Becky Savo was interviewed on April 22, 2019 by LaRece Egli at the Bristol Bay Historical Society in Naknek, Alaska. In this interview, Becky talks about working at canneries in Chignik and Naknek, Alaska in the 1970s and 1980s. She describes the process of fish processing and canning, working at the patching table and being a machinist's helper, and serving and cooking in the mess hall. Her stories of the hard work and physical labor involved with cannery work paint a picture of life at the cannery during the summer fishing and processing season, as well as work done before and after the season to open up and close down the cannery, most particularly the bunkhouses. She also talks about the cross-cultural experience cannery work provided, how everyone had to learn to get along, the importance of listening to music, and the development of long-term friendships.
Digital Asset Information
Project: NN Cannery History
Date of Interview: Apr 22, 2019
Narrator(s): Becky Savo
Interviewer(s): LaRece Egli
Transcriber: Noel Miller
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Personal background and getting involved with cannery work
Coming to Alaska, and working in Chignik
Airplane and boat transportation in Chignik
First job in a cannery at the patching table
Fish canning process, and barging finished cans to Washington for labeling
Being tired from long hours and hard work
Having fun on the job, and building life-long friendships
Arriving at a cannery and being oriented to the place and the job
Alaska Packers Association cannery in Blaine, Washington
Cultural diversity of cannery workers, and cross-cultural experiences
The girls' bunkhouse
Being provided clothing, saving money, and socializing
Importance of following rules to keep your job, and being given a busy work schedule to stay out of trouble
Challenges of the job and physical labor
Role of women in the cannery
Lessons learned about teamwork and camaraderie
Strains of the job, and learning to get along with different kinds of people
Importance of dressing properly to stay dry and warm
Bunkhouse accommodations, and post-work routine
Writing letters to communicate with home, and finding things to do for entertainment
Listening to music
Early and late season crew preparation and clean-up work
Working in the mess hall, as a machinist's helper, in the Egg House, and as the storekeeper
Different mess halls and food service
Marriage, motherhood, getting an education, and returning to Naknek
Preserving cannery buildings, and appreciating the craftsmanship
Importance of the fishery, and current job for Bristol Bay Borough issuing building permits and ensuring safety
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LARECE EGLI: My name is LaRece Egli. I am the community curator for the
And I'm here at the Bristol Bay Historical Society Museum with Becky Savo. A former cannery worker, a lifelong resident, and a board member for the Bristol Bay Historical Society.
So, Becky, would you mind introducing yourself?
BECKY SAVO: Well, I should start with, uh, when I was a cannery worker. My maiden name was Cothren. So, I was Becky Cothren to most -- LARECE EGLI: Can you -- BECKY SAVO: -- people I worked with.
LARECE EGLI: Can you spell that for me? BECKY SAVO: C-O-T-H-R-E-N. LARECE EGLI: Okay. And, do you like to go by Becky, B-E-C-K-Y? BECKY SAVO: That is my legal name. LARECE EGLI: That is your legal name. BECKY SAVO: Yeah, Becky is my legal name.
So, my father also worked at the cannery. So, that's how I got into the cannery line of work. So, my dad worked there form the '60s forward.
I don't even know what year he formally retired, but he had many different jobs with them. He started in quality control and then he was also in, um, HR (human resources) and personnel.
So, he knew pretty much everybody that worked at the cannery, and he was in charge of most of the Alaska Packers canneries all over the state of Alaska, for -- in those roles. So, he traveled extensively to all the canneries.
I personally worked at three. Um, Chignik, they were Alaska Packers at the time. Chignik, um, well, that's not true. Two were Alaska Packers. Chignik and NN, which is South Naknek.
And then I worked at Diamond E fisheries in Egegik, which was formally an Alaska Packers cannery, but was run by the Native Corporation at the time. Which was Diamond E. Was their brand name.
LARECE EGLI: Can you tell me a little bit about where you're from? BECKY SAVO: So, I'm form Blaine, Washington. Originally from Seattle.
So, my dad went to the University of Washington and got into quality control/public health there. And then got a job with Alaska Packers.
And then Alaska Packers moved their office from downtown Seattle, um, on the piers down there to Blaine, Washington.
So, we moved with the company to Blaine, Washington, and I went to high school there. Elementary and high school. And graduated from Blaine High School.
LARECE EGLI: So, you're a company kid? BECKY SAVO: I am a company kid. Or as they used to call us, "cannery brats." LARECE EGLI: Cannery brats. Oh, that's cute. BECKY SAVO: Yeah. LARECE EGLI: That's cute.
BECKY SAVO: And there were quite a few of us. I mean, it was kind of a tradition when you turned eighteen you went to work in the cannery. And that's how you sort of made your money to move on in life.
And I did. I went through college with very little debt. Unlike the poor kids these days with all the student loans.
