The women behind the sardine factories of Southwest Harbor


SOUTHWEST HARBOR — If you buy sardines now, look on the can and you’ll see they’re packed in places like Poland, France and Vietnam.

But Nancy Corliss and other women of her generation remember packing them by hand at Stinson’s Factory on the dock in Southwest Harbor.

Tremont and Southwest Harbor both had sardine canning factories, as did most towns on the coast.

The sardine factory on Freeman wharf in Southwest Harbor employed many locals until its closing in 1980s. Women who packed sardines in the factory said the pay was good, but conditions were smelly. IMAGE COURTESY OF SOUTHWEST HARBOR PUBLIC LIBRARY DIGITAL ARCHIVE

“It was guaranteed employment,” Corliss said, “You didn’t need an interview.

“And it was really good money back then. If you were a fast packer, you could get more than the [standard] hourly wage. A lot of people would earn money for school clothes in the fall.”

By the 1960s the working age was 15, though earlier pictures of the factory show younger children on the workforce.

According to the Maine Historical Society, it was common for children to work in factories until a constitutional amendment in 1924 banned child labor.

Alice Pettegrow, who also worked in the factory one summer, said it was the only job she could get at 15. What she remembers most was the smell.

“It wasn’t bad once you were inside,” Pettegrow said. “But I gagged all the way to work and all the way home,” hoping she did not run into anyone she knew, she remembered.

Pettegrow said she enjoyed listening to the older women at work, who were kind to her and taught her the tricks of the trade.

It was common for women to tape their fingers to avoid injury, as they swiftly sliced the heads off sardines with sharp scissors and packed them into cans.

Sardines are in the herring family. When the fish were schooling, fishing crews would go out and haul in.

When boats were out fishing, the factory whistle would blow to let people in town know to get ready to work, Corliss said.

Employees who didn’t live in town would ride a company bus to the factory. Corliss remembered her grandparents riding a bus from Somesville.

It was the men’s job to unload the sardines from the boat to the factory conveyor belts. It was the women’s job to process the fish.

“Sardines would come down the conveyor belt even with the table. You’d get them for packing. It was a continuous process,” described Corliss.

Depending on the size of the fish coming through the conveyor belt, sometimes they cut off only the heads in one smooth motion. Sometimes it was heads and tails.

This undated picture shows the staff at the sardine factory in Southwest Harbor. The factory first opened in 1885, according to archives in the Southwest Harbor Public Library. Businesses at that time could legally employ children (pictured), until a 1924 constitutional amendment banned child labor. IMAGE COURTESY OF SOUTHWEST HARBOR PUBLIC LIBRARY DIGITAL ARCHIVE

Once the fish were packed, a preservative was added. This was usually mustard sauce, Corliss said, which also added to the flavor.

Cans were then sealed in a heated machine. “My grandmother Gladys was a sealer,” said Corliss. “She was promoted,” after years of packing.

Lunch break, Corliss remembered, “was on the tar paper roof with the seagulls.”

Both Corliss and Pettegrow remember the packing contests. “It was a regional thing, usually in Rockland,” Corliss said. “There were a couple of ladies from the factory who did it.

“They showed videos of it on the news. These fingers were just flying; it was amazing.”

Even the women who didn’t compete on TV found themselves with an audience sometimes.

“They used to have guided tours,” Corliss remembered. “The tourists would want to come through … They would go around and watch. I remember them asking if we did this year-round.”

While tourists watched and asked questions, Corliss remembered answering politely while thinking to herself, “Oh my gosh, this could be my life. I’ve got to go to college.” And she did.

Becky Pritchard
Former Islander reporter Becky Pritchard covered the town of Bar Harbor and was a park ranger in Acadia for six seasons.
Becky Pritchard

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