The Magnolia Hall tomato factory
My friend Wynette Tucker urged me on many occasions to interview her neighbour, Gwendolyn Smith. Mrs Smith, she said, was anxious to share what she knew about a tomato factory that existed in Smith’s Parish when she was a girl. I had been the district nurse in the parish during the late 1960s, yet I had never heard of it.
On the afternoon of August 27, 1998, my husband and I made the drive to Talbot’s Lane, Smith’s Parish, to visit this cheerful, entertaining 90-year-old who was looking forward to her 91st birthday that November. Her father was Thomas Henry Steede, from Flatts, but her mother was from Tucker’s Town. Her recollections were from the age of 12 around 1920 when she was a student at the Temperance Hall School. At the age of 14, she reached Standard 7, completing her formal education.
Temperance Hall was a one-room school built by the Temperance Hall Friendly Society near Burchall’s Cove in Hamilton Parish. It was established in 1857 to educate Black children.
The topic for the afternoon was the tomato factory at Magnolia Hall. Mrs Smith described it as part of an extensive farm running from North Shore through Jennings Land to Middle Road, just before Whitney Institute. Jose Jacintho Moniz took over the Magnolia Hall property in 1917.
In researching for this article, I discovered that during the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865, the sale of tomatoes was so lucrative that Bermudian farmers exported them to America. Bermuda-grown tomatoes ripened several weeks before those grown in America, which made the product more profitable for the agents.
Mrs Smith was unsure but believed Mr and Mrs Moniz had four sons and two daughters. Mr Moniz was a tall, noble-looking man who believed his children should be well-educated. He not only managed the farm and factory but also a grocery store on Front Street, Hamilton. His wife was a pleasant, full-figured woman, who was adored by her children.
The Smith family lived in a two-family cottage on the Magnolia Hall property but more towards the North Shore side. There were ten children in the family, which was increased by two when an aunt died. The other side of the house was occupied by another aunt with her daughter. This aunt came to stay because her husband was abroad serving in the First World War.
Although her father was employed on the farm, he was allocated a garden that he ploughed with his own horse. Her parents kept turkeys, chickens, a cow and goats. Her mother took care of the household while other members of the family assisted in the factory and on the farm.
Workers for the factory came mainly from the Flatts community and worked from June until the end of the summer when the canning season was completed.
The factory was located at the back of the main house. It was a well-ventilated building furnished with stainless-steel equipment, washed down at the end of the day by one of the men.
In order for the other farmers to sell their tomatoes to the factory they had to purchase the seeds from Mr. Moniz. They were required to deliver their produce between specific hours during the working week in flat wooden, slatted boxes with their names painted on each box. They were brought in by horse drawn trolleys.
All tomatoes were examined in one sorting room, separating the green from the overripe. The tomatoes were large and tasty, far larger than Bermuda tomatoes of today. Mrs Smith’s job was to pass the cans to the Moniz’s daughter. They were steamed, peeled manually, then the cans were filled, sterilised, weighed by a machine, sealed and labelled. They were 28-ounce cans and moved on a conveyor belt. The tomatoes were canned in their own juice. Salt was added by hand. The label on the cans read: “Prepared in Bermuda for Magnolia Hall”.
At the end of every day, there was a man waiting with his horse and cart to take the hundreds of cans into Hamilton to be shipped abroad.
Over-ripe tomatoes were fed to the pigs. Seeds were replanted and seedlings grown in a greenhouse.
Work in the factory was from 8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, with an hour for lunch. There was no holiday for Cup Match but she described the factory as a very harmonious place to work.
Uniforms were not worn but when working in the factory they wore long aprons to cover their above ankle-length dresses. Their heads were covered by white fabric caps with a frill around the edge. The men wore long boots.
Half-ripe tomatoes were used to make jam. This was the responsibility of a middle-aged woman named Candace Woolridge. She was assisted by her daughter and a helper. Mrs Smith remembered the jam-making area was extremely hot. Summers were hotter in August than July. These tomatoes had to be washed and cored, seeds removed and chopped. Baskets filled with fresh ginger sat on the side. They had to be peeled and added to the jam, which was stirred in a very large pot using a long wooden spoon. The canning method for the jam was similar to that used for the tomatoes.
She did not know where Mr Moniz obtained his cans, but what is known is that in 1901, the American Can Company was founded, producing 90 per cent of United States cans.
Mrs Smith remarked that when she sees canning factories on television today, they are no different from the factory at Magnolia Hall. She admired Mr Moniz and described him as a generous man, ahead of his time.
Young Gwendolyn assisted Mrs Moniz in the kitchen after school, peeling vegetables and in meal preparations.
Her mother boiled flour bags in round kerosene cans over cedar wood. A block of Octagon soap was used to scrub the bags, then added to the water to assist in removing the writing. (Octagon soap was a lye soap used in the 1900s for laundry purposes.)
Slips were made out of the fabric then crocheted around the top.
Her father took his own produce to the Green Growers Association located in the area where Miles supermarket is today. Mr Moniz loaned them his trolley and, early Friday mornings, her father went off to market. She remembered the baskets of thyme and parsley that she had to tie in bunches, and lots of his own produce. Oftentimes he, like many of the farmers, earned very little for his labour.
Magnolia Hall had fields of potatoes, onions, carrots, beets and corn — all grown according to the seasons. Strawberries were grown for the local market.
A few weeks before slaughter, dried corn was fed to the pigs and cows. This made the animals less fatty. Goats were also eaten. A whole kid or a pig could be roasted in a brick oven. Cedar was cut into large pieces placed in the oven and set alight. The oven was heated until the bricks were white-hot before the meat was placed into it. The oven was fitted with a heavy metal door.
At that time there were few Portuguese people living in Bermuda, but in 1920 many were brought in to develop the Tucker’s Town golf course. They were later employed on community farms.
This interview ended on a sad note when Mrs Smith recalled two troubling events: in 1923, she recalled in great detail the plight of her relatives and other families who were compulsorily removed from Tucker’s Town.
The other troubling event occurred in 1925. Mr Moniz was in failing health and after struggling financially, a public auction was held of the Monizes’ goods and chattels.
The Steede family moved to Harrington Sound after the loss of the farm. Mrs Smith eventually accepted a position as a teacher at the Talbot School in Harris’s Bay, where she was paid 30/- (30 shillings) a week.
Talbot School was built to replace the loss of the school in Tucker’s Town. In 1945, the children of Talbot School, St Mark’s School and Mrs Woolridge’s private school were amalgamated to form the newly built Harrington Sound School. Talbot School building remains and is now the property of the Marsden Methodist Church.
The Steede family never forgot the many memories of harmonious working conditions and the kind generous Mr J.J. Moniz and his family.
• With thanks to Linda Abend, Verna Perinchief, Craig Tucker and my now deceased friends Gwendolyn Smith and Wynette Tucker. References: The Royal Gazette (July 24, 1916; February 27, 1917; March 27,1945); The Bermuda Archives; The BNT Architectural Series (Smith’s Parish edition 2005); Wikipedia
• Cecille C. Snaith-Simmons, the mother of Sandys South MP Jamahl Simmons, is the 2020 winner in the Adult section of the Dr Stanley Ratteray Memorial Christmas Short Story Contest