I think I owed seven hundred dollars after seven years of study. So, it was pretty good.
LARECE EGLI: Wow. Um, so that time spent in Blaine and your family's involvement with the company -- And you said eighteen was the traditional time to come to Alaska for those cannery brats. When did you first come to Alaska? BECKY SAVO: In 1974.
And you had to be eighteen, because you worked around machinery and that's -- was a state law. So, you couldn't work in the canneries until you were eighteen.
And it was, um -- you know, it was really, pretty good money. And it was kind of an adventure. LARECE EGLI: Mm-mm.
BECKY SAVO: You know, and especially if you'd never been away from home like many of us had really never been away from home before, and it was a whole different world. Especially in Chignik, because they didn't have any infrastructure in those days.
In the '70s, there was no TV, there was no radio station. There was VHF radio was the only communication in and out of there, and oddly enough I still remember the call sign. Which was KKI21Chignik.
I don't know why that's implanted in my brain. Because I was not the radio operator. So, I don't know how that remains, but, um --
I brought a cassette player with me and I had music, so that made me very popular. So -- 'Cause there was no music and people played guitars or brought cassette tapes, which was the -- the media at the time in the '70s.
And, it was beautiful there. You know, we had fires on the beach and we -- it was very social, very beautiful. The mountains came right down to the shoreline and there were waterfalls coming down the mountains behind the cannery.
And it was long hours and a lot of hard work, but the surroundings were just gorgeous. Across the bay from the Chignik plant was all mountains and, um --
In those days, they didn't have a road to the airfield, so they brought you in there in a Widgeon, which was a plane that was on floats. And it would drive up on the beach when you got there.
So, that was very adventurous if you were from the states where you traveled by car mostly.
And then the airfield was across the bay and they would skiff over to the airfield with everybody and their luggage, if you were catching a wheel-based airplane.
They've since built a road that goes around the bay. They have a more improved airport now.
But in those days, Chignik was pretty small. It was a village, it had one cannery. And that was where -- where all the action happened when the fish showed up.
LARECE EGLI: Can you tell us what a skiff is? For those who won't know. BECKY SAVO: Oh, a small metal boat. Sometimes wood. A smaller boat. Bigger than a row boat, smaller than a fishing boat.
Had a outboard on the back. Holds about six people.
LARECE EGLI: Kind of open. BECKY SAVO: Oh, all open to the elements.
And the funny thing was, is people would get dressed up to leave and then you'd have this freezing ride across the bay with, you know, your city clothes on.
So, and then sometimes, if the weather wasn't good, you would take off and circle around above Chignik and then land again, and get in the skiff and go back to the cannery because you couldn't get out of there.
LARECE EGLI: That's probably what -- how you could tell who the new cannery workers, huh? BECKY SAVO: Yeah. LARECE EGLI: Based on what they were wearing.
BECKY SAVO: Generally, people showed up dressed up and left dressed up. But the rest of the time, you were wearing your work attire.
LARCE EGLI: So, what was your first job? BECKY SAVO: I worked on the patching table, which was where the cans of salmon come out of the filler machine and they come flying on this line by you.
And if there's bones sticking over where the lid goes on, you have to pull them off and literally snip them off with scissors.
But they're coming at like this very rapid rate, so you're constantly like pulling them off, cutting them, throwing them back on. You know, always in motion.
There were four of us there, sometimes six, depending on how much fish there was. And it was a pretty intense job. And it was an important job, because if the bones are over the edge and the lid goes on, then the can doesn't seal. And then, it's wasted.
So, there was a lot of, you know, scrutiny over if you were doing that correctly.
And it was noisy. All the machines are clanging and banging around you, and, um --
The fish they -- they come in -- in like totes, and then they're off -- sorted on a table and they're turned so that the heads are all going the same way.
And then they go into this machine that's called a filler, which is a machine that had all these spinning knives on it. And they would slice the fish. So, I guess long ways.
So, um -- so, if you're looking at the long part of the fish, like the back bone side would go into the filler, and it would be cut in like just the size of a half-pound can if you're doing half-pounds or the size of a one pound can if you're doing one pounds.
But the fish literally was cut the size of the can, and then it went in there and it flipped right into the cans.
And then they went down the line to the patching table and they cut off the bones. And then they went to another machine where the lids dropped down, and the lid went on.
And the -- the cans were made upstairs in the -- in the can loft. And up there, you could hear all these machines just ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching all day long, because they were putting the bottoms on the can.
So, the cans would come flat and they would go on this thing that made 'em round. They were already seamed, but it -- it bent them round again. And then the bottoms went on, and then they went down this big tube and dropped into the can line, and the fish was plunked into the can, and then it would come down past the patching table.
And you'd make sure the top was clear, and then the lid would go on, and then that was, you know, pressed on and sealed.
