Volume 7, Number 5, Fall 1980
Ruby Bilyeu (known locally as Mother Ruby) is an 81 year old resident of the Spokane, Mo. area. A life-long resident of Southwest Missouris Christian County, Mother Ruby has played an important part in the history of that area of the Ozarks. She began teaching school at the age of 16. This first teaching job was in 1915. She taught in the new one-room school house at Reno, Mo. Reno was a small town on the banks of Bear Creek. It was a typical small hill town on its way to extinction when Mother Ruby taught school there for 2 years. But in the early days of its conception Reno was not an ordinary Ozarks town by any means.
Early settlers to the site found a clear-flowing spring with a big rock on which the Spanish inscription, Father Reno, was carved. These early settlers decided to call the site Reno. In the 1880s word spread far and wide that the waters from the Reno spring were medicinal and had great curative powers. There was a rush to the site of the spring not unlike the gold strike rushes of the west. When big city newspapers spread the story, people seeking the magic waters poured into this southwest Missouri settlement. Stores, saloons, dance halls, hotels, and blacksmith shops were quickly constructed on the site. Many people built homes there so they could live by the marvelous spring while many others simply camped nearby in tents or covered wagons. At one time there were 3 stores at Reno, one owned by Tom Phillips, one by Riley Page and one by Ed Knox. There were 2 hotels-The Patton House and the Caudell House. James McGinnis from Ozark and 2 brothers named McCoy built a steam-powered grist mill. A post office for Reno was set up and the town flourished. The miraculous spring waters were even bottled and shipped to cities in Missouri and other states.
Then someone analyzed the water and the word spread just as quickly that it was good old common Missouri springwater. As quickly as the boom town had sprang to life, it became deserted by the water-rushers and reverted to a small hill-country settlement.
At Reno the people who had built houses began to quickly move away. Some houses were moved to other locations, some torn down, and others simply left to the weather. By the mid-1890s Reno had practically disappeared and a man named George Stewart bought the land where Reno had flourished. Reno tried to make a comeback as a legitimate town after the turn of the century. George Stewart, who had built himself and his family a large house at Reno started up a new store there. George and his neighbors built the one-room schoolhouse for their children to attend in 1915.
Mother Ruby had about 20 pupils there. There were only the first thru fifth grades but she still had a student (a boy in the 5th grade) who was 3 years older than she that first year she taught at the age of 16. Mother Ruby earned 36 dollars per month for her teaching duties.
Around 1917 George Stewart built a tomato canning factory in Reno and Mother Ruby thought its resurgence as a town was imminent. But later the Reno school was consolidated with Spokane school district, the tomato factory shut down, and eventually even the store closed down. Now Reno is but a memory and you can drive by the site and never know it was there.
Mother Ruby was not only a part of the early one-room schoolhouse era of our history but she was also a part of another equally as important era- the era of the tomato canning factory.
Just as the dying town of Reno had a tomato factory, so did many other Ozarks communities during the time span from the teen years of the 1900s to the late forties. During the 20s, 30s, and 40s when times were hard for the hill people of the Ozarks the many tomato canning factories were a life saver for many. The rocky soil of the rough Ozarks hills would grow tomatoes which they could sell to the factory and the factories in addition provided many of them with jobs when no other jobs were to be found.
Mother Rubys husband, Earl, helped his father run a tomato canning factory and later became part owner of that factory. Then in 1924 he and John Gardner set up a tomato cannery at Riverdale, Mo. on the banks of the Finley River. The next year he sold out his half interest in that tomato cannery and built his own at his home place just north of Spokane,
Mo. With the help of their kids he and Mother Ruby ran the tomato factory until it shut down for good in the late forties.
Every year when canning season started, the Bilyeus would first do private canning for individuals if they would bring their vegetables already prepared to can. Then the canning for market was started and the work was on in earnest. Although tomatoes were the major vegetable canned to sell, occasionally black berries, beets, pears, and green beans also were canned. During the winter they had 3 employees who stayed on to grind up corn with huge stone burrs, producing the Stone Burr Corn Meal and the Stone Burr Graham Flour which they sold. Earl and his kids would work through the winter clearing land for more tomatoes and cutting the wood that would fire the boilers during the canning season.
The tomato canning process in the days of the Bilyeus cannery was not as mechanized as it is now. When the grower brought his wagon load of tomatoes in, Mother Ruby who acted as Bookkeeper, would count the number of tomato crates on the wagon. Then the wagon load was weighed, and the crates of tomatoes were unloaded and stacked on the front porch of the factory. An equal number of empty crates were then loaded on the wagon and weighed again. This told Mother Ruby exactly how many pounds of tomatoes to pay for. Prices for tomatoes started at $10 a ton and fluctuated up and down, but sometimes were as high as $30 a ton.
The tomatoes were put into wire baskets by a man who then dipped them into tanks of boiling water and scalded them. They were placed in a wooden bucket with the peelers number on it. The man put the bucket on a conveyor-type apparatus that ran in an oval in the center of about a 3-foot wide table which formed an oval shape itself. The peelers stood around this table at their numbered stations and peeled the tomatoes. After they peeled a bucket of tomatoes they sent it back around the table where the fillers took it off, weighed it to see that it contained enough tomatoes and put the tomatoes in the cans. The bucket was sent back around with a token in it for the peeler. The peeler could redeem this token for 5 cents. Lots of women worked in the fall as peelers, earning about $20 which would buy their kids enough clothes to last them thru the school year.
The tomatoes were canned, sealed and cooked. A man operating a hoist would lift out the cooked cans and put them into a cooling trough. After cooling, the cans were labeled, boxed, and readied for shipment.
Most of the canners worked by the hour. During the depression, wages for men were 12½ cents per hour. Later it went up to 25 cents per hour for men and 15 cents per hour for women. Mother Ruby would spend all morning preparing lunch to sell to the workers. She would fix enough hamburgers during the morning to feed them all. Bread trucks would bring in the buns and cakes and pop trucks would bring in the soft drinks. Everything sold for a nickel, including the hamburgers. In hard times it wasnt uncommon for boys who worked there, and who had nothing to eat at home but mush, to spend their entire days wages every day at the noon meal. In this way they could get enough to eat in that one meal to sustain themselves.
In its time, tomato canning was a big business in the Ozarks as the factories operated thru war years, depression, and terrible drought years. Tomato growers came from miles around with their crops. In one months time in 1935, there were 140,465 lbs, of tomatoes canned at the Bilyeu plant. This was not even a record month. 1936 was a better year, but only the records from 1935 survived. On a good day, over 20,000 lbs. of tomatoes would be brought to the factory and canned. In 1936 there were two shifts run at the factory and over 125 people were employed there. It was not uncommon that year to have the growers in their wagons lined up for a quarter of a mile or more waiting to unload.
Even though Mother Ruby had to work long hard hours at the tomato factory while at the same time trying to raise 8 children, she misses the old factory and regrets that it is gone now. But just like the one-room schoolhouses the tomato canning factories of those days are gone now. Neither of these will be forgotten, however, for they were both an integral part of the lives of those who lived through those years and as much a part of the history of these Ozarks as the hills themselves.
About the author: Paul Johns is a part-time free-lance writer and we appreciate his contribution to our magazine. He lives on a farm near Nixa with his wife and son.
Copyright Ó White River Valley Historical Quarterly
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