Stinson Seafood | The Last Sardine Cannery in the US

When Stinson Seafood — the last sardine cannery in the US — shut its doors, few felt the loss more than Lela Anderson, who says “I could pack with the best of them.”

By Mel Allen

Jun 11 2010

Stinson Seafood | The Last Sardine Cannery in the US

“Big Jim,” symbol of Beach Cliff–brand sardines since the early 1960s, towers over Lela Anderson in this photo taken two weeks after Stinson Seafood shut its doors this past April.

Photo Credit : Starr, Markham
Stinson Seafood | The Last Sardine Cannery in the US
“Big Jim,” symbol of Beach Cliff–brand sardines since the early 1960s, towers over Lela Anderson in this photo taken two weeks after Stinson Seafood shut its doors this past April.
Photo Credit : Starr, Markham

Even the seagulls know that life in Prospect Harbor has changed. For years, when the herring arrived at the sardine cannery, the gulls would cry and hover, thick as clouds, and you’d look up and barely see the sky. Now, a few still circle when the lobster boats head out and return, but an unwelcome quiet has come to this little village just north of the Schoodic Peninsula.

The reporters and television crews, they’re gone, too. Newspapers far and near, and, of course, the blogosphere, all picked up the story: how in Maine, where sardine factories once thrived, only one remained, Stinson Seafood, in Prospect Harbor. And how on Thursday, April 15, the last oval can would come off the belt, and then an industry that had once sustained the Down East coastline would end. So many reporters requested interviews that Bumble Bee Foods, the plant’s owner since 2004, sent people in from California to handle the public-relations fallout, which is what happens when 128 people lose their jobs in a community without other jobs to go to.

Peter Colson, Stinson Seafood’s plant manager, said that all the attention beat anything he’d ever known. Bumble Bee had told him early in February, and he’d lived with the secret for days before calling his workers together, many of whom had worked for him for years. “It was killing me,” he says. “I couldn’t sleep, worrying about them.”

And so the world came to know Lela Anderson, 78, who became the symbol of the end of an era. She’d packed sardines since she was 17; had been at Stinson 54 years. “Men couldn’t do this work long,” Colson says. “It takes a woman with a strong back to pack fish.” He’s proud of Lela, who reaches five feet if she stands on tiptoe, and weighs 101 pounds. He calls her “the strongest lady you’ll ever meet.”

Her face revealed every day she’d packed fish: determined, stoic. It was as if the work ethic of sardine workers from Rockland and Belfast, Jonesport and Lubec, had come to rest right here in Lela Anderson. So day after day, she’d step back from her lunch break for a few moments and talk into cameras with an accent so soaked in coastal Maine it made its own poetry. And then there was no longer a need for Lela to talk about her life, because once the doors finally shut that Thursday, for the world beyond the peninsula the story was over …

“On Friday morning I kept looking at the clock,” Lela says. “I said, ‘I’ve got to get up. I’ve got to get ready for work.’ And then I remembered: ‘You fool, you ain’t got to get to work. You’re done work now.’ I bet I wasn’t the only one.”

We sit in her neat-as-a-pin two-bedroom house, set on a tidy lawn in Corea, three miles east of Stinson. She bought the house with her husband, Herman, a lobsterman, in 1963, and raised a daughter and a son, also a lobsterman. A weekend has come and gone. The afternoon light filters in through the window, at about the time she’d usually be coming through the door and getting supper ready.

“I’ve seen it all,” Lela says. “I remember my first day packing at Snow’s in Gouldsboro. That day I lost my first pair of scissors, and the first week I got paid I lost my check. Oh, I learned a great deal from that.”

She came of age when weirs jutted from bays and coves in every town, capturing the herring as they swarmed in by the tens of thousands to feed in the spring and summer–so many that the water glistened like a sheet of silver when the men rowed out at night with flashlights. In daylight, sardine carriers pulled alongside the weirs; the men pulled the nets tight around the haul, then suctioned the fish onto the boat, before heading to a nearby cannery. Some towns had three or four plants strung along the shore, turning out packed sardines by the millions. (Processed Atlantic herring leave the factories as “sardines.”)

“When the fish came to the factories,” Lela says, “the whistle blew, telling us it was time to go to work.” Factory buses came to the villages to pick up the workers and brought them home at the end of the day. When Lela got to work, she’d tape her fingers and thumb and pick up her scissors, sharp as razors, with the blades ground over and over by machinists at the shop, until they couldn’t be ground anymore, and then it was time for a new pair.

“I went through four pair a year,” she says. “That’s how I got this,” and she holds her hand out for me to see the thumb joint on her left hand, her cutting hand, pushed up and knobby, as if the bone were trying to escape the flesh.