And then they went down into these trays where they went into these giant cookers, which were called retorts.
And they were -- all this was sort of rolled along. After they got into the trays, they were rolled along like on railroad -- almost like railroads ties, or they rolled them right into the retorts.
And then they cooked in there. And then on the other side of the warehouse, they pulled them out and they cooled.
And you could -- you could really smell that smell of the cooking fish.
And then a lot of steam and everything every time they opened the retorts.
And then they would be there cooling and you could hear 'em, because they would pop. The cans would make this like pinging popping sound while they cooled.
It's almost like music, really. You could hear 'em cooling.
And then, um, from there, they were -- I think from there, they were palletized and sent down to Blaine, Washington, where in the fall the labeling was done in Blaine. So, it was an interesting process.
And then on the other side of the plant -- so they slimed the fish, and so that they came up this ladder off the tenders. So, it literally was like a ladder with buckets.
So, these big flat scows would pull up. They would have all these fish on 'em, and they would push the fish into these buckets on this ladder and it would bring 'em up the face of the dock and then they went over on a belt across the top of the dock and into the Fish House.
And from there, they went into bins where they were kept cold, and then they would come out of the bins onto the slime line.
And they would cut -- cut the -- the bellies were cut and they're like clean. Like the guts are taken out, and then they --
They call it the slime line, because there's like a -- a vein of, I don't know, bloody tissue I guess you'd call it that you have to scrap out of there. And then, of course, the heads are taken off.
And then from there, the eggs were sorted out on the gut line, because the eggs were precious, the guts were not.
So, the guts went down a grinder and the eggs went into the Egg House. And the eggs were washed in a salt brine, and then packed under the supervision of Japanese technicians, because they were very particular about how they looked and how they were brined, and the end product was pretty valuable. So, they were pretty particular about how you did that.
And the Egg House was a good place to work, 'cause it was a little drier and a little more user friendly then the rest of the cannery. You were warmer in there.
So -- so that's the whole process. Then after they came out of the Fish House they went over to the -- to the side of the cannery were the filling -- filler machine is.
And all of this is on belts. And back in those days, they were like big canvas belts like going over these um -- like wheel-like rollers, like kind of all around you.
They were pretty dangerous, really, if they ever broke. But, uh, everything was belt driven and they moved everything. It was pretty automated, you know, but it was, um --
They covered a lot of distance between the tender, up the ladder, into the Fish House, over to the can side, you know, into the cans, into the retorts.
And then once they were pallet -- cooled and palletized, then in the fall the pack was loaded back onto barges and flat scows and taken back down south to Blaine.
So, they used to barge the pack out. Nowadays, all of that happens at city dock. And generally the pack is taken out by commercial freight carriers, like AML. But in those days, each cannery took their own pack back down to the states.
And sometimes they canned fish for other companies, too.
But the worst thing was when you were so tired working in the cannery and you'd watch the bins and you'd be like, "Ah, the bins are almost empty." And you'd think you were getting off work.
And then you'd have a coffee break and you'd go out on the dock and you'd be sitting out there with your little cup of coffee, and here comes three more flat scows up the mouth of the river. And you're like, "Oh, please, don't come here."
Sure enough, they would pull up to the dock and you'd have another twelve, fourteen hours of work when you thought you were getting off.
But, there were labor laws. I mean, I don't think they were allowed to work us -- we generally worked from eight in the morning, lunch at no -- coffee at nine, lunch at noon, coffee at three, dinner at five, coffee again at nine.
If you worked past midnight, they usually fed you breakfast, and I think they could work you 'til two in the morning, but then they had to like let you sleep until eight again.
There was like a set number of hours they had to let you sleep. And by then, you were goofy, so goofy in the head you had to -- There was not much left after you've stood on your feet that long.
LARECE EGLI: Especially by the end of the season on the docks moving. BECKY SAVO: Yeah.
It was fun. I mean, you know, we would always do things to entertain ourselves. And sing songs and tell goofy jokes and -- LARECE EGLI: Right.
BECKY SAVO: People get kind of crazy when they're -- they're stressed like that from work. We -- we had a lot of fun. We made it fun.
LARECE EGLI: Yeah, and it seems that a lot of that activity seems to happen around those coffee break times. That "Mug Up."
And there seems to be a pattern of lifelong friendships that have kind of been forged in that over-worked space.
BECKY SAVO: Yeah, I -- I personally went to Alaska sort of with the same group of girls for a number of years.
But, part of that is because we were all trying to go to college and, you know, we kept saying, "Well, one more year 'til I get through college," you know.
And sometimes that got extended, and then you have bills after college. "Oh, maybe one more year 'til I get out of debt."
But, I went -- initially, I went to school with another -- I mean school -- Initially, I went to the cannery with another cannery brat. Her dad also worked for Alaska Packers.
