Time stands still in an Auburn cornfield

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I can look from our living room window and see a fine field of corn, nearly ready for the harvesting vehicles to cut it and transport it to the neighbor’s farm, where it will feed dairy cattle in the winter. The view is pretty close to what I saw about 60 years ago from that same window — and much the same view that my great-grandparents had, more than 100 years ago.

Although my family is no longer engaged in day-to-day agriculture at Echo Farm on the Auburn banks of the Androscoggin River, there’s still ample testimony on that land to its importance in the farming community, both locally and throughout Maine.

Decades ago, early October would have marked the start of the short, but extremely high-energy corn-canning season. Auburn had a thriving “corn factory” on Lake Auburn Avenue, where the Auburn Townhouse now stands.

United Packers began operations there in the 1800s, when Lake Auburn Avenue was known as French Street. Many local residents worked there during the fall canning season. I remember the mid-1940s when my father and grandfather filled our truck with many ears of corn from stalks growing in that same field. The ride to the “corn factory” is still fresh in my mind. Trucks from area farms arrived continually and backed up to the conveyor belt. The corn was raked off onto the belt, which took it into the processing building.

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I was still a student at Washburn Elementary School, just across the street from the factory. I never got to see the inside operation, but I recently learned a lot more when I researched some old books and newspapers.

In 1946, a help-wanted ad in the Lewiston Evening Journal said “75 men and 75 women wanted at your local cannery to handle the 450 acres of sweet corn beginning about Sept. 5. Good wages — apply at factory.” It was a good opportunity for families to pick up some late-summer earnings.

According to “Auburn: 100 Years a City,” published in 1969 by the Auburn History Committee, the “last pack” took place in 1949. In the prior 50 years, millions of cans of sweet corn were shipped — and that was just one of many canning operations in Maine. In fact, across the nation, Maine’s canned corn had a reputation similar to that of Maine lobster, including winning medals in Paris competitions.

Descriptions of that business, and its longtime connection to the Burnham & Morrill Co. in Portland, are found year after year in pages of the Lewiston Journal. A story in a 1902 newspaper said, “All Friday afternoon of last week, little Canada and all her family sat out under the open sheds of the Auburn corn factory, piling up large green and yellow banks of corn husks around themselves. The tall chimney towering over the heads of the picturesque huskers spouted smoke (at the rate of 15 cents a half minute) into the heavens and the wheels within the factory sent out a lively hum to the street railway trolley.”

Other news stories explained some of the factory operations. On Sept. 25, 1915, a story said six husking machines had replaced hand-husking. They had a capacity of 60 to 70 ears a minute.

“A spiral carrier takes the corn along to the cooler, from which it is carried up to the sifter and cooker, from which it goes into the cans, where it is automatically sealed with a roll-lock seal,” the account said.

F.T. Davis, the factory superintendent at that time, told a reporter, “We have in, this afternoon, about 25 loads of corn, 50 bushels to the load.” In 1902, most of that would have come on horse-drawn wagons. Davis said the previous year’s total pack was 617,000 cans.

A year later in 1903, a Lewiston Journal story featured David P. Field, my great-grandfather. He gave a strong endorsement for corn in Maine.

“I am a believer in Maine and her future,” he declared. “We must raise our own grain instead of depending upon the West.”

The importance of corn has increased dramatically from my great-grandfather’s time. I wonder what he would think of today’s corn crops and an altogether different use for ethanol to fuel our vehicles.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by email at davidsargent607@gmail.com.

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