Cannery Life, Del Monte in the Santa Clara Valley

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Mission brand yellow cling peaches label

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In Their Own Words

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Learn about Del Monte Plant #3 from the people who worked there.  See videos of former Del Monte employees sharing their memories.

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Production

Peach Belt, c. 1980The fundamental process of canning fruit changed little from its inception in the 1870s to the closing of Del Monte Plant #3 in 1999.  The means of production, however, did change dramatically during the 20th century.  The assembly line was introduced in the 1910s and mechanization eventually replaced handwork in almost every area.

Fresh fruit and vegetables for canning were delivered to the cannery via rail or truck.  Pears were stored in the pear shed to continuing ripening for 5 – 10 days.  Other fruits, such as apricots, peaches and tomatoes, and most vegetables had to be canned almost immediately.  During the harvest season, the canning lines operated virtually 24-hours per day.

Woman filling jars with peach halves, 1949.Most fruit was put through a steam bath to remove the skin.  In the early days, skinned fruit was pitted and cut by hand as it moved along a conveyor belt and bad fruit was sorted out by hand.  By 1999, most of these tasks were automated, with the exception of some of the quality control, which was still done by hand.  Once pitted and cut, the fruit was put into cans or jars, then juice or sugared water was added, and the can was sealed.  The filling of cans was done by hand for many years before those steps were mechanized.  Cans were weighed individually and checked by a quality control worker to confirm the correct weight.  The cans then traveled into the cook room, where they were cooked to preserve the fruit and secure against contamination. 

Most vegetables were peeled and sliced, then cooked using steam heat.  The cooked vegetables were then packed into cans and the cans were sealed.  Unlike fruit, vegetables were often hot when they came to the filling stations.  Many workers reported the discomfort and danger of packing hot vegetables, especially spinach.

Richard Gutierrez in the warehouse, c. 1980.Filled cans then proceeded to be labeled and stacked in the warehouse.  During the peak of harvests, the cans would be stacked without labels, so that label operators could move to the canning lines.  Unmarked cans could easily be labeled in the “down time” between harvests or in the winter. 

The entire output of the cannery for the season was called the pack.  For example, canneries reported the size of the pack for individual products, like peaches or pears.  They also reported their total pack of all products for the year.  In quantifying the Santa Clara Valley’s dominance in fruit and vegetable canning, business leaders referred to the Valley’s percentage of the state or national pack.

You know it was, you had to use every ounce of your body, muscle and you’re just processing and knowing that. I got so proud because the fruit that I was doing, the work that I was doing I thought, gee, “My name, my friends are going to get a can and that could be the can that I processed, or that I seamed.” Plant #3 worker, Angela Jones