And we both went to Chignik together the first year.
And then we meet my other friend, Christie, there in Chignik. And then she started coming along with us.
And then when we worked in Naknek, we had another friend that we got close to, and then she came for several more years.
So, there was -- there was, you know, four or five or six of us that we just routinely went back and --
You know, we kind of progressed up through the ranks out of the cannery into the mess hall eventually, but --
And that was a, you know, a warmer, drier work environment, and you did get paid a little bit more, so it was a little more lucrative.
But, it was all really -- for us, it was to get through school.
And, you know, we were -- we were roommates when we weren't working in the cannery, too, for different periods of time while we were going to college.
So, they were friendships that have stayed to -- 'til today. Actually, we just had a little reunion last summer. So, we're all still in touch. LARECE EGLI: Wow.
BECKY SAVO: Yeah, many, many years later, I -- I won't quote the years.
LARECE EGLI: Um, so I -- I'm imagining you and another friend from Blaine ending up in Chignik and being introduced to this life that while you're familiar with through, you know, your family, your first entrance into this scene and being taught this first job of working on the patching table.
Can you tell me anything about after that skiff ride, what that orientation at a cannery looks like and sort of that transition?
BECKY SAVO: Well, what -- when we first arrived, we came by Widgeon. So, we drove right up on the beach.
And, um, you know, Orin Seybert was the pilot, and he would get up on the top of the plane and stand there and talk to everybody, and I -- I still have a picture of him standing on top of his Widgeon.
And, you know, because our dads worked for the company, they took good care of us. I think we probably got a little special treatment, and the superintendent came down to greet us.
My girlfriend was very airsick, so she was a little embarrassed to get off the airplane because she was a little green around the gills. But, we did manage to get back on dry land and she was better then.
And they take you to, you know, they take you -- you sign up for work and then they show you where your room is, and bring you to the mess hall and feed you when you get there.
And, you know, it's -- it was a little bit oddly like summer camp with work added. You know, because you're all eating -- It kind of reminded me of like Girl Scout camp where you're all eating in this big mess hall and, you know. LARECE EGLI: Hm.
BECKY SAVO: But, you're with like a lot of different people, many different cultures, you know. It was really interesting, but it was very different than anything we'd been used to.
And it was not like the canneries we grew up around. Because the APA cannery in Blaine had been closed down and it was -- there was no processing there when I grew up there as a kid. It was just warehouses and they did the labeling there.
So the -- the tenders would come in the fall and it was really kind of exciting when the -- they would get there and they would unload all these cans and they would bring the cans around on these carts.
And then after they unloaded them in the warehouse, the carts were empty and then us kids we would jump on there and ride the cart back over to the -- the front of the dock. And then, of course, jump off before they put another pallet on there.
But, it was -- it was kind of exciting. And it was more like a -- a park-like setting. Like, there was lots of open ground and rabbits. There was a million rabbits jumping around out there and it was --
It wasn't like a bustling cannery with a lot of people. There were -- there were like warehousing people that worked there, and then there was the office people that worked there, but it wasn't like processing. There was no processing.
But back in the day, the Blaine cannery, they did process and they actually brought people across by boat to work there. On a boat named the "Plover." That used to bring the workers from Blaine over to process the fish in the cannery.
So that cannery also has really interesting history. And they have a museum there in Blaine at Semiahmoo that tells that history, as well.
So, I'm glad that it's all being documented, 'cause it was very unique and it was really a -- an amazing cross-cultural experience for someone that just grew up in a little fishing town on the coast of Washington. Like, I had no idea that all these different cultures were out there and all these different people.
And, I mean, there really were. There were -- fishermen really there, you know, there was the local fishermen that were Alaskans, and then there were -- I think one of 'em -- one fellow was, I think he was Lebanese.
And then there was, you know, a lot of Nordic cultures, and then there were Italian fishermen at the cannery. It was just --
And then a lot of the workers were from the Philippines, and, you know, from other countries. So, it was just -- it was really just an amazing blending of different cultures.
And everyone with the same mission, you know. We got to get this fish taken care of today, you know. So, you're just -- you're forced to -- to get along and work together. You eat together, you sleep together.
So, it's -- you know, you're all there just to get that one thing accomplished. Get that salmon run taken care of. So --
And it was interesting. And they took pretty good care, you know -- Well, they took really good care of the girls. We had our own bunkhouse, and, you know, we were kind of guarded, because, you know, there were some wild things that went on in fishing communities. So --
You know, we had a curfew and we were supposed to, you know, mind our p's and q's. So --
LARECE EGLI: Which bunkhouse did you first stay in at NN? BECKY SAVO: The metal one at the top of the hill. Yeah, the one by the cemetery there.
Yeah, that was always the girls' bunkhouse, and it was the newer of the bunkhouses and it was very nice.
