Marshfield, December 1907: The canning industry comes to town
By Kris Leonhardt
In the closing weeks of 1907, Marshfield was aglow with the holiday season and the hope that the new year would bring. That year an all-time high of 1.29 million immigrants entered the United States.
Marshfield, hoping to attract some of those settlers, longed to add another industry to the already booming lumber business of the area. Looking at the vast surrounding farmland and its hardy caretakers, they began to seek out prospects in the food industry.
It was in the weeks surrounding the 1907 holiday season that city leaders set out to romance an already established
and quite successful pea canning company seeking a location for a “sister factory” with better means for shipping. The city believed it was a great location as it was quickly becoming a hub for Wisconsin railroad transportation.
As families celebrated Christmas, news came through media and local buzz that a Marshfield cannery was a near certainty in the upcoming year. The cannery would not only bring jobs and the promise of new residents to the city, but it would also create a means of income for local farmers as the canning company would rent local acreage and hire farmers to grow their product. Plans had already been made for a spring 1908 start.
As the new year began, the city waited with anticipation for the plans to come to fruition. However, as weeks and later months went by the hope turned to dismay. This year, like many years after, a cannery would not come. Pea seed shortages and a lack of water made it an unattainable venture for the city and any interested canning company as well.
It was not until the fall of 1924—after years of plans that would never materialize—that a cannery would finally begin to develop. Using 100,000 gallons of city water per day, the Marshfield division of the Oconomowoc Canning Company began operations in the city. The canning plant would become known as the Marshfield Canning Company.
The company would grow to employ 130 seasonal workers, and the Marshfield food industry would soon parallel the city’s lumber labor in numbers. All was well in the city. With a plentiful job market, the city continued to grow.
Then, World War II arrived. As both men and women left to aid in the war effort, seasonal jobs became increasingly more difficult to fill. Marshfield schools made adjustments to accommodate the young seasonal workers, but the need was too great to be satisfied locally.
The government then brought in German prisoners of war to assist the struggling company. Along with the free labor, the U.S. Army was called upon to supervise German prisoners. Loyal and Greenwood had similar encampments to Marshfield.
In the late 1930s, the plant would begin canning wax and green beans and would later discontinue canning peas altogether due to a more favorable soil and advancements in harvesting equipment for beans.
Following the war, the company still experienced difficulties in filling seasonal positions and would introduce a variety of cultures into the area through religious and government organizations, which included workers brought in from Barbados and Mexico.
In addition to the Marshfield plant, the Oconomowoc Company held pea/bean plants in the neighboring cities of Stratford and Medford.
The Marshfield company was sold in the early 1980s, and the name was changed to Marshfield Foods. The plant closed in 1995, and the buildings near Wildwood Park were later demolished.
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