A quick history of canning in Dorchester

Most people know a bit about the agricultural and seafood heritage in Dorchester County which includes canning and packing houses. Many folks don’t know, however, about the beginnings of these labor houses.

Originally started as a means to extend the selling life of oysters and fruits, canning was adapted to tomatoes, peas, corn and sweet potatoes very soon after. In terms of productivity, Dorchester County packed far more cases of tomatoes than any other county on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia and in the state of Delaware in the early 1900s. To be more specific, in record breaking 1913, Dorchester packed almost 1,100,000 cases of tomatoes versus the runner up Caroline County with almost 750,000 cases.

The earliest of record, the James Wallace and Son packing house, began in 1870 with oysters and fruit. Many others followed suit with canneries for fruits and vegetables. With the oyster industry beginning to take off, John Morgan (Captain Johnnie) Clayton began the J. M. Clayton Company in 1890. His company was positioned to do well with a plant in Hoopersville, shucking and packing oysters.

Within several years J. M. Clayton began a crab picking operation which would revolutionize the way people buy, prepare and eat crabs. In the early 1920s Captain Johnnie moved the business to Cambridge where it has been operating ever since.

Presently, there are no fruit and vegetable canneries in Dorchester County and only a handful of seafood packers. For those who wish to experience the seafood heritage you can still visit these plants, get tours and see the shuckers and pickers in action. Much of the work has not changed and the sights and smells can transport you to an earlier time. As mementoes, crabmeat and oyster cans with distinctive graphics can serve.

For those interested in local agricultural canning and the community that was part of that, one can only see the remnants of those lost days. Tokens of pay, cans and labels, picking tickets, baskets, boxes, crates and more pay homage to the work of thousands of workers and farmers over the years.

To that end, J. M. Clayton Company will be sponsoring the first Seafood and Canning Show and Sale on Sunday, February 18 at the East New Market Volunteer Fire Department, 4020 E. New Market Bypass, East New Market, MD 21631. The doors open at 10am and items will be on display and for sale until 4pm. Vendors from up and down the Eastern Shore of Maryland will be set up.

This is a production of the Dorchester County Historical Society which is a nonprofit organization located in Cambridge, Maryland. Admission to the event is free, although donations are appreciated. For more information about this event, please call 410-228-7953 or email dchs@verizon.net.

Story courtesy of the Dorchester County Historical Society.

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