from visiting friends (rather than with photos he took himself).  In the second section of this album I found the following images:

I showed the album to my grandmother Harriet, and when she came to the page with these photos, she exclaimed, “That’s the pickle factory!”

To be continued in Part 2…

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