The story of the Jamestown Canning Factory

By Joan Baxter

When the earliest settlers arrived in Greene County the blacksmith was one of the first tradesmen to arrive the next most important person to settle in a community was the miller.

There were many mills in the county located near streams from which power was drawn to run the water wheel which in turn powered the equipment inside the mill. The miller always knew how much water to capture in order to allow the wheel to turn as it provided power.

One such mill, constructed between 1835 and 1840 was located on South Limestone Street in Jamestown. At first, it was used as a sawmill and a distillery; and later it was a flouring mill grinding wheat and some corn.

After the mill was no longer in use, C. F. and C. T. Vandervort purchased the structure with the intention of using is as different kind of factory.

August 20, 1925 was the date set for the opening of the new factory which would be used for canning corn. The new owners anticipated that they would be employing about twenty-five women and fifty men when it opened, in later years it was not unusual for one hundred individuals to be working at the canning factory, especially during the canning season.

The land in the eastern part of the county is quite rich and suitable for farming. The farmers in the Jamestown area prided themselves on the quality and quantity of the sweet corn they were able to provide so that only the best sweet corn was canned in the factory.

After nearly forty years in the business an announcement appeared in the newspaper that the Jamestown Canning Factory was closing its doors for good.

Ted Vandervort Sr. was the owner at the time the plant closed. He sold the building to the Green Belt Chemical Company of St. Paris.

When Mr. Vandervort was asked about the local farmers who had for so many years provided quality corn for the factory, he suggested that some of them might consider taking their corn to the Roxanna plant. The Roxanna plant was the last of the small canning factories still in operation in the state at the time. However, it was possible that the Roxanna plant owner, Owen Harding, might not have been able to use all the sweet corn which was grown at that time, since he depended largely on the farmers near his establishment for supplies. The Roxanna plant was closed many years ago.

In time, the farmers who had provided the sweet corn began to plant only what their families could use along with some which was sold at roadside stands. Soon other crops were growing in the fields which had previously contained only sweet corn.

During the latter part of World War II, a rather unusual experiment took place at the Jamestown Canning Factory. Not all the workers were local residents; some were German prisoners of war.

Some of the German soldiers who were then prisoners were detained at Camp Perry near Lake Erie. Eventually about two hundred fifty men were sent to Wilmington, Ohio for confinement.

In a unique arrangement the Federal government stated that it would be willing to have the prisoners work in factories or on farms provided the employer would pay the government fifty cents per hour for each worker. The prisoners then received credit at the camp’s POW Canteen in return for their work. Many of these men were young and eager to have something useful to do. Transportation was required for the prisoners so the Jamestown Presbyterian Church provided a bus and driver. There were about fifteen young men who took the opportunity to work at the factory.

As expected, at first the arrangement was not acceptable to the paid workers. Mr. Vandervort spoke with the employees, asking them to be tolerant and reminding them that the POW’’s were merely soldiers who had obeyed orders. After a trial period the regular employees agreed to the arrangement and the work went on well.

After he returned to Germany, one of the prisoners wrote a letter to Mr. Vandervort. In part the letter states that he (the prisoner) had been detained much longer than expected. He thought he would be set free earlier but was sent to France to work for a year before returning to his native country.

He says “I did not like it in France as well as I did in the United States. We did not have the good eats and drinks and especially we missed the smokes.”

He continues “I thank God that finally after three years of separation I arrived home again. Many times I have a craving for the good products you are making and all the other good things we received from you. Today I still thank you for all this from the bottom of my heart.”

He wrote that his parent’s house was badly damaged, but they had three small rooms in which to live. He was glad to be home, but the future was not bright due to a shortage of food and many other things.

An unusual alliance was achieved in Greene County between the owner, employees and German prisoners of war who worked together for a time in peace and harmony.

By Joan Baxter

Joan Baxter is a local resident and weekly historical columnist.

Joan Baxter is a local resident and weekly historical columnist.