Cannery Tales: Community Leaders Talk Story About Bygone Summers in Honolulu’s Pineapple Factories

Honolulu’s pineapple factories provided a rite of passage for generations of teens, including state senator David Ige and sumo star Konishiki. These summer jobs tossed them into the grind of a production line and left them with a mix of memories.


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Elizabeth Tam

Chair of the UH Department of Medicine, worked as a packer for Del Monte in the summer of 1969.

 

I worked there  at the urging of my mom and dad. They really felt that if you grew up in Hawai‘i, you should have that experience. It’s funny, though—they didn’t ask my younger brother and sister to do it. I think the issue was that I landed the 3-to-11 p.m. shift, and my parents would have to pick me up every night after work. That may have been a deterrent.

 

The cannery was very colorful, very diverse. Sometimes there were knife fights in the cafeteria. I won’t say who, but they were usually between the women of different racial groups. So yeah, it was very colorful. But it was neat to meet people of all ages, of all socio-economic groups, from high school to almost grandpas and grandmas. It was a great equalizer.

 

Working cannery didn’t shape my choice of career, but it may have influenced how I apply it. I feel very comfortable providing care to the underserved or different economic groups. I think I may listen a little more carefully for the backstory, what got them into my office, into the hospital. I think hearing all those stories at the cannery, and just learning about all that humanity, was very important—more than I realized at the time.

 

 

Dan Nellis

58, general manager of Dole Food Co. Hawai‘i, which is part of worldwide Dole, one of the world’s largest marketers of fresh fruits and vegetables. He has worked for Dole for 26 years and worked alongside the teen hires when he first started in 1988.

 

Dole was the biggest fruit cannery in the world at one time. The company is still growing pineapple here on O‘ahu but this is fresh fruit, not canned. We now grow about one-third of the crop of the heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.

 

I was a shift-supervisor trainee in the cannery, training with the high school kids. I had to learn the line jobs. They wanted to make sure you knew how hard those jobs were. How sore your legs get from standing for eight to 10 hours.

 

Trimmers, packers, everything has to be clean and cleaned over and over again. One crew goes to lunch while another rushes in with raincoats and hoses. There wasn’t a single job there that was easy. Feeding the Ginaca machine which sent out 60 pineapples a minute. Coming down one a second with four people trimming them, you can kind of get seasick if you haven’t done it before.  All that movement, it’s kind of like being in a rocking boat.

 

And nobody gets to sit down. You sit, you stand, you sit, you stand. Every job in a cannery is a tough job. I don’t think anybody had an easy job. I did ‘em all but I did them poorly.

 

The natural harvest of pineapples in Hawai‘i peaks in the summer. Way back in the day, they’d peak it up on purpose even though fruit takes 18 months to reach harvest.

 

I remember being impressed as a kid when I first heard that workers could drink as much pineapple juice as they wanted and then I found it was true!

 

The Hawai‘i pineapple industry starting shrinking with the first construction of Mililani. Now, there’s a sweeter pineapple with less acid than that used for canning. The pineapple you buy today is much more palatable and can be picked riper. They’re fresh and they’re being shipped as whole pineapple. In the past, they had to pick fruit green to ship to the West Coast, because shipping takes about a week from field to market. Now, we pick it today, it can be in the local store tomorrow.

 

Mae Isonaga

58, a dietitian and diabetes researcher with UH’s John A. Burns School of Medicine. She worked as a trimmer for Del Monte in the summers of 1971 and 1972.

 

I was prone to having  a lot of pine juice splash on me. It used to drip down my apron and go behind my knees. I used to get pine burn all over. I was always in the infirmary. They would put some kind of ointment and powder on my arms, then wrap me up in gauze. My arms were always wrapped up with tons of gauze.

 

It got so bad sometimes they would pull me off the line and put me to work in the cafeteria making sandwiches—bologna, tuna and egg salad. I also made dressing.

 

After the graveyard shift we would get something to eat at Jack in the Box, usually tacos, and we would drive along Hotel Street. We were good girls, cruising Hotel Street because we were so amused by all the men in women’s clothing. It was like, “Wow! Check it out! We definitely don’t have any of this in ‘Aiea!”

 

When I got home my family would go, “Ugh, you smell like a pineapple!”

 

As a dietitian, I can say pineapples are terrific. They’ve got lots of vitamin C. They’re tasty. They have an enzyme called bromelain that’s kind of a tenderizing agent. Working at the cannery didn’t ruin my image of pineapples. I still like ’em.

 

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