Rolph Townshend

Rolph Townshend grew up in Chestertown, MD,  and was a teenager during World War II. He was a boy scout who escorted a blind woman, Ms. Minnie Hicks, a woman who worked at the Kent Defense plant,  to the bus daily. He later wrote a book called ” Growing up in Chesterton 1929-1945.” 

In this interview, Rolph discusses growing up in Chestertown, working at a pickle plant, and finding a box of blood plasma in the Chesapeake Bay.  

Finding Box of Blood Plasma in Chesapeake Bay

As we left Camp Wright, we looked across at Annapolis, and there was a huge military hospital ship with a big red cross on the side of it. It was a white ship with a huge red cross, and so we thought, ‘Let’s go over there and see that.’So we sailed over, and there were wounded soldiers all around on the deck. They waved and yelled at us, and we yelled back to them and sailed around the ship a couple times then decided to head on home. We headed on up the bay, and we hadn’t sailed a mile from the ship [when] we saw this big huge box in the water right where we sailed by. It was just barely on the surface of the water. It was a large box, and we sailed right by it, looked down on it, and thought, ‘What in the world is that?’So we went alongside and grabbed ahold of it. It was heavy as heck. We pulled it up on the deck of the boat, and it said on the side ‘blood plasma’. It gave the name of the ship, the USS Sanctuary, which was the ship we just waved to. It was a complete box of blood plasma, and it was all encased in cardboard that was waxed so the cardboard was fine. So we thought, ‘Well, we should take this back to the ship.’We turned around and looked, and the ship had pulled up its anchor and was starting down the bay. So we strapped it down on the deck and took it all the way to Chestertown. We went up to the Red Cross, which was on the corner of High Street and Queen Street, right near where we docked the boat, and said, ‘We’ve got this box of blood plasma. What do you think we ought to do with it?’‘Oh, well, we’d like to see that.’So we got a wagon, put it on and towed it up to the Red Cross. They took one look at it, and they said, ‘Oh my word! We’ll find out where the ship is, and we will let them know. Lord knows how it ever got in the water!

Pickle Plant Story 1

Well the thing was owned by Vita-Food. They did pickles and they did canned herring fish and the fish would come in from North in tanker cars. Those big round [things] that they haul oil in on the railroad, and filled that with fish and fish oil, and the heads and everything were in there. How those kept in the heat I don’t know, I have no idea. But, one of my jobs was to get down in there and unload with a big net and unload that. They had these girls that would slice the pickles and they had pickle slicers that would run up and down like this (does a gesture with his hands) and they never stopped and my job was to put the cucumbers in the bins in front of the girls and they would stand up on this little platform, pick up a cucumber, and put it in this just like that and they would get in a rhythm to put it in as the thing went up and down. Very unsafe, and hardly a day went by that one of the girls didn’t lose part of her hand. Fingers would drop down on the belt. There was a belt running underneath. We had another guy, he was at the end collecting chipped up pickles in a barrel, and then he would take those over to be cooked or whatever they were gonna do with them and then we would shut down the line to get the fingers and get the blood cleaned up and whatnot. And the girl wouldn’t -that would be the end of her job because she wouldn’t be able to work there anymore. They’d get another girl, put her in there, and start off again and seemed like nobody thought anything much about that.

Pickle Plant Story 2

I earned about 50 cents an hour and I’d come home absolutely filthy. My mom would make me take my clothes off on the back porch because she didn’t want them in the house. I’d run up and get a bath, and she would wash the clothes and get them ready for the next day. The pickles would go down the line. The girls would put- say um, we would do sweet pickles, the little gherkins and they’d stuff em in the jars and then they’d go through and get a sweet brine on it which was made up in the attic of the plant. Then they would go through and the thing would put a lid on them. Then our job was to pick them up and put them into boxes, and stack the boxes on a wagon and that would go to the warehouse. One time I remember a train, they were ultimately loaded on a train and taken to market wherever they were going. And one of the trains came back with about three or four huge box cars, and it turned out that the thing that put a lid on didn’t put it on right, and all the pickles in the box car were spoiled. It was dripping fermented brine, and it was an absolute stinky mess. We had to get in there and unload the boxcars, open up the jars, dump the material out into barrels with holes in them to drain. You think they’d throw it away, but they didn’t. That would drain for several days, and the flies would come and get all over it because you know, they just draw flies, and then they’d take that and grind it up. That became relish. Then when they got it ground up, they had these half barrels. They were barrels sawed in half with holes all in it. That’s where the ground up pickled stuff would go. That had to sit out on the concrete loading dock, and there were about one hundred and fifty or two hundred of those stacked up for days and the fruit flies would come and cover it. Our job was to take a canoe paddle and stir it. We had to do that two or three times a day. So we would load things and do our job, and then our boss would say “time to go stir the relish.” So we would go down there and take a canoe paddle and stir the relish. So what we would do when nobody was looking was- well the whole barrel was black covered with fruit flies. So we would very gently stick the paddle down in there. Then we would have a contest; who could trap the most fruit flies in this mess. So we would put the paddle in, and then real quick we would flip it, and see how many fruit flies we could catch. It was a long time before I could eat pickles and relish, but I’m okay now.

Pickle Plant Story 3

Those were all things that went on. Um gosh, up near the college on the hill they had these huge, huge, wooden storage areas. These were tanks, wooden tanks that were ten or twelve feet in diameter, and maybe eight or ten feet tall. There were dozens of them up there. So what they would do was um- cucumbers would come in by the eighteen wheeler truckloads from all across the South and Maryland and Pennsylvania. They came during the summer and the pickle plant needed to operate all year. So when many of the truckloads of cucumbers had came, [they] would get dumped in those big vats. We’d take a truck up there and unload the thing and fill the vats. And then they had a wooden slat that went on the top and then you’d take about 5 bags of salt, big huge bags of salt, and break the bags and dump them on the top of the slat. The rain water would rain in there, and the bugs would be in there and the mosquitoes would be in there. God knows what all was in there. Sometimes the cucumbers would stay in there two or three years, all during the winter and the summer. They would be compressed down because of the weight and they would lose their color. They would become white. So here were all these flat white things that looked like old beat up shoe soles. When they needed some of those pickles to process through the machinery, we would go down there and take the slat off the top and get down in it. There was usually tons of dirt because the college heated all of the classrooms with coal right next to it. The tower for the coal thing is still there, and that would filter down and be all in the pickles. It was a mess. We had to fish them out of there and put them in these carts and run them down to the plant and put them in barrels and put alum and turmeric and water in there, and then stick a steam pipe in there. That would cook the pickles, and lo and behold they would swell up, turn green again, and look like brand new cucumbers and they would get sliced up and that would go in the jar.