The Canning Club
by Jen Sundeen
Great endings often come from small beginnings,” Clara Endicott Sears once wrote. A dedicated patriot, historian and preservationist, Sears spoke with affection of her celebrated Canning and Evaporating Club, established once upon a time in a picturesque little town in the distant hills of Boston.
When a handful of friends from Harvard, Massachusetts, recently read her inspiring words, a seed was planted: Perhaps it was time to get back to basics and breathe new life into the old canning club, to return to our roots, to teach ourselves and our children the many wonderful ways to preserve the fruit of the land as generations before us once did. Despite having only limited experience with canning, we were sure of one thing: A certain kind of magic comes to pass when friends and family gather together to conserve the hard work of a bountiful harvest.
Almost 100 years ago, a group of young girls met outside a long brick building in the shadows of the old historic Shaker village in Harvard, Massachusetts. They donned white aprons and caps and wore faces of earnest determination. They intended to do their part for their country during the early years of America’s entry into World War I: They would contribute to the Emergency Supply by canning and evaporating freshly grown and harvested fruits and vegetables. Encouraged by the enthusiastic vision of their friend Clara Endicott Sears, their efforts led to the birth of the Canning and Evaporating Club of Harvard, Massachusetts, a club that would soon be recognized and praised on both state and national levels.
In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson called upon the women of the nation to not only conserve food for household use but to put away an “emergency supply” should the need arise. Knowing the country was headed to war and unsure about the future of food production nationwide, Clara took this to heart and set about gathering a group of eager young ladies to preserve food. She believed that if a group of girls could become proficient in the art of canning and evaporating and could help to supply the military and their community with food, then they could set an example for other towns across the nation to solve what could eventually be a national food crisis.
Clara herself was the founder of what is now known as Fruitlands Museum, preserving the transcendental Utopia where once Amos Bronson Alcott and a small band of like-minded friends were determined to live off the fruit of the land while they meditated with nature and transcended to the Self. Clara went on to befriend the Harvard Shaker community, who shared with her their wisdom of growing and preserving food. With her heartfelt ties to both groups, preserving the fruit of the land seemed to be the perfect answer to President Wilson’s plea.
The Canning and Evaporating Club was made up of 14 girls whose ages ranged from 9 to 17. There were no entrance fees, no club dues, no expenses of any kind for the girls. The only thing asked of them was that they work seriously and with “patriotic enthusiasm.” this they accomplished and more. Week after week, through the hot summer months, the girls worked tirelessly and with good cheer.
Clara sought the help of Mrs. Frederick Avery, who lived in the nearby Shaker village. Also full of boundless energy as well as expertise, Avery became the club’s manager. With the highest of standards placed on efficiency, top-quality canners and evaporators were purchased. to avoid the common practice of mishandling equipment and spoiling the jars of food, Clara believed in “scrupulous cleanliness and strict adherence to rules to do a first-class canning.” Instruction took place each Saturday.
With all the eagerness young girls can muster, and with Camp Devens close by, that first harvest season the girls set out to preserve as much as they could for the nearby soldiers. the government provided the men with daily supplies of meat, potatoes and similar staples. “Delicacies” such as sweets and green vegetables were an added expense; soldiers were given 48 cents a day for these additions if desired. The club thought that sending canned food would also be a great way to add variety and nourishment to the soldiers’ diet as they served their country.
Eventually word of the Canning and Evaporating Club spread to the outside world. Supply officers ventured over to the Shaker village to investigate; local agricultural organizations began to make inquiries; offers to purchase canned and evaporated food began to come in. Letters of praise came from farm bureaus, colleges, agricultural committees and from soldiers nationwide.
By the end of their first season, the girls canned over 2,000 jars of produce and evaporated 200 pounds of food. Almost 30 fruits and vegetables were preserved, amongst them gooseberry, Swiss chard, mushrooms, lima beans, asparagus and Damson plum. Almost a dozen different produce varieties were evaporated, the most popular amongst the soldiers being sweet corn. Their first public venture took place at the Eastern States Exhibition in Springfield, Massachusetts, where they earned many accolades. At the end of that first season, the club held their own exhibition at the local town hall. 1,000 of their jars were beautifully displayed; after an enthusiastic visit from a local lieutenant, all 1,000 were promised to the camp. In the young girls’ eyes, it was indeed a triumphant end to a great first season of canning and evaporating!
The rekindling of our town’s Canning and Evaporating Club began over a year ago when we literally stumbled upon an old Mason jar while exploring the ruins of what was once Clara Endicott Sears’ summer home. After learning of Clara’s patriotic efforts and inspired by her words of almost a century past, we decided to reinstitute her club. Admittedly, we had not been called upon yet to conserve an emergency supply. But with backyard gardens on the rise and our well-established farmers market in town, it seemed the perfect time for history to repeat itself and to learn how to preserve the fruit of the land once more.
Since that time, members of our community have gathered together around a single kitchen table to preserve their harvest. young children run underfoot; grandmothers stop in to share tips, techniques and to talk about the “good old days.” Clara’s original glass canning jar sits as the centerpiece of our work table, a reminder of times past when preservation was necessary for surviving those long winter months. Clara firmly believed that to maintain the best flavor and peak nutrition when canning, one must go quickly from garden to jar; accordingly, we usually harvest our fruits or vegetables the same day we preserve. We teach each other, we trade recipes, we share many laughs and lively stories.
This second season we are trying our hand at dehydrating, sprouting, canning syrup, making yogurt, mead, cider wine, cheese. We have experts coming to instruct, visitors from other towns joining us, emails about how to start similar clubs in neighboring communities. For nostalgia’s sake, we have white aprons on order, and we even have our own little logo. Small beginnings.
Like Sears and her young friends before us, we hope others might take on a similar project and think about starting a canning club in their own community. Clubs can meet in someone’s home or in the kitchen of a community building; ours gathers monthly in the kitchen of a lovely historic Harvard home throughout the harvest season. Agree ahead of time what will be preserved; provide a list of the needed equipment and ingredients. Post this information and the meeting schedule in the local paper or through one’s local farmers market website. Invite food experts, kids, grandparents, beginners who have never canned before, neighbors and friends. get back to basics. Keep history alive.
There is no doubt that Clara Endicott Sears was right: great endings do come from small beginnings. Full of expectation and reverence, we plant those tiny seeds in the newly warmed earth of springtime. We patiently tend and nourish throughout those steamy dog days of summer. We fill our baskets with the ripe fruit of autumn, then gather together over hot stoves, staining our fingers and clothes, filling little glass jars to the brim. No easy task, to say the least. But keep the faith: In the cold grey winter months when we long for a delicious taste of the past—to be able to open that jar of spicy red sauce, to savor a spoon of sweet raspberry jam, to open a cupboard full of not just the magnificent colors and flavors of last season’s harvest, but full of reminders of the great friends who shared the seasons with us—that is a great ending for sure.
Jennifer Sundeen is the founder and owner of The Durga Studio, located at beautiful Fruitlands Museum, where she teaches yoga and meditation; she is also one of the founding members of The Harvard Farmers’ Market, a non-profit organization. Both of these pursuits celebrate her great faith in the earth, community, and the potential of the human spirit. She currently resides in Harvard with her husband and three daughters. She can be reached at email@example.com.