Commercial canning and the rise of the fruit industry in Northwest Arkansas began soon after the arrival of the Frisco Railroad in 1881. The Springdale Canning Company is believed to have been the first commercial cannery in the area. It was organized by Judge Millard Berry and other investors in 1886. At its peak it processed 10,000 cans daily.
At first workers made the cans themselves. Produce was stuffed through a two-inch-wide hole in a can's lid, which was then patched with a piece of metal and sealed with solder. The cans were boiled to cook the food and kill harmful bacteria. Tomatoes, peaches, and apples were the first to be commercially canned, as their natural acidity helped prevent the growth of the botulinum bacteria, which causes food poisoning. Still, there was a high rate of spoilage in the early years of canning.
Advances in technology and food science made possible the canning of non-acidic vegetables like spinach and green beans. In the following decades numerous canneries were established, promoted in part by the railroads, which profited from freight fees charged for shipping canning supplies and finished products. From small canning sheds on the family farm to large industrial plants, canning proved to be a money-making business. To maximize their profits, a few canneries used poor-quality produce or filled their cans mostly with water.
Some canneries provided farmers with seed and fertilizer, the cost of which would be deducted from the payment for their produce. Poke greens and spinach were the first to be packed in the spring, followed by green beans and tomatoes during the summer and turnip greens in the fall. It took fourteen tons (28,000 pounds) of spinach to fill the cans needed to pack one railroad boxcar. By April 1937 the Nelson Canning Company of Springdale had already shipped thirty boxcars of spinach and was expecting four hundred more tons of fresh spinach in May.
Nelson's was one of the largest operations. In addition to its steam engines and boilers, it had "11 retorts [pressure cookers], three rotary washers, a tomato juice extractor, two pick-up belts, two steam scalders, two grape juice pressures, four cappers, four closing machines, 16 pumps, a steam hoist, and a supply of copper kettles for the pasteurizing of grape juice."
At the canning plant, women prepared the fruits and vegetables for processing and filled the cans. Men worked the heavier, more labor-intensive jobs such as operating the machinery and cooking the canned foods. Even though underage workers were illegal, children often lent a hand, adding cored and peeled tomatoes to their mothers' buckets. The more buckets processed, the more money received. Even at a few cents per bucket, any extra income was helpful.
Small canneries canned under their own brand or under a national label such as Del Monte, or sold their product to brokers for resale to food distributors. Increasing mechanization of the canning process helped canneries become more competitive. Additional railroad lines and newly built highways meant that produce grown outside the area could be brought in for processing, and canned goods could be shipped nationwide. By the 1940s Springdale was the center of the area's agricultural and canning industries.
Northwest Arkansas' food production output ramped up during World War II. In 1943-1944, 70% of the canned goods produced by the Springdale Canning Company and the Steele Canning Company of Lowell, both co-owned by Joe M. Steele, went to feed the troops. Springdale's green beans and spinach were found in such faraway places as Alaska, Tunisia, and New Guinea, and even under the ocean in submarines!
Stricter food safety guidelines, rising production and labor costs, and economic hardships such as drought, the Great Depression, and World War II eventually forced many small canneries out of business. But the large canneries found ways to prosper and diversify. New products like frozen cobblers, shoestring potatoes, and other types of convenience foods were introduced to meet changing consumer needs.
As the food-processing business continued to evolve, large companies bought out mid-size canneries, which were struggling to keep up with increased costs and evolving food trends. Allens, Inc., of Siloam Springs became the only canner in Northwest Arkansas. During the 1970s it purchased several food processing plants in neighboring states, leading it to become, at the time, the largest independent food processor in the nation. It added dozens of new products to its lineup to maintain diversity and used state-of-the-art equipment to detect blemished produce and run its many plants efficiently. In 2013 financial difficulties forced Allens to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The company was sold and renamed Sager Creek Vegetable Company; it was bought by Del Monte Foods, Inc. in 2015.
Today, modern industrial plants like Sager Creek are a far cry from the days when neighbors gathered together every summer in a small canning shed to peel scalding-hot tomatoes and lower heavy baskets of canned goods into cauldrons of boiling water.