And -- and one thing I will say is, you know, I -- I worked at -- you know, I've seen other canneries, I've worked at other canneries, but the Alaska Packers cannery, we always had everything we needed.
I mean, they had nice bedding, the rooms were clean, we had curtains on the windows, the food was good. They always made sure you had coffee breaks.
And I'm not sure in the processing world that they take as good of care of people as they did back in those days, but we really -- You know, they provided all our rain gear and our boots, and we weren't -- we didn't have to pay anything.
We were in the union, so that -- part of that might have been union contract, but we -- we really just showed up with our suitcases and went to work.
And you saved all your money, because there was nothing there to spend money on.
And there was a bar there, but most of us didn't go to the bar. It was like, not really -- It was kind of frowned upon. And you're just so busy.
You know, there was socializing, like the fishermen would have parties in their bunkhouse or the cannery workers would have parties.
The Japanese technicians would cook for the Egg House crew and, you know, have little parties.
And then, on the Fourth of July they would always do like a big barbecue, and, you know, cook like a big barbecue dinner. And -- and that was always fun.
But, it wasn't -- they didn't -- they didn't really in -- you know, want you to like go across the river to Naknek or you know, go to the bar. And if you made a habit of that, you weren't usually working there too much longer.
They kind of got rid of people that didn't follow the rules.
But the superintendent I worked under most of the time, he ran a tight -- he ran a tight ship.
LARECE EGLI: Who was that superintendent? BECKY SAVO: That was Norm Rockness. They called him "The Rock."
Yeah. And, uh, you know, his wife came up. I knew them also because they were our neigh -- they had a summer cabin near my house where I grew up, so they were our neighbors.
But, it -- it really, um -- there wasn't much time to not stick with the program. Because the fish just showed up and bam, you had to be ready, and you had to get it done.
In the early season, they kind of like had you do busy work. So, we would like do cleaning and painting and maintenance kind of things. And -- and it was kind of fun.
And what -- you know, when you first get there, like if it's your first go around, you're like, "Oh, wow, this is a piece of cake. This is going to be great," you know. 'Cause you have no idea what's coming, right.
And you think, "Oh, yeah, I'm just going to, like paint the trim on these windows all summer. And the sun's out and it's -- this is going to be great."
You know, and then the fish get there and the work really starts. (coughs) Excuse me.
LARECE EGLI: The reality of a sixteen-hour day happens. BECKY SAVO: Yeah, yeah. LARECE EGLI: Again and again.
BECKY SAVO: And, you know, there's always a few that just really can't hack it. That end up going home. They quit and they go home.
But if you quit, you had to pay your own way home, so you really basically didn't make any money then. Yeah.
So I think I made nine years, you know. Thought of quitting a few times, but didn't.
And then, you know, there was always, you know, some workers that just physically couldn't hack it. I mean, it's cold, it's hard on your feet, it's hard on your body. You know, so if you weren't used to hard work, it was much harder on you.
And, uh, there were different ages. You know, I -- in Chignik I worked with a -- this woman, Agolottie (sp?) that was -- God, she had to have been in her sixties when I worked with her, and she was just tough, amazing, hard working Scandinavian woman, you know.
Really an example of, you know, putting your mind to something and getting it done.
But she also made me think I should go to college, 'cause I don't know if I could do this kind of work 'til I'm sixty.
So, there's also that incentive. Makes you want to do something else.
LARECE EGLI: What else can you say about women? Women's roles in the cannery? BECKY SAVO: (coughs) Well, they -- you know, when I worked there, they definitely had certain jobs that were for women and certain jobs that were for men.
That changed by the time I was done working there. It was more, um, they would let you try different things if you were a women if you were so inclined. It wasn't quite as segregated.
But, generally, everybody was super nice to the women and the girls and um, I -- I just never really felt like we were treated badly or anything.
You know, some -- some women were more used to the hard work than others, but it was kind of a team spirit.
I mean, you know, we'd rally around each other and try to help, you know. If someone was really hurting or whatever we'd try to help them. And --
You know, sometimes the supervisors would give 'em a little break, let them go home early or something if they thought they were at their breaking point, but --
And, you know, you look in the pictures you see a lot of people laying around on the dock. That's 'cause their bodies hurt. And the dock was always warm when the sun was on it, so it was kind of like a heating pad, but --
I -- you know, I saw women work their way up, too, in the cannery, and -- You know, one of the women that I worked with, like she started out when I started out, you know, and she has a management role with a major processor now.
So, I have seen women work their way up starting at ground -- ground zero, you know. So, you know, it can be done. It was a good stepping stone for me.
Another thing it really teaches you is to get along with people. You know, because it doesn't matter what office environment you're in after you've worked in a cannery, you can get along.
Because if you can get along with somebody standing next to them on a gut line for twelve hours, you can get along with anybody at a desk, you know.
