Did you know that South Whidbey had several canneries which processed everything from salmon to apricots?
Here’s a write-up from the August 27, 1963 Seattle Times by reporter Marshall Wilson.
FREELAND, Whidbey Island, Aug. 27.- Jay C. Fordham, who has yet to feel the thrill of taking a hook from the mouth of a salmon; is literally “up to his ears” in humpies, silvers and kings.
Fordham owns and operates the Harbor Custom Cannery which has temporarily closed its doors to all jobs that don’t pertain to fish.
Fordham took over the Whidbey Island cannery in December.
“During the first two weeks of this year’s unusual run, we did more business than the previous owner did, in the past three years,” Fordham said.
The cannery does custom work for fishermen who want to keep their own catches, cans fruit and vegetables, specializes in mail order sales to every state in the the union and tries to keep on hand a stock of canned goods for over-the-counter sales to non-fishermen and non-farmers.
“We were just starting to work on the apricot crop when this run of salmon started,” Fordham said. “We canceled the apricots and have forgotten about the vegetable crops, such as beans and beets, which have come in during this period.”
“We’re planning to get started on the apple crop in September,” Fordham said. “But I hear there’s another salmon run predicted for about that time.”
Fordham was only 36 years old when he retired two years ago as a chief air controlman in the Navy. The ex-Texan retired in Florida but headed back to Whidbey Island, where he had served five years at Oak Harbor.
He quickly admits he knew nothing about the cannery business and almost as little about fishing.
“I bought a 20-foot boat but I have yet to find time to wet a line,” Fordham said. “I’ve snagged two salmon in my whole life – one in the belly and one in the side. I have yet to make that first clean catch.”
The lights at the cannery burn throughout the night – –
“We have two shifts, and they work around the clock,” Fordham said.
Regular crews are supplemented with high-school pupils and college students and off-duty Navy men from Oak Harbor.
“The plant’s capacity is about 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of fish a day,” Fordham said. “We’ve been averaging 2,000 pounds of custom work coming in every day.”
The excess is stored in a deep-freeze in Clinton, where about 10,000 pounds was on hand yesterday.
Every customer who brings in a fish is given a number which remains with his fish until it is in the can.
“Our big job isn’t getting the fish canned – it’s getting it sorted and ready for the right customer,” Fordham said. “The plant, attic and even our own apartment is stacked to the ceiling with orders.”
The plant, which once ran four months a year, won’t close down this year when the fishing season is over.
“There’s some fish all during the year,” Fordham said. “There are the vegetables and fruit. Now we’re starting out a smoked-turkey line. And we have done some work on health foods.”
Turning to the nearby sea, Fordham has experimented with a kelp relish and a glazed-kelp substitute for raisins.
The modest ex-chief explains that “I’m as lazy as the next man, but I have a wife and four children to support. I’m just hungry.”
Mrs. Fordham and the children – Barbara Lou, 15, Deborah Sue, 14, Jay, Jr., 9, and Mary Ellen, 6 – all help out at the cannery.