Like lots of Mainers, Emily Muise of Trenton spends part of the month of November in a frenzy of pie making.
By the time she’s done, she’ll have baked two pecan pies, a blueberry pie and four pumpkin pies, all of which are destined for a bake sale that raises money to support women’s education. For her pumpkin pies, Muise reaches for One-Pie Pumpkin for its taste and quality, its jaunty, old-fashioned label and for the company’s deep Maine roots.
“It just makes me feel a little prouder to use it,” she said.
These days, the pumpkins and squash used by One-Pie are no longer grown in Maine or canned here. But the cans of squash and pumpkin puree remain a reminder of Maine’s past as an industrial canning powerhouse.
One-Pie originally was made at the Medomak Canning Co. in Waldoboro and still lists West Paris on its label as its distribution site. Additionally, the company is a Maine corporation in good standing, according to the Maine secretary of state.
But its current Maine connections are vague.
Multiple efforts this week to contact someone at One-Pie were not successful. The company has no obvious website or internet presence, and two Maine phone numbers have been disconnected.
Melissa LaCombe, the deputy clerk for the town of West Paris, said that every year around Thanksgiving, the town office fields quite a few phone calls about One-Pie.
“We have no contact information,” she said. “One-Pie used to be located in West Paris, but it hasn’t been in West Paris for a long time.”
Another group that gets questions about One-Pie this time of year is FamousFoods.com Inc., a New Bedford, Massachusetts-based company that sells cans of One-Pie puree. About two years ago, One-Pie disconnected the Maine phone number that consumers previously had used to get in touch with the company, and since then, FamousFoods has been getting more calls from people asking about it.
“We try to be as helpful as we can,” the representative said.
Nowadays, the squash and pumpkins for One-Pie are grown and the canned puree is produced in the midwest, a detail shared a decade ago by Yankee Magazine.
That’s something that Sandy Oliver, an Islesboro food historian and Bangor Daily News food columnist, thinks is a pity.
“Most of the canned stuff eaten as pumpkin pie, it’s grown in Illinois,” she said. “We’re all eating a little bit of Illinois, if we have pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving. It’s all very strange.”
For about a century, canning played an important role in the state’s economy. At its height, there were more than 100 fish, fruit and vegetable canning plants in the state. Many were located in small, rural communities that were close to the fields where such crops as sweet corn, blueberries, peas, green beans and squash were grown. Thousands of men, women and even children were employed every year in these factories, with the industry beginning in earnest in the years before the Civil War and reaching its heights in the Gilded Age.
By 1900, the state was home to about 75 “corn factories,” as the corn canning plants were called and was one of the country’s most important producers of canned sweet corn. Maine also was the nation’s only producer of canned sardines. At the time, the industry was valued at about $5 million annually, or about $165 million in today’s dollars.
It was more valuable than the slate, granite and ice industries combined, according to the Bureau of Industrial and Labor Statistics.
“Canning was a huge part of the Maine economy,” Cipperly Good, curator of the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, said.
Today, among the state’s remaining producers of canned foods is Bar Harbor Foods in Whiting, which has made seafood specialties for more than a century. But Maine’s days as a national canning kingpin have largely come to an end. The state’s last sardine cannery, located in Prospect Harbor, closed in 2010. The owners of the iconic B&M Beans factory that has operated in Portland for more than 150 years this year sold the building and moved manufacturing to the Midwest.
It’s not the only Maine canning company to head in that direction. Decades ago, One-Pie pulled up stakes in Waldoboro, where its production of puree had sometimes caused problems. In November 1968, the Lincoln County News wrote that squash effluent was reportedly polluting the Medomak River. The town manager told state environmental officials that there was “no question that there is squash slime or that fish are being killed.”
Oliver finds it problematic that food canning is no longer an important part of the Maine economy. It’s an even bigger problem this year, she said, when ongoing supply chain disruptions have led to shortages of steel and tin cans for food production.
If more Maine companies were able to process fruits and vegetables close to where they were grown, the way it used to be, that could diminish supply chain disruptions and benefit Mainers, she said. And even if steel and tin, which comes from overseas, is in short supply, there’s a solution.
“It’s perfectly possible, especially in an industrial country, to can pumpkin and squash in jars,” she said. “The world is a very strange place right now. I’d love to see us come back to regional foods again.”