Zip, Slam, Bam!

by Gary Mount

In a recent apple grower’s trip to a Wenatchee, Washington apple packinghouse, I watched in fascination as a huge machine assembled cardboard apple boxes – Zip, Slam, Bam. It took me back about 50 years. This one machine completely accomplished my boyhood job on my father’s Princeton, New Jersey farm of making boxes – only about 50 times faster.

crate_labelFor a long time, Western growers in Washington and Oregon have sent their fruit to be stored and packed at large warehouses. Eastern growers, like my father, packed their own apples. During the frantic harvest season, little packing was done as the fruit was picked, transported and stored in refrigerated rooms. After the harvest was completed, the packing began. On our farm it would continue all winter – sometimes ending as late as May.

My father’s cold storage and packinghouse was on US 1 in West Windsor. The storage rooms could hold some 175,000 bushels of apples, and the packinghouse was filled with packing machinery from the Wayland Company of Winchester, West Virginia. This equipment washed, dried, sorted, and sized the apples. The packing was done by hand.

My father built a second-story addition to the packinghouse for storage. This was also where I assembled the cardboard boxes. My after-school and Saturday job was to “make boxes”. The boxes arrived at the farm flat and in bundles from the manufacturer, Union Bag and Box Company. I would open the flattened boxes and staple the bottom flaps together. I then threw them down a large hole in the packinghouse ceiling.

When the space below was filled, I made as many boxes ahead as I could for the next day, when I would be in school. Great was my delight when one year my father bought a motorized stapling machine and a monorail conveyor system to transport the assembled boxes down to the packing crew. Although, at age 13, I already rated myself the fastest box maker on the farm, my output increased dramatically.

Apple boxes of 45 years ago are much the same as those of today. Apple boxes before that time were quite different. Apples were packed in wooden boxes, with each apple often wrapped in a ten-inch square of oiled purple paper. Wrapping apples was an art and doing it rapidly was difficult. I got pretty good at it myself, but never as good as the best workers on our farm. Dollie Mae Jackson was the best – such a skilled worker was a valuable person on the farm. Her husband, Ivory (Ira) Jackson also worked on the farm and, in later years, I often worked with him in the orchard.

Wooden apple boxes came in two types – western (7/8 bushel) and eastern (1 bushel). Apples in westerns were individually wrapped. Those in easterns were loose packed. Wooden boxes on our farm were either purchased used and then refurbished or assembled new from parts purchased from a box manufacturer. In either case, a specialist named Gid Davis did this work on our farm. Gid spent most of the year in Florida and traveled to New Jersey once a year to work for my father. He sometimes drove a truck on the farm, but mostly he was our box man. His hands were lightning fast. He was very skilled at sanding the sides of the used boxes to make them appear new, and he had a 1952 Mercury. To my 12-year-old eyes, a ’52 Merc was just about the ultimate in cool. I don’t remember ever wanting a particular car more. Gid kept it immaculately clean and polished and would park it near where he worked on the boxes so that he could listen to the radio while he worked. I could never understand why that did not drain the battery, but the 52 Merc always cranked.

One special item Gid used was the nail stripper. Buying nails in bulk means the nails come in a jumbled pile. Picking up one nail results in getting your fingers poked by the points of other nails. A very slow and painful process! Somehow, the nail stripper shakes the nails down so they hang in strips. Neat! That was another thing my 12-year-old mind had trouble understanding. I recently saw a nail stripper in a museum during my Wenatchee trip. It brought back lots of memories!

At the other end of the packing process, after the washing, drying, sorting, sizing, and wrapping, came the final preparation of the boxes for shipment. The lids were nailed closed (another nail stripper), and boxes for export were strapped at each end with wire, then labeled and stenciled. Labeling evokes a lore all its own.

Every packinghouse before 1960 had its own label – colorful and descriptive. Many apple growers have a collection of labels – some have hundreds! I think the “Mount Farms” label was one of the best. The labels were 8 by 11 inches and were applied to the ends of the boxes using a paste of flour and water. In the days before cardboard boxes, labeling was one of the jobs waiting for me when I got home from school.

The day’s output of packed boxes was stacked in long rows in the front of the packinghouse. They needed only to be labeled and stenciled before being loaded onto a truck for delivery to a pier in New York. Getting the label on straight and marking the product with the family name as coming from our farm was very satisfying. It ranked close to the top of my favorite jobs on the farm – right up there with stenciling.

All boxes containing apples for export had to be stenciled. The code number for the shipment was punched into an oak-tag sheet to create a stencil. Then the number was stenciled with black ink onto the side of the box. At first, my father ordered the stencils pre-punched, but later bought his own stencil-cutting machine.

I don’t remember my father as a patient person, but he must have been. It seemed I would often have something that I had to talk to him about just as he was finishing a stencil. A moment’s distraction and a wrong letter would be punched. The stencil had to be discarded, and he would begin again. Another trial to his patience came one day when there were two different lots of apples to stencil. I not only liked stenciling, but I was quick at the job. When I got to the end of one lot of apples, no one told me to stop. So, I stenciled all the others. Oops!

Also included on the stencil was the name of the ship that would receive the apples. Seeing those ships’ names in the packinghouse was unbearably romantic to a 12-year-old compulsive book reader. Even now I wonder how I kept from stowing away in the back of a truck headed for the piers. I guess I was needed at the farm.