Sleepy Eye Del Monte plant has distinguished history
Warren Cook of Sleepy Eye still remembers working cleanup with his twin brother Warren at the Del Monte plant during the summer of his high school and college years.
“That was 50 years ago last summer. I was thankful (human resources employee) Gerald “Boomer” Plahn gave me the chance to work,” Warren said.
He described what it was like to work cleanup.
“With our yellow, rubber suits on to withstand steam heat from pressurized hoses, people sprayed and washed peas and corn tanks,” Warren said. “I also pushed cans on canning lines onto heavy, metal carts. If you went too fast or took too many, the cans probably wound up on the floor.”
Cook said the last couple summers he worked at Del Monte he checked the weight of cans every hour and drove a fork truck in a cooking room where his mother (Marie) worked.
“She worked there a long time to get six kids through college,” Warren said.
Sleepy Eye resident Al Stimpert tested peas for moisture levels, tested corn and peas samples sorted cans and did plant clean up work at Del Monte for four summers in the late 1950s.
“Sometimes things got really busy. The factory sometimes operated 24 hours straight when lots of corn came in,” Stimpert said.
Plahn said more seasonal workers where needed in the plant to process corn and peas when he worked there decades ago.
“We had 650 seasonal workers because there was much more manual work,” Plahn said. “Housewives would drop everything and work at the plant when students went back to school in the late summer.”
In Del Monte’s early days in Sleepy Eye, field work was done by horse-drawn machinery. Pea vines were loaded by pitchfork. Sweet corn was picked by hand and hauled to the plant by horses most of the time.
During World War II, a labor shortage made it necessary to hire local businessmen and foreign laborers including German Prisoners of War (POWs).
Del Monte’s Sleepy Eye plant received the Achievement A Award, the highest federal government honor, from the War Food Administration as a reward for its excellence and cooperation in the war effort.
The award for the Sleepy Eye Del Monte plant was one of the first received by a Minnesota food processing plant and among the first to be announced in the nation.
After WWII, mechanization rapidly improved farm and plant operation. The plant was credited with producing millions of cases of canned peas and sweet corn each year.
In recent years, a number of large improvement projects were completed at the plant. A wastewater project was completed in 1994-95. Larger water mains and other utility improvements done in 2005 in partnership with the City of Sleepy Eye.
Retired production superintendent Mike Mason of Sleepy Eye worked for Del Monte for 30 years, most of it in Sleepy Eye. Prior to that, he worked in southern Illinois, New Jersey and Indiana.
Mason said Minnesota’s shorter growing season didn’t prevent the Sleepy Eye plant from producing great amounts of peas and corn.
“The people I worked with in Sleepy Eye were great,” Mason said.
After retiring from Del Monte in 1995, Mason’s home-based stained glass hobby grew into a large Main Street business in Sleepy Eye. He now teaches people to produce stained glass and creates or restores stained glass windows throughout the upper midwest.
The original plant on a 20-acre site, included a 400 by 65 foot, solid brick, two and one-half story warehouse build in 1929 had wooden floors. A three-story, 88 by 50 foot pea building was advertised as “absolutely fireproof” with brick, steel and concrete construction.
A one-story, cooking and cooling building measured 88 by 120 feet. A one-story, 70 by 70 feet boiler house was made of brick, steel and concrete.
The next year, a 78 feet by 260 feet, one-story, brick and concrete corn building included a machine shop and garage, was built; in addition to office and pea viner buildings and a 100,000 gallon water tower. Two railroad sidings were linked to the site.
The facility that produces the largest case quantities of peas and corn for the company, grown by more than 300 growers on more than 22,000 acres and employs up to 400 seasonal workers in summer and fall, has a distinguished history to say the least.
Del Monte’s recent decision to close the Sleepy Eye along with several other vegetable plants in the country, came as a surprise to many people.
The company announced it would begin layoffs in October but would continue to employ staff for a number of months to do final administrative work.
Sleepy Eye city officials reported that Seneca Foods, one of the largest fruit and vegetable producers in the United States, has expressed interest in the Sleepy Eye plant.
Seneca sells products under its own brands including Seneca Farms, Libby’s, Aunt Nellie’s, CherryMan, and Green Valley.
Photos courtesy of the Brown County and Sleepy Eye Area Historical Societies