Herald JournalWinsted-Lester Prairie Journal, May 6, 2002

Sweet corn season in the 1940s

By Joe Kieser

Aug. 1 was the beginning of the sweet corn season.

The "darkies" began arriving on the streets of Winsted. They each carried their belongings in a sack over their shoulder. Working and walking their way north through the United States was a tedious task.

Home for the next two months consisted on the small white shacks that lined the north side of the Green Giant Factory. Men, women, and children all crowded into their minimal facilities.

Seventeen and 18 year old German prisoners of war picked corn for Green Giant in 1944. Our dad could speak fluent German, so they really appreciated his conversation.

See photos (PDF)

Two armed guards went along as they picked. They were very hungry, so our dad fed them all the apples and corn they could eat. Their home was in the Green Giant building.

At daybreak, Dad drove his first of three teams of horses to town. The wagon was exchanged for the special steel-wheeled corn wagon. The crew of nine pickers, along with the women and children, were all loaded on to the wagon. Uncle Leonard (the crew chief) always went along for the ride.

Each side of the wagon consisted of four people. They each took two rows of corn to pick. Picking three ears with each hand, they would then throw the six ears onto the wagon. Their heads would never look up as they picked along.

The leader picked the two rows in front of the horses and threw the corn backwards. He was also the song leader. The crew sang constantly, answering the leader in four-part harmony. You could not understand the words, but their melodious voices were spectacular.

Their picking ability was also great, but their eye sight was very bad. How could they possible mistake an 80 pound young boy for an ear of corn?

One of the men turned me into a red-headed projectile, and I landed in the middle of the load of corn. Is it possible that my constant curiosity got in their way just once too often?

The women and children gathered wood for their breaks and noon meal. A fire was started in the field where they were to stop. The unhusked ears of corn were laid on a bed of coals until the husks turned black. A few gooseberries and all the corn you could eat made a mighty fine meal.

The field now had only some bent-over stalks, and was dotted with piles of ashes. The wagon was filled to capacity for the one hour trip to town. Along the way we picked up people that were walking to work at the factory.

The steam whistle was the means of communication. Four long blasts meant that the factory would be open in one hour. Chuck, Spitz, Allie, and Bud were giving out the work assignments. The huskers, rehuskers, Big Belt, and fillers all needed a lot of workers.

The cookers were located under a large hole in the floor. Large iron baskets of the newly canned corn were lowered into the vat below. One slip and your weekly bath would have been complete.

The ever-present Bull Gang kept the machinery running and the floors clean. The cases of corn were loaded on rail cars or stored in the warehouse for later shipment.

The first killing frost brought an end to the canning season, and with the end of the season, the Puerto Rican families seemed sad as they slowly walked south from Winsted.

Please regard these as stories only. They have been passed down through several generations. Do not attempt to sort out fact from fiction!

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