Packinghouse Daughter: A Memoirby Cheri Register, Anton Myrer
A unique blend of memoir and public history, Packinghouse Daughter, winner of the Minnesota Book Award, tells a compelling story of small-town, working-class life. The daughter of a Wilson & Company millwright, Cheri Register recalls the 1959 meatpackers' strike that divided her hometown of Albert Lea, Minnesota. The violence that erupted when the/em>… See more details below
A unique blend of memoir and public history, Packinghouse Daughter, winner of the Minnesota Book Award, tells a compelling story of small-town, working-class life. The daughter of a Wilson & Company millwright, Cheri Register recalls the 1959 meatpackers' strike that divided her hometown of Albert Lea, Minnesota. The violence that erupted when the company "replaced" its union workers with strikebreakers tested family loyalty and community stability. Register skillfully interweaves her own memories, historical research, and oral interviews into a narrative that is thoughtful and impassioned about the value of blue-collar work and the dignity of those who do it.
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The Field Trip
In a town without museums or amusement parks, which Albert Lea still was in the late 1950s, elementary school field trips tend to be excursions in industrial technology. Touring the sites where people do their daily work has to serve as both entertainment and education. My classmates and I clucked at baby chicks still wet and sticky and confused in the electric incubators at the hatchery, and watched a row of women atKroger's Produce "candle" freshly laid eggs: lighting the eggs with a lamp from behind, they could see inside and check forembryos. We crowded around the printing press that clanked out the Albert Lea Evening Tribune, made our voices echo in the tall stairwell of a grain elevator, and stood entranced as bottles and cans moved along conveyor belts to be automatically filled and sealed at the Morlea Dairy, the Coca-Cola bottling plant, and the National Cooperatives cannery. We never did visit the mysterious, brick-walled Olson Manufacturing Company on South Broadway, so we could still chime in with the local joke, "Why are there so many Olsons in Albert Lea? They make them here."
These field trips rarely bored us. I assumed my classmates were as fascinated as I was with the notion of work and its secret words and special skills. Mom taught me "dart" and "tuck" and "gusset" and showed me how to use a gauge and a tracing wheel. As I helped Dad with his house projects, I learned "dowel," "trowel," "sillcock," and "miter box." I looked forward to the day when I would master something and speak its language with confidence, but untilthen, I enjoyed peeking in on the work that grown-ups did, and seeing who did what, and where. For the parents of us Lincoln School kids, "where" was likely the Wilson & Co. packinghouse.
We knew that a visit to Wilson's required some degree of maturity, or at least the early signs of adolescence, A hodgepodge of brick buildings and tin and wooden sheds, Wilson's sat in a shallow depression between U.S. Highway 16, our Main Street, and the Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul and Pacific railroad line that ran along the weedy shore of Albert Lea Lake, also known as Lower Lake. "The plant," we called it, a name that marked it as the primary local industry. Security fences and a large employee parking lot made it look vast and impenetrable and even a little scary, yet it imposed itself on our lives in ways so familiar and habitual we rarely paid attention. The ceaseless industry of the packinghouse filled the air on the north side of town with a smoky, rancid odor, turned Albert Lea Lake slimy with effluents, alerted us to the passage of time with a steam whistle at noon, blared out livestock prices on our radios, and kept many of us fed and clothed and sheltered. "The Wilson label protects your table" was not only an advertising slogan, but the literal truth. We knew there would be no table to sit at if it weren't for Wilson's.
The closest I had come to the plant was the side gate where we picked Dad up from work on the days Mom needed the car. To reach this gate, we turned down a narrow gravel road that ran alongside another enterprise known as "the foundry" and dead-ended where the railroad tracks crossed the channel connecting Fountain and Albert Lea Lakes. Mom wrestled with the steering wheel of our hulking 1948 Pontiac to pull it over as close as possible to the scraggly willows that hung over the water. We sat silent in the shade, waiting and watching while one man, then a pair of men, and another, most of them swinging barn-shaped, black dinner pails, came streaming out under an arched sign that read Safety First. Some of the men exchanged good-byes with a guard who sat in a booth at the entryway. Finally, we would spot my dad, freshly washed and dressed in khaki pants and a checked shirt. He'd break into a grin as soon as he saw us, and I would climb over the seat into the back.
I had only a vague understanding of how Dad spent his days beyond the Safety First sign. I wasn't sure how to interpret the few clues he carried with him at the end of the day. He might hand Mom a bottle of candy-sweet cough syrup that the nurse in the infirmary had given him, or a jar of drawing salve that pulled stubborn slivers out of your fingers overnight. Some days, he reached into his pocket and tossed me a heavy cylindrical magnet the size of his thumb that had been salvaged from a cow stomach. Farmers shoved these magnets down the animals' throats to catch nails and wires that might otherwise pierce their intestines. A magnet was already an object of mystery, and one that had been inside a cow's stomach was enhanced in value by its association with the grisly and the sacred. Our kitchen drawer at home was filled with butcher knives of thick, discolored metal that Dad bolted between matching hunks of wood in spare moments at work. He said he was a "millwright." For all I knew he made knives for a living.
When the phone rang at lunchtime each day, we knew it would be Dad, yelling above the roar and clatter of machinery, needing us to yell back. He talked loud when he first came home, too, until his ears had adjusted to the quiet. Starting out before dawn and working overtime most days left him tired and sore enough by late afternoon to stretch out on the livingroom floor and fall asleep, regardless of what went on around him. We girls stepped over him to turn on TV or to read in the big chair in the corner where he...Packinghouse Daughter. Copyright © by Cheri Register. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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