No. 46: Industry Series – The Marshall Canning Company of Ackley, Iowa, Part 1

ArsenalI was fortunate to visit London recently with the family.  We did a lot of tourist things, and walked around downtown a lot.  I made a deal with the family and said “Everybody pick two things you really want to do, and we’ll do those things!”  My two picks were to see a football match and visit the RAF Museum in north London.  Of course we rode trains everywhere so I got an extra treat.  Anyway my son Jacob and I broke away and went up to Highbury one evening to see Arsenal play West Ham in a league match.  It was a great experience!

The RAF Museum (formerly known as the “Battle of Britain Museum”) didn’t disappoint either.  It was fantastic–Spitfires were everywhere.  They have a great collection that rivals any museum anywhere.  They have one of only two remaining JU-87s in the world, and an ME-262, a Lancaster (which is huge!) and a lot of other neat aircraft, including an entire building full of WWI airplanes.  It is definitely worth your time to visit.

Here are a few photos of probably the two most significant aircraft of the war, in my view: The Hawker Hurricane, and the Consolidated B-24.



This B-24 has a some significance for the prototype modeler.  This is a B-24L model, one of the last production B-24s, featuring the nose-mounted Emerson turret.  According to Emerson’s company history, the turrets were made at the Emerson #2 Plant in East St. Louis, which was served by the B&O, and was right across from the PRR’s Rose Lake Yard complex.  Small World.

And now on to the Home Front.

The largest single industry on my Ackley, Iowa layout is the Marshall Canning Company.  Here is a view of the cannery (front) and the husking shed (in the background at left) around 1919 just after the plant was built and about twenty years prior to the Battle of Britain.  Photo courtesy the Ackley Historical Society.


Below is a Sanborn Map view of the cannery, circa 1930.


The original cannery complex was built by Marshall Canning in 1917. The first canning season was summer, 1919. Marshall Canning operated a number of similar plants in Iowa on the M&StL, most notably at Gilman, Roland, Marshalltown and Grundy Center. Other Marshall Canning Co. plants were operated in Hampton, Reinbeck, and Waverly, Iowa.

Marshall Canning canned corn, beans of all kinds, tomatoes, sugar, sauerkraut, pumpkin, hominy, succotash, catsup and other items. The only known item canned at Ackley was corn, despite the map notation that the plant included a cucumber brining station.

The map below of the M&StL trackage through Ackley is from 1940.  It shows changes to the track plan to better serve the cannery.  Sometime after 1940 the cannery was extended, along with the siding.  The extension continued toward the bottom left of the photo.  This  map is courtesy Gene Green from the M&StL Archives.

Ackley, Iowa 1939 North 2

Marshall Canning was sold in 1946 to Consolidated Grocers, Inc., but the plant in Ackley and perhaps others on the M&StL continued to be known as the Marshall Canning Co. into the 1970s.

The original cannery building consisted of a two-story brick structure that could load three 40-foot freight cars. The cannery expanded sometime before or during World War II, and again after the war. The cannery was built to load box cars and refrigerator cars into the 1970s.  At some point in the 1960s or 1970s covered hoppers provided service, but I don’t know at this time if the hoppers were delivering corn or other commodities, or shipping it out.

In 2008 the plant looked like this (below).  Many thanks to Doug Harding for making a special trip over there and taking all these photos for me.  By this time most of the building had been sheathed with metal or plastic siding, but a few of the original brick surfaces still existed on the track side.  Today the tracks have been completely removed and there is little trace a railroad existed there.   Immediately left is the front of the building; Doug is probably standing on Sherman Avenue which today is known as US 57.


The two views below show the back (or north) end of the building.



The view below shows the extreme north end of the original building, which has been sheathed in metal siding, and the first addition at center.  Note the neat firewall between the two structures.  Also note the addition was built using larger brick-blocks, not traditional 8 x 4 x 2-1/2-inch bricks.


On both layouts I chose to model September, 1950 since the cannery would be in full operation at that time of the year, canning and shipping corn following the typical late-summer harvest season.  The plant being built for the new layout the plant will accommodate five 40-foot cars. Ideally I’d like a plant that could accommodate 9-10 cars but I don’t have the room to model a larger building.

The plant I built for the original layout is shown mocked-up in the two photos below.  This building consumed half of a seven-foot benchwork module.  I mocked up the building to check dimensions and clearances, and also to make sure I had a building to handle six or more 40-foot cars.  My version of the original building is farthest away from the viewer–that’s the one with all the windows.  The section closest to the viewer is one of the additions and has no windows per Doug’s photos above.



I built the original model using Walthers brick sheet and Tichy windows. I have no photos of the site for my modeling period so as construction progressed I freelanced most of the detail parts and door locations and other features. I wanted the model to look like it expanded, so I first built the basic structure that accommodated three cars, then built a second three-car building that could hold an additional three cars.  Many prototype buildings expanded over time and I thought if I could capture that feature it would make an interesting model.

Below.  Here’s a photo of the nearly-completed cannery.  I had no idea what color the windows and doors were.  I saw a neat photo of a brick building with red windows in a New York Central color book, so I went with red.


A realistic operating scenario would consist of a northbound local arriving in town, checking with the operator for any orders or additional car movements needed in town, switching the IC interchange, and then continuing northbound off the layout. During the canning rush in the fall harvest season the local may also switch the cannery, or drop empties off-spot, and perhaps move loaded cars to the transfer or take them north to Mason City. A southbound extra could repeat a similar sequence: Switching the interchange, the cannery and trailing point customers and then continuing south. Just switching the cannery could keep an operator busy for 20 minutes or more, especially if the local has to move cars from off-spot locations or from the IC transfer to the cannery, and pick up loads.

Switching the cannery was a huge problem on my layout.  In the view below, you can see the local siding on the right, with the cannery lead branching off in the distance.  This track arrangement was per the prototype in 1940…however it was completely inefficient.  The real railroad realized this too and eventually continued the cannery siding on the far right past the signal and back to the main track via a second switch, effectively putting the cannery on it’s own double-ended track.  That simplified everything.

On my layout the cannery was on a single-ended track, with the opening going the wrong way.  Yep, I modeled everything per the prototype and inherited the prototype switching problems along with it.  It was impossible to move six cars to and from the cannery without moving other cars on the siding.  I have changed that on the new layout by having the cannery switch facing the other direction, making it easy to switch the plant from the siding.


See below.  This is the new layout with the revised cannery lead track.  The RS-1 is at the cannery lead; the cannery track is at the back of the layout with the two box cars on it.  There is no cannery building yet–it was the one building I didn’t bring to Germany, and I am currently building a new one.  That crossover that leads to the cannery is personally significant, as those two switches are the first ones I ever scratchbuilt using Code 55 rail.  They work well.


Here is a final view of the cannery area before the old layout came down.  I had begun installing static grass in the area.  The building was big–about 3-1/2-feet long and it really dominated the town site.


My buddy Clark Propst has done a mountain of research on canning plants in central Iowa, especially those on the M&StL, and over the years has met lot of guys that worked on the railroads in the area.

Clark recently wrote, I met a guy last weekend that used to brake on 32 and 33 (referring to M&StL trains 32 and 33, which were local trains that ran through Ackley).  I asked him about switching Ackley. He said they only switched it going northbound. So I asked him how they switched the siding since the switch faces the other way. His reply: ‘The switch faced south, so we rolled the cars past and switched them from the back.’

We can’t switch that way with out models, unfortunately! 🙂  Geez…Even the real railroaders had trouble switching this place.

Construction of a new cannery is underway.  More on that in my next post.

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