LARECE EGLI: Right, with cold hands. I mean, there's the physical element of it, too. I mean you -- BECKY SAVO: The physical element is brutal. LARECE EGLI: The physical element, and you've also talked about the -- the various cultures. Can you -- BECKY SAVO: (Coughs)
LARECE EGLI: Can you talk about the strain of the hours, the physical barriers to being cold and damp, and then having these language issues? BECKY SAVO: Well, and sometimes, you know, when people would get tired, you know, they get short tempered and, um --
You know, you have to know how to read people, like 'cause, you know, you don't want to push people's buttons when they've been -- you know, they're exhausted and they're working with knives, so you gotta -- you want to be careful.
And there’s a certain, um, cultural hierarchy with some of the other cultures. They've been coming for many years and there was, you know, sort of a bosses within the --
So, the Filipino crew kind of had their own little boss and the -- the Native crew that did the whole retort thing, they had their own boss. So, there was -- there was definitely like a pecking order and -- and everybody kind of knew their role.
But as far as like the physical aspects of it, the first thing you got to learn is how to stay dry. Because some people would come and they wouldn't dress appropriately. They wouldn't be careful when they were working, and they would get wet.
And as soon as you're wet, you're done, 'cause you're cold immediately. So, you got to learn to stay dry. You got to learn how to dress right. So, that you're in layers and you don't, you know, get as cold. And --
LARECE EGLI: Now we know from the myriad of photos of you that have surfaced during this project, that you had a very signature look. BEECKY SAVO: Yeah, I did.
LARECE EGLI: Can you tell me about how a good cannery worker should dress? BECKY SAVO: Well, a good cannery worker -- here's a trick I actually learned from Agolottie (sp?). Is as soon as you get your boots, you find a cardboard box and you cut out a shoe liner of cardboard, and you put that in the bottom of your boots. And what that does is it creates an air space in there with the cardboard, and that keeps your feet warm.
So, boots, cardboard, wool socks. A lot of times long johns and then jeans.
And I was always a fan of either wearing rain pants or an apron depending on what I was doing.
And then, you know, underneath that several shirts. Usually a wool shirt, 'cause wool will always keep you warm.
And then I usually wore like -- either like a wind breaker or like some kind of nylon vest or something that kept the core of the body warm and kept you dry.
And if you were, you know, like on the slime line, you had to wear a raincoat, 'cause you've got water overhead coming on you, but --
So then your rain gear. I liked to wear sleeves, 'cause that's the plastic sleeve, 'cause I don't like the cuffs of my shirt to be wet all day 'cause then you get a rash around your wrist from the salt. And then that can be very painful.
And then, of course, you -- depending on what you're doing you have to wear gloves. Lot of times you have to wear gloves.
And then I always took -- put a bandana around my neck. So like, if you got something weird on your face, you could wipe it off right away. Like if you had -- like a little fish guts spray on you or something, that was your portable napkin.
And then I always wore a bandana on my head, 'cause you don't want your hair hanging down in your face when you're trying to work. Getting all sticky.
So, that was my deal. And then I would peel that off when I -- when I went back at night and start over again.
But you've really got -- you've got to learn how to keep dry, 'cause there's always hoses going, there's always people rinsing stuff off. It's a very wet environment.
And once you're wet, then you're cold, especially, you know, 'cause you go out the dock and it's sunshiny, but when you go in the buildings, then it's cooler in there.
And this -- the fish is cold. It's been iced, you know. So the product you're handling is cold and when it -- the eggs come out of the brine, they're cold, so it's -- it's --
And they open the big doors and the wind comes in. It's cold. Just can be cold, really cold, especially on a rainy windy day.
LARECE EGLI: Yeah, and we -- we definitely have those in Bristol Bay, so --
BECKY SAVO: Well, in Egegik, I don't think -- I think it was sunny two days the whole time we were there. That was a very foggy, rainy, windy, cold work environment.
And a lot of us got sick actually from it. That was not the most pleasant job I've had.
LARECE EGLI: Okay, so you head back to your bunkhouse. Can you describe to me what kind of accommodations you had in you bunkhouse at the end of the day? BECKY SAVO: Yeah, we actually had very nice bunkhouses.
So we had like a day room up front that had chairs, and, you know, you could play board games or play cards or whatever in there. Just sit around and visit.
And then every room had two twin beds, a dresser each -- two dressers, like a little desk thing. So I think there was a desk, two dressers, two bed -- two twin beds, and they all had matching bed spreads and matching curtains.
And then, it was a tile floor. Sometimes they had little area rugs.
And then they had like a big shower room that had maybe four or five showers, and then there was a washer and a dryer in there. So, you could do your laundry.
And the main thing was, you know, you wanted to hurry up and get back and get your shower before nine o'clock "Mug Up," 'cause that was sort of the social event of the night, you know. So, you wanted to be "fixed."
