It was the closing hours of Monday, September 25, 1978. I sat on a bench outside the Green Giant plant near the slab on which the trucks deposited their 20-25 ton loads of sweetcorn. Thousands and thousands of tons had come and gone over the summer, dumped on the slab and pushed over to the conveyor belt which would take it in to the huskers. It would emerge from the cookers hours later, ready for the warehouse. I felt »a sad sense of history that night as I watched those last cobs of corn roll by on the belt, because it was the end of an era I was watching. After seventy-five years of operation, Green Giant’s parent company had decided earlier that year the Cokato plant would be closed after the 1978 pack.
Corn pack. It was an integral part of Cokato culture for many years. Like the Corn Carnival, it was an annual, corn-driven event that drew together old friends who had not seen each other for a year, and a time to renew acquaintances and catch up. A The end of summer marked the time when people from a wide area flocked into Cokato, on rotating twelve-hour shifts-. A variety of people came to Green Giant for the pack. Farmers and homemakers counted on it every summer to supplement family income, and it was an excellent way for college and high school students to earn a lot of money in a short period of time.
As well as the actual plant itself, the canteen also drew people as both employees and patrons.’ Run by Doris Peterson and Fern Holmquist, it also employed locals like Marrion Hempel and Dorothy Mealy. It gave Cokato another restaurant option, offering a tasty, home-made menu twenty-four hours a day. Employees mingled with townspeople at all hours of the day and night.
Like many other Cokato youths, it began for me when I turned sixteen. My three sisters and a brother had all spent summers at Green Giant, and I had always looked forward to the time when I could join the ranks of summer employees. That July I signed up for the night shift, proudly donned a yellow hard hat, and stepped up to a husker machine. It was to be my summer job for the next three years.
Green Giant was a very vivid world at anytime, but it seemed especially so at night. The plant lights burned brightly against the dark, the machinery clanged, rattled and hummed even through the ear plugs, and anyone who came through Cokato in - August and September would remember the smell from the silage pile. It was not easy work; sometimes those twelve hour nights were awfully long, my legs and feet hurt, and the noise gave me pounding headaches. But I learned that first summer, and would continue to experience a camaraderie in “the factory” which would help pass the long hours making the work enjoyable.
Spending twelve hours a day, seven days a week together in this atmosphere, co-workers became constant companions, friends, and sometimes almost like family. Each shift and _ department had its own jokes and social groups. I especially remember a birthday party in the canteen for one of the husker crew. Somehow Jakko Koivikanges at the bakery knew it was a Green Giant party, because he decorated the cake with corn cobs, one of which was singing “Ho, ho; ho, happy birthday!" It was its own world, and for two months each summer people from as far away as New London and Stillwater would come back to it.
This all came to an end in 1978. ,
We all knew it was the last pack, and it was somehow different from other summers. Mel Sieg made at point of going around the plant and photographing every department on day shift, from the silage pile to the slab. I did the same on night shift. I seemed to mind the long hours less, even on those days when l was called in early for day crew sanitation and ended up working a sixteen hour night.
That summer passed quickly. Soon the students went back to school and the crew shrunk. The days got shorter and the nights longer, "and l knew that it would not be long before the end came.
Those last few weeks were suspenseful, because we could not know exactly when the corn would run out. The night shift radio call, a piercing whistle followed by the famous “Ho, ho, ho, Green Giant! would air on KDUZ at 4:00 each afternoon. l remember listening with dread those last few days, afraid that day shift had finished up the last can of corn, and pack was over. It was always relieved when we were told to report for work at 6:00 p.m. Each night we would ask each other, “Is this it? Will we be back tomorrow?"
Then the night of September 25, we found out there would be no tomorrow. It was certain that the last load of corn had been delivered. That night everyone made a point to go around and say good-bye to friends. We sat in the canteen during supper break, talking about our plans after pack and wishing each other luck.
It was with a sad sense of history I sat out by the slab on my final break, watching the last cobs of corn to be processed at Cokato Green Giant roll by on the belt. l turned around and went back to my husker, hearing for the last time the rumble of the corn as it poured down the chute. I guided the cobs into the machine and watched them tumble out the other end. l left my machine on, watching it run empty for a few moments. There was a sense of disbelief among the sanitation crew as we later sat in the canteen, munching on some of Doris and Fern’s goodies. It was hard to believe that we would not be back next year, or even tomorrow night.
Sanitation took a long time that night, as if we were putting “off for as long as possible the moment when we would have to leave. When had finished sanitation of the Final Inspection area, l walked slowly through the plant, pausing here and there, reluctant to leave. The eastern sky was just becoming light when I finally went home, the empty plant behind me, wet and silent.
Many of us faced job changes or a move from Cokato. Norm Blair transferred to the LeSeur plant. Ralph Russell, Joe and Ruby Young and myself went to Winsted the next summer. Others would go to the Glencoe plant.
I still have my yellow hard hat and sometimes I get out my pictures and relive those vivid nights. You do not forget times like that. And it seemed fitting that the spring after the closure, someone spray painted some sentimental graffiti on the south wall of the plant, a symbol that would remain for many years—a broken heart.