Playing at work of last century Eldersburg pupils try cannery labors SOUTHEAST -- Sykesville * Eldersburg * Gamber

February 02, 1993|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Staff Writer

Eldersburg Elementary's fourth grade traveled back 100 years in time as it went to work at the Baltimore Museum of Industry yesterday.

The 9- and 10-year-old children shucked, canned and steamed rubber oysters. And they made their own cans and printed labels -- stamped with "Eldersburg Elementary."

Although they earned token wages, nobody had any take-home pay. They owed it all to the company store.

The 49 students participated in the museum's Cannery Children's Activity Center, which simulates the Platt Oyster Canning Co., a late 19th century factory that operated along the city docks. The hands-on exhibit recently won an award from the international Society for the History of Technology.

"Over 100 people worked at this cannery, one of the largest and oldest in Baltimore," said Debi Wynn, a museum tour guide. "Oyster canning was the city's second largest industry."

To take the children back a century, the museum provided new identities and costumes.

"Now, you are no longer students," Ms. Wynn said. The children cheered.

"Some of you will be immigrants, who can't speak English," said Ms. Wynn.

Rodney Farber donned a colorful kerchief and full-length apron and got into his canning character. He and classmate Lisa Sturm grabbed cardboard cans from a conveyor belt and plopped several oysters into them.

"This might be hard if we had to do it for 12 hours a day," said Lisa.

"We'll catch up to the can makers real fast," said Rodney. He stopped mid-process when he found a penny in one oyster.

"Our oysters don't have pearls, but sometimes the fillers get paid a little more," said a laughing tour guide, Bob Reese.

Tina Morris, dressed in a gray top hat, played Mr. Platt, the prosperous owner of the business. She moved among the workers giving them stern looks.

"Let's all work hard," she said in her deepest voice.

With heavy gloves to protect him from the heat, Joseph Laney loaded the cans into a steamer twice his size. All alone, he worked heavy chains up and down, adjusted steam valves and checked supplies.

"This is the most important job," he said importantly. "If the oysters aren't steamed right, nobody would buy them."

Midway through the session, the children exchanged jobs. Joseph switched from steamer to boss. He enjoyed the power, (( he said.

"Can I fire people?" he wondered.

"The more oysters you shuck, the more dollars we make," he told his employees.

Joseph was most pleased with his pay -- five tokens for which "I didn't do anything."

The plant couldn't run smoothly without speedy shuckers. Standing in narrow stalls, each young shucker raced to see who could extricate the most oysters.

"Mine is wired shut," said Dan Hamilton.

"That's just seaweed," said Ms. Wynn. "No talking and keep shucking. This was a 12-hour a day job."

Shannon Sheehan demonstrated the "easy" process for classmates. "Just stick a knife in and twist," she said.

Ms. Wynn encouraged the students to sing while they worked. They mustered a weak, "I've Been Working on the Railroad."

"This job is still easier than school," said Daniel Abbott, who counted 13 empty shells and called himself the champion.

"I would rather be a can maker than a shucker," said Behnaz Nabavian. "It's harder but more interesting."

Payday disappointed Katie Bradford. "I loaded the shuckers' stalls and emptied the shells into the bucket," she said. "I only got one token."

The little girl got an even bigger economic shock at the company store, where Mr. Reese took back every cent she earned.

"Everyone give me one token for food and one for rent," he asked. "Can makers need to pay their union dues, too."

A heavy sigh followed as few of the children had tokens left to spend on store goods, marked with prices from an 1886 catalog.

Many children could identify the 19th century vintage stock.

"That's a rug beater," said Kathleen McLean, demonstrating how to use the iron contraption. "My mom used to have one."

Janet Reed dropped one of her tokens into a cast iron bank.

"My sister has one of those banks at home," said Tina. "It used to belong to my grandmother."

The activity gave many of the students with an idea of the hardships of life before automation.

"These people had a really hard life," said Christie Beran. "They only got to play on Sundays."

The children slipped back from yesterday to today with a computer activity to help them in future career selection.

"I got matched with all good jobs," said Joseph, after keying in his favorite activities.

Jean Hetherington, the children's teacher, said the cannery fit perfectly into the fourth grade's Maryland unit in Social Studies, which focuses on industry in Baltimore. Museum representatives met with teachers several months ago to plan the field trip.

"What a wonderful learning activity," said their teacher. "It was so well organized."

The class finished its trip with a tour of the museum exhibits. The students walked on a real dock, tuned into old cabinet radios and viewed "old-fashioned" transports.

"This is the coolest place," said one boy pointing to an airplane hanging from the museum ceiling. "That old plane could probably land on the bay."

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