In the fall of 1941 on the eve of the United States’ entry into WWII, the Auburn High School freshman class of 1941-42 undertook an extraordinary community project. Under the guidance of their homeroom teacher, Harry W. McCann, Jr., who taught math, social studies, and English, the students decided that a place for social gathering and recreation was an important need for the people of Riner, VA.
Undaunted by the rising crisis in Europe and Asia, and their own experiences growing up during the Great Depression, these youths of 14 and 15 set to work to construct a log building to meet their needs. These students, about 30 in number, drew up blueprints, solicited donations of materials, and raised funds by selling bonds.
On January 6, 1942, the students made a presentation about the project to the Riner Grange, an agricultural service group chartered in 1928 dedicated to the improvement of life for those living in the Riner area. The Grange voted to support the project on February 3, 1942 and on April 21, 1942 moved to provide $200 for the building. An Auburn Recreational Club was formed and a committee was appointed to govern its affairs. Memberships in the Auburn Recreational Club were sold for $1 to raise funds.
In the spring of ’42, newly hired agriculture teacher George Guilliams, along with McCann, the students, the school janitor R. A. Weaver, and Riner farmers Ralph and Raymond Lucas cut poplar trees using crosscut saws from Dan Cundiff’s place and hauled them in a borrowed truck to the building site adjacent to the high school.
The logs were then peeled, footer trenches dug, forms built, and cement mixed and poured one wheelbarrow at a time into the trenches. The log walls were raised and the subflooring put in. A stonemason, Mr. Gray from Blacksburg, was hired to build the chimney using local field stone.
On the 12th of August, 1942, the Grange held a cabin work day, placing top plate and rafters on the building. Soon the roof went on and Mr. Thomas, a carpenter from Shawsville, was hired to put in doors, window, floors, and two interior walls.
However, building supplies had become scarce because of the war and, more significantly for the project, money ran out, so the doors and windows were installed but the interior was not completed.
Auburn principal L. E. Moseley was much interested in the project and determined to see the building used for community purposes. Through his leadership, the community was able to procure canning equipment through the Rural War Production Training program. The federal government, in conjunction with the state, was offering canning equipment to communities that could supply a location, so the cabin’s intended use was diverted to house a community cannery.
The equipment was installed on the oak subflooring and holes were cut for the necessary plumbing. The response was immediate and in the fall of 1943, 5,691 cans were processed. In 1945 the state Agriculture Department granted money for an actual cannery building and in the spring of 1946 an adjoining slab-on-grade block structure was built.
George Guilliams oversaw construction of the cannery with most of the labor provided by the students in the FFA and the Grange men. Again, R. A. Weaver was instrumental in providing the know-how to complete the project, having previously been in the timber and threshing businesses where mechanical steam pressure systems were employed.
George Guilliams supervised the cannery operations from its inception and “never lacked for business.” R. A. Weaver operated the cannery until sometime in the 1950s and Mrs. I. J. “Bess” Greear and her sister Miss Mallie Richardson helped get it all started by showing people how to prepare food for canning. Guilliams taught evening classes on growing and preparing vegetables for canning. Class attendees were given preferential use privileges, but this practice was soon abandoned as demand for the facility was so great it was impossible to dictate use.
Initially, tin cans were used exclusively, but sometime in the 1950s the Ball Company sent a representative to demonstrate the use of glass jars and both types of containers were used until the 1980s, when the rising cost of tin cans made their use less appealing and the sealing equipment became irreparable. The cannery continued to receive heavy use well into the 1970s.
Use has been steady for the past 25 years, although the number of units processed per year has gradually declined. The cannery remains open in season as a service of Montgomery County.
The cannery reflects a fascinating period of American history and served as a cornerstone of the Riner community for two generations. This structure is representative of this community’s ethos and, as such, is highly worthy of preservation, interpretation, and continued use.
adapted from “A History of the Log Cabin and Community Cannery in Riner;” online at http://montgomerymuseum.org/Riner/history of cabin Apr 08.pdf