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County cannery keeps churning out jars of homecooked foods for local groups, churches

Bob Mills was dedicated to canning when Washington County offered its canning college. (H&T File photo)

Surrounded by the sound of hissing steam pipes, the clang of glass canning jars and a heavenly aroma, 10 members of the Fairhaven United Methodist Church form an assembly line to craft a savory vegetable soup that will bring smiles next winter and raise money for various church projects.

As two men stir a vat of soup more than two feet deep, another church member sterilizes canning jars by loading them into a tray and then lowering a bell-shaped device over them. With a turn of a valve, he douses them with a steam bath. The clean containers then go to a table where women on two sides fill and cap the hot jars.

I grew up, with my mother and my grandmother canning. After I quit work, I just wanted to continue that,” Fairhaven member Norma Johnson said. “We just try to carry on the tradition of our ancestors.

And if Bob Mills has anything to say about it, the time-honored practice of canning soup and apple butter and green beans will continue, providing warm flavors of summer on frigid winter nights.

A short, firecracker of a man with a thick handlebar mustache, which he has a tendency to twiddle, Mills has run the Washington County Cannery for 13 years.

“It’s not a big process. It’s more time than work,” Mills said.

But it’s obvious that Mills enjoys his job. He passes the time in the canning room, hot from the steam pipes and pressure cookers, bantering and sweating with the families and organizations who bring produce to the cannery for preservation each summer.

“People . . . it’s the use that keeps it going,” he notes.

The cannery is in the former Telford School building. The school, built in 1939, closed in the 1970s, and the cannery came into being in the 1980s.

It was a program set up by the government to aid people who didn’t have the facilities or the money to do canning jobs, Mills said. The people can bring their products here and the county provides the service.
“There is a fee, but it’s nominal,” he added. “Five dollars for a bushel of beans. That’s not a lot of money. That does not pay for the equipment because it is a service and, me, I think it is a very good service. . . because of what I’ve seen.”

It’s more or less a community affair, Mill said.

The cannery packages, about anything you can put in a jar, according to Mills. Residents have canned everything from sausage to zucchini.

“Beans, for instance. They’ll break their beans before they come here. They bring ‘em in here. They’re washed. They’re blanched, then packed in jars with boiling water in ‘em, then put through a pressure cooker,” Mills explained.

The whole process takes roughly 30 minutes, usually making 19 jars a bushel.

On a recent Thursday, the Fairhaven members worked about three hours to can 154 quarts and 24 pints of vegetable soup, which the church will sell at their annual Fall Festival to raise money for mission work and other charity work.

“It’s a hot job, but we’ve got the system so it works. It doesn’t take that long when you’ve got people.”

Mills said that the convenience of grocery stores prevents young people from becoming very involved in canning and this may cause a decline in use for years to come. However, he’s not concerned.

“You don’t know what you got in those (grocery) cans,” asserted Mills. “There’s no comparison.

For Alan Wilson, another Fairhaven member, the canning experience was an exercise in community building.

“It’s always good to work with your family members and church members. I had a good time doing it,” he said.

That happy feeling is a pleasant byproduct of the steam and the blanching and the pressure cooking, Mills said — Delicious apple butter is another.

“We’ve got the best apple butter you’ve ever seen. It’s creamy. It’s smooth. It’s sweet. It’s good, and there’s a lot of care that goes into it,” Mills said.

David Taylor is a journalism student at MTSU. He was one of eight students who recently spent a week in Jonesborough writing stories for the Herald & Tribune.