“I cut left-handed, so I’d pick my fish up with this hand, the same hand my scissors were on,” Lela explains, “and then I’d flip him over onto my right hand and I’d cut his head off, and I’d flip him over and cut the tail. Sometimes they’d bring buses of schoolkids and they’d say, ‘Wow, come quick!’ They’d run down the aisle: ‘Come see this lady! She’s fast.’ Because I was the fastest one with scissors.”

Stinson Seafood | The Last Sardine Cannery in the US
Lela Anderson’s hands show the wear and tear of decades of cutting and packing.
Photo Credit : Starr, Markham

She packed sardines when Calvin Stinson Sr., who lived right there on the peninsula, owned 11 canneries up and down the coast. She was Prospect Harbor’s star packer when the fastest workers from all the plants converged on the annual Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland and faced off, with hundreds watching. Lela packed sardines when canned tuna became the new belle of the lunch ball, signaling a shift in American tastes. She was there when the cannery burned in 1968 and was rebuilt as a spanking-new and modern plant, with machines replacing the scissors, so that by the mid-1970s she could just put presliced herring sections into the cans.

“Well, I liked the scissors, but I liked that better,” Lela concedes. “I liked it all cut up, ’cause then you didn’t cut your hands.” But then her pride kicks in: “You had to be a lot more skilled then, a lot more,” she says. By the mid-1980s, frozen herring had come into the plant; Lela’s hands would turn cold, and whenever she could she’d hold them by the heat of her conveyor belt. “You’d just have to suffer it,” she says.

Change was happening at sea, too: from the use of “fixed-gear” weirs and stop seines to purse seining, which let fishermen go beyond the coves, to midwater trawling from big boats that moved in on the fishing grounds and scooped up the herring by the ton before they could reach the nets of the local fishermen. The schools that once contained millions of herring were declining. The traditional ways that had sustained the fishery since the time of the Native Americans were in decline, and by the early 1970s the herring were in trouble. New federal quotas revived the fishery, but an inexorable worry set in.

The number of canneries dwindled, even as the plants were having trouble finding younger workers. Where once more than 50 canneries had operated, by 1975 only 15 survived. The Stinson family sold its plants in 1990, and 10 years later the new owner sold them to Connors Bros., a firm based in Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick, that had been buying and closing Maine sardine factories since the 1980s. Connors promptly closed Stinson plants in Belfast, Lubec, and finally Bath, leaving only Prospect Harbor, which was then sending 120,000 sardine cans into the world each day.

In 2004 Bumble Bee Foods merged with Connors. For the first time, Lela’s work life was in the hands of a far-off corporation. Then in November 2009 a new, lower herring quota for the New England fishery was proposed: The total allowable catch would be cut nearly in half, to 91,000 metric tons. Soon after, Bumble Bee announced that the prospective drop in herring supply was forcing the company to close Stinson. In the small towns, this statement was met with skepticism. People noted that now the firm’s Blacks Harbour plant would have no North American competition. Whatever the reasons, it was over.

On April 15 Lela came to Stinson before 6:00, put on her apron, hat, earplugs, and blue rubber gloves. A few days before, Peter Colson had thrown a company barbecue and given every worker a surprise book of photos documenting what their work had meant. Now, one more time, the machinery hummed and rumbled, the fish slid down the belts, the cans whizzed by and were packed, covered in sauces or oil, and sterilized.

Shortly before noon, the machines slowed and stopped. Everyone gathered around the packing belt. The last 130 cans to be produced in Maine, in the United States, were taken off the belt and put aside for the employees. Colson told Lela that she would pack the last one. She picked three small fillets and arranged them perfectly.

“That was a bad day,” Lela says, shaking her head just a bit. “A sad day. The head guy from California came and talked to us about our severance pay. Then we cleaned our lockers out and lined up to get our papers signed. Peter stood up in front of the line, and we went out saying our goodbyes. You couldn’t help crying. You couldn’t help it. You knew you couldn’t be with your friends. Then we walked out.”

She was driven home, and she put her final can of sardines in a glass display case in her dining room. Then she walked to the wharf, where her son was tending his traps.

“I had an operation last year,” Lela says, “and Peter had me doing quality control–repacking all the cans that weren’t done right. ‘Whenever you’re ready,’ he told me, ‘your table is waiting for you.’ I was going back on the line this summer.”

She looks right at me. “It got harder as you got older,” she says. “But I could go with the best of them. I’m a packer. I will always be a packer.”

SLIDE SHOW: Final Days at the Last Sardine Cannery in the United States | Photos