You didn't want to go from cannery to nine o'clock "Mug Up," say, if you got off at seven. You wanted to go take a shower, and, you know, go down there looking better. So --
And then people would sit around at nine o'clock "Mug Up" and drink hot chocolate and visit, and walk around on the dock. Going for the little walk around the dock was sort of the social event.
And then we spent a lot of time writing letters. And I don't know I -- I drew lots of pictures and did -- I did photography, so I took a lot of pictures around the cannery and of people. And that was kind of my hobby.
And back then, you know, we didn't have cell phones and everything, so we wrote letters.
LARECE EGLI: Yeah, tell me more about those communications. What you wr -- write a letter and then how do you mail it? BECKY SAVO: They -- th -- the local post office.
So, the cannery office had a mail box. You could put your mail in there and then you got your mail down there. They had little mail slots for everybody. And you got your mail there.
And it was always great to get a letter. I always felt bad for people that never got a letter. Because you really look forward to getting some mail from home.
And then, um, I wrote lots of letters. I used to -- they had all the old can labels in the can shop. There was boxes and boxes of old canning labels, 'cause they used to label the cans there, but they didn't anymore.
So, we would write letters on the back of those and use 'em for stationary. And mail those out and then --
Yeah, we'd -- I don't know, we did -- we did all kinds of goofy things. Sometimes we canned letters and mailed the cans, just for fun, for something. A novelty item to send home.
LARECE EGLI: It would be fun to track one of those down.
BECKY SAVO: And then we, um, you know, we hiked around, we walked on the beach, we pressed flowers. There was lots of wildflowers out there on the tundra. We'd go pick those and press them. And I don't know, we found ways to stay busy on our time off.
But, everything pretty much revolved around the mess hall schedule. I don't think any of us ever missed a meal.
LARECE EGLI: Right. So, you've got the cannery provides your housing, provides your meals. You show up, you're assigned a job, you're given raingear, you're given boots.
What other resources were assigned or were provided by the cannery? BECKY SAVO: Well, they had a cannery store. So, the store had like set hours. So it was always like when the store was open everybody would go down check out the store.
They had like, some -- an odd assortment of clothing that some of it was like super old-fashioned. I think had been there since like 1930.
And then, you know, they had like, grocery items. The fishermen shopped there, like for food. And then, um, they had candy bars and --
There was like no newspapers or magazines or anything like that. Sometimes the pilots would come in and they would bring newspapers and magazines, and that was like a big deal to get like something new to read. Some latest magazine.
There wasn't a library in South Naknek back then either, I don't think. But, people traded around pocket books. And people still read books then.
We didn't have TV. We had, um, just -- we just had music, really, most of the time.
LARECE EGLI: What kind of music? Tell me more about that. BECKY SAVO: Well, I -- I brought all my favorites on ca -- on cassette tapes.
So, music of the '70s. Gordon Lightfoot comes to mind. That was sort of one of my favorites back then.
LARECE EGLI: How would you play it and where? BECKY SAVO: Oh, I had a cassette player, which was like a cassette deck. It was, I don't know, maybe a foot and a half by six inches and the top popped up and you stuck your tape in there, and it had little speakers on the top.
It also recorded. You could make recordings.
But, I think we graduated from that to a radio with a cassette player in it. Several years later. Actually, still have that radio. I got it at Montgomery Ward. LARECE EGLI: Nice.
BECKY SAVO: But, um, I don't know. You know, we -- we mostly just walked around and --
There wasn't a lot of free time. I mean, they made a point to kinda get you in there, wait for the fish to get there, get you busy, and get you out of there as soon as it was over.
LARECE EGLI: What time of year did you typically show up to start work? BECKY SAVO: Well, generally, the crew came in about the second week in June.
If you were on the early crew, which after I worked there several years I used to come up in the early crew, which was usually early May, maybe.
And we would, you know, clean the bunkhouses and get everything ready before everybody got there.
And that was, yeah, that was like, you know, about a month before everybody else would get there.
And then sometimes I would stay late and do the same thing at the end of the season where you clean everything up, put it -- you know, do all the laundry, put all the blankets away.
They had wool blankets that were like army surplus, I guess, and they washed 'em. They had these big drum washing machines and they would wash all these sheets and all these blankets, and they had outside clothes lines, and we would hang 'em all out there. You know, load after load, and then they would dry 'em.
They had dryers, too, but if it was nice out we'd hang 'em out to dry.
And then all that had to be folded, and had to be packed, and stored on shelves.
And when you were making the beds, you had to pack 'em up all the stairs to the second floor of those bunkhouses. It was heavy.
A lot of heavy work to get all the sheets and blankets up there and get all the beds made.
