What started as a home business in Greenwood, IN, became one of the largest canning factories in the Midwest. Millions of cans of tomatoes, peas, and other vegetables were once processed here at Polk’s Canning Company.
The Polk family were early pioneers in the canning industry. Working out of their kitchen in 1872, the Polk family entered the canning business. They soon expanded to a barn and eventually a purpose-built building in the 1870s and 1880s. They were part of the first wave of the expansion of canning industries after the Civil War. Many of these were craft or cottage industries that canned food produced by surrounding farms. Typically, women would do the work of cutting and preparing the vegetables and packing them into hand-made tin cans. The cans would then be boiled for hours in large vats of water to preserve the food inside.
As technological advances were made in the late 1800s, like mass-produced cans and industrial pressure cookers, canneries became industrial operations. On December 12, 1906, the Polk Canning Co. factory burned down after a fire started in the pea sheds. The damage at the time was estimated at $225,000. The company rebuilt the factory on this site at 435 E. Main and it was ready for operation in 1907.
World War 1 (1914-1918) was another driver of canning production because militaries needed preserved food to keep troops fed. In early 1916, the English government awarded Polk’s a large contract to supply their army with food. When the United States joined World War I, Polk’s helped supply the US Army as well.
J. T. Polk died on February 5, 1919 and his namesake canning company did not last long afterwards. His son Ralph sold the factory to the Indiana Packing Corporation at the end of the same year. The Sears and Nichols Canning Co. purchased the site in 1921, but after financial difficulties, were forced to close it. In 1930, the Stokely Bros. (later Stokely-VanCamp) bought the land, updated the equipment, and re-opened it.
Coming at the very beginning of the Great Depression, the re-opening of the old Polk site brought in hundreds of much needed jobs to Greenwood and provided steady income to local farmers who provided the produce to be canned. The old factory thrived under new ownership and again was a major supplier of food to the military during World War II (1939-1945). Due to labor shortages during the war, Stokely-VanCamp employed women, teenagers, migrant workers, and even prisoners of war from nearby Camp Atterbury.
1954 signaled the end of an era. No tomatoes were canned at the site, though it continued canning preserves. The factory ceased canning in 1959. Stokely-VanCamp used the buildings for storage, but a major fire in 1961 destroyed an entire warehouse. Plans to rejuvenate the site into a business park started in 1979.