By Linda Scherer
WINSTED, MN Although there were never any sightings of something tall, green and jolly in Winsted’s corn fields, Green Giant had a major presence in this area for almost 60 years.
From the beginning of May planting until October harvest, many family schedules revolved around the Winsted cannery’s morning and evening 12-hour shifts. But that all ended in 1985, when the Winsted cannery closed its doors for good.
The canning factory was originally built in Winsted by the Gopher State Canneries in about 1927. It later became part of the Minnesota Valley Canning Company, which was founded in LeSueur in 1903.
It was one of several canneries belonging to the Minnesota Valley Canning Company, which was one of the country’s largest producers of sweet corn in the 1930s.
The Jolly Green Giant first appeared on the scene in 1925 as part of a Minnesota Valley canning advertisement for large green peas, and in 1950, the company adopted the Green Giant name.
“Winsted’s plant was economical and made money, and the employees were the best,” Mark Wiederholt of Winsted said.
Wiederholt began working at Green Giant in Blue Earth in 1965, and was transferred to Winsted’s plant in 1973. During the canning season he was a night foreman and for the rest of the year he would overhaul the equipment preparing it for the following season.
“They didn’t pay top wages, but there was a lot of overtime,” Wiederholt said. “The regulars didn’t get days off during the season, and 90 hours a week was nothing.”
When everything worked, the Winsted plant could handle about 45 tons (of corn) an hour, “but that was the top,” Wiederholt said. “A lot of times, it wasn’t that much.”
The plant had only one cooker, which handled 12,000 cans of corn an hour. “If the cooker went down, the plant went down,” Wiederholt said.
The two shifts, each with approximately 100 people working, never knew until about two hours before their shift if there would be enough corn to open the plant.
Mary (Hertzog) Purcell of Winsted worked the second shift, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., for a number of years in the 1970s.
“You would have to listen to KDUZ Radio in Hutchinson around 4 p.m. to find out if you were going to work that night,” Purcell said.
“If the plant was open, you would have to figure you were working a 12-hour shift, but you never knew for sure. The equipment could break down and you might go home at 10 p.m., or maybe midnight, or 2 a.m.”
When she did work, Purcell arrived at Green Giant wearing her uniform provided by the company a yellow hard hat, a vinyl-type apron which covered her from the neck down, past her knees; ear plugs, and gloves filled with what she believed to be corn starch.
Purcell’s job was working at the cutters. Before the corn ever reached her, it went through the plant on conveyors first to the automatic huskers, which removed the husks from the corn one cob at a time. The corn next went through a washer, followed by an inspection before it arrived at the cutters.
“There was a big belt and it had people working across from each other,” Purcell said.
No one wanted to sit at the beginning of the belt and get the first bunch of corn that came through the conveyor because it was messy and had a lot of water in it, according to Purcell.
“You would just get bombarded because it would just dump on you,” Purcell said. “And no one wanted the end of the belt because you had to reach so far to get the corn that you usually wouldn’t make your bonus,” Purcell said.
There was a bonus for the women who were able to run an above-average amount of corn through the cutters. That caused some frustration when a large cob of corn would jam a machine, causing a woman to lose her count, or bonus.
“I remember thinking it was great getting bonus money because it did make a difference on your paycheck. They would actually show what your bonus money was on your check,” Purcell said.
There were 24 manual cutters, and the women would feed one cob at a time by hand, Wiederholt said.
“A really good operator, but it takes a really good operator, could run between 6,000 to 10,000 ears an hour,” Wiederholt added. “There were not that many that could do that.”
As the evening progressed, Purcell said the powder inside her gloves would start to cake and the women would be checking on break to see if there was still corn to be brought in or if they might go home early.
“A lot of times, we were glad when we could go home early,” Purcell said.
Farmers in the area took advantage of the silage that exited the plant on a chute through three 4-foot sections. As the silage pile grew higher, a section of the chute was removed to accomodate the pile’s height.
For 50 years, Wallace Strandquist and his brother, Willard, both of Oster, took care of the silage pile and rented their farm equipment to other drivers, who would spread the silage with a spreader. Wallace also worked at the Watertown, Cokato, and Glencoe canneries over the years.
