I received an invitation to attend a slide show and panel discussion hosted by the Belfast Historical Society entitled, “Working in Belfast, Chickens and Sardines.” Now who could turn that down? And besides for the two short years we have been here, I have heard stories of people raking up chicken feathers from their yards as if they were leaves. Turns out that Belfast in truth was a center for poultry processing for many generations; indeed, the last plant to shut down was Penobscot Poultry, closing its doors in 1988 — the year the smells and the feathers disappeared. Also disappearing were many jobs, making Belfast one more footnote in the deindustrialization of the United States.
The panel discussants were four ladies who worked in various poultry processing plants in and near Belfast. In a nutshell, the ladies, although working long and hard, were grateful for the work, thought their wages fair, believed their bosses were supportive, and felt the plant and its workers to be one big family. One lady had previously provided her oral history as a worker in the “blood tunnel” (that would be where she finished off the birds that had been missed by the automatic neck-cutter). Her history has been preserved in “I Was Content and Not Content”: The Story of Linda Lord and the Closing of Penobscot Poultry. If you must have your own book, Amazon.com still has a supply – next best thing is read our Inn’s newly acquired copy.
The sardine business closed a little later in 2001, and just this year the processing plant on the waterfront in Belfast was torn down to make way for the more tony pleasure boat building enterprise. A few weeks ago, we visited the Portland Museum of Art; after strolling through the permanent collection with its fair sampling of Impressionism and a few John Singer Sargents (my personal favorite), we came across a special exhibit containing a large white board with about fifty empty sardine cans glued onto it. (At this point, Santiago is looking at me and I can read his thoughts …”If I can do this….” you know the rest). What was educative was the text next to the sardine can board which explained that sardines are not a fish per se but consist of any of 21 different species, all of which are small and oily. So I cannot say which species of fish was canned in Belfast as a sardine, I can state that all Maine’s sardine plants and canneries are now closed. Next time you buy a can of sardines, see its country of origin and what’s in the can.
The White House Inn