Until the early 1900s, most local farmers shipped their produce to Tacoma or Seattle for processing. Increased crop production led the Thurston County Fruit Growers Association to support construction of a cannery in Olympia. By 1912, George Pelton & W P McCaffery opened the Olympia Canning Company at this site. Over the years, the cannery employed hundreds of women to do the sorting, culling and processing, providing much needed income for local families.
The cannery was a multi-purpose operation, canning different items as seasons changed. In the summer months it processed fruits and vegetables, including string beans, apples, pears, strawberries, prunes, loganberries, squash and even huckleberries. In winter, production shifted to seafood, mainly clams and oysters. Olympia Canning Co also reduced waste wherever possible. A cider mill added in 1913 processed apple cores and peelings formerly discarded as waste. An oversupply of cabbage led to the addition of sauerkraut canning.
World Wars I and II and expanding markets in the Midwest, Chicago and Alaska increased demand for canned goods and boosted employment and wages for women. After World War II the Olympia Canning Co was among the recipients of lucrative federal government contracts to supply food aid to Europe. However, as transportation improved, many food processors consolidated their operations in larger cities. By 1959, the aging Olympia Canning Co. closed.
Shortly after, Bill Jones and Rich Gillingham opened SeaMart Shopping Center in the old cannery building, a sister store to their Centralia Yard Birds army surplus business. A precursor to the modern superstore, SeaMart sold everything from hardware and sporting goods to clothing, shoes and toys. Many Olympians recall spending rainy afternoons browsing at SeaMart while water dripped through the aging roof into the aisles. By the late 1980s, competition from shopping malls and the building’s slow deterioration led to its closure.
Stevenson Women’s History Map: http://www.washingtonwomenshistory.org/themes/tours/olympia.aspx accessed 12 March 2012.
“Olympia to Have Cannery” Olympia Record, 15 August 1911.
“Great Big Cannery is Secured for Olympia Tidelands” Olympia Record, 15 January 1912.
“Cannery Closes Highly Successful Season” Olympia Record, 1 January 1914.
“Cannery Doubles Capacity” Morning Olympian, 13 April 1917.
Mary Zindt, “Memories of Olympia in the 1920s and 1930s” at http://www.olympiahistory.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=293, accessed 12 March 2012.
Riddle, “Port of Olympia is formed by public vote on November 7, 1922.” at http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=9612 accessed 29 February 2012.
“Yard Birds Timeline” at http://www.yardbirdshistory.com/history/timeline accessed 5 May 2012.
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