At the Winsted Green Giant, besides taking care of the silage pile, Strandquist was night supervisor, taking care of the corn as it came in, assigning the corn a priority based on its grade.
“On a good day, we would put 25 tons of silage an hour out there,” Harold Latzig of Lester Prairie said.
Latzig estimated the pile to be about the size of a football field and 15 to 20 feet high.
Latzig began working at Green Giant as a seasonal worker in 1961, and then became a full-time mechanic July 1, 1966, working the night shift during the season.
His job was to fix whatever was broken, and he also did the plant log every day before he went home.
“Every cob that went through was counted, and what time each department would shut down for the evening was recorded,” Latzig said.
Chuck Corr, Green Giant plant manager, always wanted Latzig there in the morning to go over everything before he would go home, which meant Latzig’s days during the canning season were 13 and 14 hours long.
One of the jobs Latzig had was to maintain the cooker. One season, when the daytime mechanic was gone for two weeks, Latzig pulled a double shift, sleeping at the plant whenever he was able to.
The cooker was described by Wiederholt as 7 feet in diameter, and 50 feet long, with three sections to it preheat, cooking, and a cooler.
The cans needed to be preheated, so the intense heat required to can the corn didn’t cause the cans to explode. Finally, the cans had to be cooled down to about 114 degrees so they didn’t rust.
Latzig remained at Winsted’s cannery until it closed in 1985. At that time, he was still farming in New Germany and was offered a retirement package that was too good to refuse, Latzig said.
“All the years that I worked there and all of the seasons, everyone would come back, just like it was one big happy family,” Latzig said.
“They would all go back to their same huskers and same cutters and the same girls on the fillers, the same gals on inspection. You didn’t have to train anybody. Everybody would do their same job.”
“Once in a while somebody would pass away and some of the gals got older and would have a harder time getting where they had to go.”
In 1979, Green Giant merged with Pillsbury.
In 1994, Pillsbury/Green Giant sold six canneries to Seneca Foods, including the original cannery in LeSueur.
There are four canneries in this area that have closed besides Winsted’s Watertown, Winthrop, Cokato, and LeSueur.
Canneries that are still operating are Arlington, Blue Earth, Glencoe, and Montgomery.
Why did Winsted’s cannery close?
Lack of diversification and modernization were the two reasons Wiederholt gave for the Winsted cannery closing.
Winsted’s cannery could only handle one product, corn while canneries like Glencoe’s Green Giant could also freeze peas, beans, and corn.
Winsted and Glencoe Green Giant plants worked together for many years before Winsted closed, sharing the sweet corn taken from both the Winsted and Glencoe farmers’ fields.
After the corn had been picked, a field department would be called, and it would tell the trucks which cannery the corn should be shipped to.
Winsted did have a good cleaning system, according to Wiederholt.
To keep Winsted’s plant active the two canneries tried to have Winsted wash the corn, and even peas, then transport the product to Glencoe to be frozen.
“We even tried transferring corn on the cob to freeze as another means of using the product,” Wiederholt said.
“It was a real headache handling and transferring product,” Wiederholt said.
If Winsted canned the corn, it went to the warehouse where it was palletized. Palletized cans were then loaded on a truck and sent to the Glencoe warehouse for storage.
Some of the canned corn would remain in Winsted’s warehouse for a year before it was labeled and sent out.
Another problem for Winsted’s Green Giant was its building which had not been maintained and it had never been insulated so it was difficult to heat.
Glencoe had been modernizing its plant and could handle 200 tons of corn an hour compared to Winsted’s 45 tons an hour.
In the end, Glencoe’s plant remained open and Winted’s closed.
“I know it really hit the people of Winsted hard when it closed,” Wiederholt said. “They really looked forward to working there.”
Wiederholt recently retired from Glencoe’s Green Giant where he had been transferred in 1985. He spent a total of 45 years in the cannning business.
“When Winsted’s plant closed, Green Giant sent buses to Winsted hoping the people that had worked in Winsted’s cannery would help out in Glencoe,” Wiederholt said. “But the people didn’t like the big plant environment and they (Glencoe) didn’t get the people they wanted.”
Winsted’s Green Giant building was removed with a controlled burn in October 1986.