Lessons From a Factory Line

In my last blog, I featured writing by local historian Jeff Gorton, including information about Fulton’s Birds Eye factory. Though today it is known as K & N Foods, USA, and it specializes in processing chicken, those of us who grew up in Fulton in the latter half of the last century well remember when it was a frozen food factory. Much like how Fultonians knew it was going to rain when they smelled Nestlé chocolate in the air, those who walked to school or work could tell what vegetable the plant was processing at its Phillips Street location. I was not a fan of brussel sprouts day.

Despite my displeasure with certain vegetable odors, I worked at Birds Eye while I was in college. After my sophomore year, I’d had a change of heart regarding my career goals and took a semester off to figure myself out. My parents let me stay at home while I rethought my future, but I knew I wasn’t on vacation. I needed a job. When I heard they were hiring at Birds Eye, a five minute walk from my house, I put in my application, hoping to be offered a job on the packaging lines.

Birds Eye’s personnel office noticed I’d already earned a two-year degree, so they offered me a position of weighing trucks delivering produce to the plant. I considered myself lucky; I wouldn’t have to come in contact with those horrid-smelling brussel sprouts and I got to apply my math skills in the real world. Three months later, my college plans back on course, my work at Birds Eye ended without once getting a peek at those processing lines. It was only through the Fulton Library’s Memoir Project that I got to learn about them.

In 2014, the Project was looking for stories about successful Fulton businesses and Birds Eye was certainly in that category. In our search to find people willing to write a memoir about their work in one of Fulton’s many industries, we found Vance Marriner. Though Vance is a research analyst and a part-time faculty member at SUNY Oswego, I know him as a fellow writer. He and I have participated in a number of classes and programs over the years, and when I asked if he’d share his literary talents with the Memoir Project, he readily agreed.

Vance’s memoir focused on his father, Howard Marriner, who was a manager at the Birds Eye plant. But he also wrote about the year he turned sixteen, in 1984, and it was time for him to get his first job. As might be expected, Vance ended up working at Birds Eye, but just because his father was plant manager didn’t mean he was going to get a cushy office job. Here’s how Vance described his entry into the working world:

“I spent that summer as one of the legion of seasonal “casual” workers that swelled the plant’s workforce during the busy months. Technically, my father got me the job, but frankly, no string-pulling was necessary. During peak season in those days, Birds Eye hired almost any person who was willing to work.

“On my first day, I was issued a yellow helmet, a hairnet, a pair of earplugs, and employee badge # 1647. I was then placed on the “inspection line.” Inspection consisted of standing (never sitting!) along with maybe ten or so other people at a conveyor belt and watching beans go by. We were tasked with picking out anything that wasn’t a bean. That might be a branch or a leaf, or it might be a bug or a snake. Sometimes you weren’t quite sure what you pulled out of there, only that it probably wasn’t edible. The job was as boring and generally awful as it sounds, and all the worse as it was often a ten-hour workday, broken up only by lunch and a pair of 15-minute breaks. On the plus side, we were being paid a princely $3.40 per hour.”

Vance worked at Birds Eye for a few summers and eventually got to move beyond the inspection line, advancing to, as he described it, “more glamorous jobs like placing boxes into metal trays, stacking cases onto pallets and loading steaming hot trays of spinach onto a cart. My father later admitted that he made sure that I got assigned the most humble jobs in the place, partially to avoid any suspicion of favoritism, but mostly because he wanted to toughen me up and teach me some life lessons about what hard work was all about.”

Vance’s father’s plan must have worked.  As Vance tells it, over thirty years have passed since he spent his summer job working at Birds Eye. Like many people, he’s never forgotten what it was like to work on a factory line, but also what it did for him as a youngster growing up to be a man. He captured that feeling in a way we can all appreciate:

“The memories of walking home from the plant after a long shift, legs aching, soaking wet from both sweat and steam vapor, clothes stained and stinking of green beans, and faced with more of the same the next day are as vivid as if they had happened yesterday. And that scene has flashed in my mind any time I’ve been tempted to complain about a hard day at one of my subsequent desk jobs…”

Thanks, Vance, for sharing a memory that many in Fulton have had – some for a summer, some for a few years, and some for life.

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