Friday, February 25, 2011

Vienna Pride - A glimpse of Dorchester's Heritage

I was reading Ann Foley's book about Elliott Island and found the seafood and food packing industry fascinating. When I finished the Chesapeake Heritage series with Chesapeake Visions, it occurred to me that there was still plenty of history left to weave into my tales. So I started Vienna Pride.

Children worked in the canneries here on the Eastern Shore in a era when social consciousness had not yet reached the point when children were schooled before they had to go to work. As I looked at the industry, I found instances where children as young as five or six were employed full time doing tasks like shucking oysters! It is hard to imagine.

The handsome cover of Vienna Pride done by publisher Arline Chase incorporates an image of young Delaware cannery girls from the Library of Congress collection.

My research is not perfect, but life as a cannery worker in one of the dozens of canneries in the area could not have been pleasant, even though I have talked with women who worked in fish houses who remember their crab-picking days with something like pleasure. If nothing else, they treasured the companionship that took the curse off hard work for little pay.

I will admit I created a boss who was not so pleasant - but boss is a four-letter word after all. It wouldn't be much of a story with a lovable boss - but the cannery manager was also an employee who worked for the man who owned the cannery - he was just the person who laid down the bottom line. Cannery workers labored in hard conditions and those who crossed the Chesapeake for summer work lived in shacks with straw for bedding and a shocking lack of sanitation that would never be tolerated today.

Even the farmers suffered because the cannery owners purchased produce for as little as possible in order to achieve maximum profits for their products. By the Depression, farmers struck for better produce prices. It has not always been a pretty or easy history, but today the canneries are gone and the Eastern Shore of Maryland is looking for ways to sustain its population as young people migrate to other places looking for work. Our children no longer work in canneries - the canneries are gone. They no longer have to quit school to help feed their families - social programs monitor child abuse and labor laws and work toward feeding every child.

Today's society would be shocked at what was taken for granted in 1918 when our soldiers were returning from the war in Europe and the Spanish Influenza scoured the Eastern Shore. Life was different and people expected to work hard for the wages they earned.

It was a different time - one not always mentioned in the history of the area. It struck me as a chapter that helped shed some light on the experience of the hardy folks who lived on the Eastern Shore at the turn of the last century. I think the name says it all: Vienna Pride

Vienna Pride is available at and will be posted soon at the Kindle site. I hope you like it and that you stay on the sunny side! Terry L. White

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