And then we also worked in the kitchen, you know, cleaning everything, making sure everything was ready to go. Moving food around, supplies, organizing stuff.
It was -- it was a lot of work to house that many people. I mean, there were over three hundred people at NN.
And when -- when I worked in the mess hall, we fed three hundred people like six times a day. Which is a lot of food.
LARECE EGLI: When did you start working in the mess hall? BECKY SAVO: I think -- When was that?
Like the last three years I worked there, I think I worked in the mess hall. I started as this -- the third cook. I think.
Uh, two years as third cook, one year as second cook.
So Holly was born in '84, so I didn't work in '84. So, I think that was '83, '82, and '81 probably.
LARECE EGLI: What other jobs did you work? BECKY SAVO: I pretty much worked every job in the cannery, because I just liked to try everything out.
So, at one point, I was a machinist's helper, and I did a lot of oiling and greasing of the can lines.
They wouldn't trust me with any -- any major adjustments or anything, but, you know, and I got like a lot of the supplies and stuff that they needed, and, you know, kept everything stocked.
And the can lines, they took -- they were -- they took a lot of fine adjustment. So anytime the cans jammed or anything like that happened, then the machinist crew had to stop the line and come and check it.
Because otherwise the weights of the cans would be off or the seams wouldn't seal right. So anytime there was any like problem, then they would shut the line down and -- and test it and make sure it was good.
'Cause a lot of cans are getting processed at one time, and, you know, if you have a problem you could have, you know, several pallets of cans before you realize you have a problem.
So, one of my jobs was to watch, 'cause the -- the workers wouldn't always tell the machinists they needed to stop the line. So, there was like a switch where you could stop the line.
So, one of my jobs was to watch, and if anything jammed up to stop the line, and then get them over there to check it out.
So, I worked the patching table. I worked the Egg House. I was on the sorting table for a while. I never worked in the Fish House. I worked in the warehouse for a while.
I was the storekeeper one year. That was my favorite job. That was so much fun.
And the storekeeper, you dealt with all the fishermen, 'cause they would come there and get their groceries. You met all the people from town, because they would come and shop there.
And all the tender orders and stuff, a lot of that went through there, so, it was just a -- it was -- it was really fun and just -- you met so many interesting people. So, I really liked that.
But then the next year, they closed the store. By corporate decision, I guess. So then I went to the mess hall.
And in the mess hall, I was a prep cook. Most -- most of the time. I -- I think I was a waitress the first year. Then I was a prep cook for two years, yeah.
So when I first started, you know, they had family style dinners. So every dish was served like in a serving dish out onto the tables.
And you'd have to like stack 'em up your arm. So you would put 'em like, you'd hold your arm flat and you'd put like three bowls on each arm, and you would hook the lip on the other bowl so they would just kind of stay together.
And then you would go out with like six bowls to the table and divvy them up onto the table, and run back and get the other -- and you did that for, I don't know, there must've been thirty tables.
So the -- the dining hall was segregated. So there was a Filipino mess hall where they cooked their traditional foods. And then, there was the cannery worker, fishermen mess hall.
And the cannery workers ate first, and then when they -- after they got started, they let the fishermen come in. And then they would eat.
And then there was a machinists’ mess hall, which was a smaller room. It was yellow. I remember it was painted yellow.
And then, the blue room, which was where all the executives ate. They had their own waitress and they -- they ate at a -- a separate time.
So, the idea of having these segregated eating areas really was so that those people could relax while they ate. Not have to talk to all their workers and kind of get some quiet time.
And like, the machinists particularly would -- they worked such long hours they would like to hurry up and eat so they could go lay down for like a half an hour before they had to go back. So, their food was served right away, so that they didn't have to wait.
Because eventually, they moved to like a -- a chow line or a buffet line kind of setup. So, you had to like get your tray and walk through and get your food and then go sit down, so that took -- took more time.
So, but, the machinists and the executives didn't go through the chow line. They -- they still got service.
And then at the back of the mess hall there was a bakery, which always smelled fabulous. They baked all their own bread, donuts, cookies, everything.
LARECE EGLI: Yeah, there's quite the oven over there. BECKY SAVO: Mm-mm.
And my friend Lynn Takeoka was the baker. LARECE EGLI: Tell me about Lynn. BECKY SAVO: Lynn lives in Homer currently. And she was the baker at the NN cannery.
And she learned from an older baker that had been there that then retired. And she was a fabulous baker.
But, that's a hard, grueling job. You're up early, and, you know, it's nonstop.
If you have to make X number of everything everyday. And they made donuts, danishes, turnovers.
That -- towards the end, they moved to having some of that stuff frozen, like turnovers and stuff, where you just heated 'em up. But originally, everything was made from scratch. All the cookies, everything.
And then I worked with a cook who was a retired Cost Guard cook, and he was kind of grumpy with me at first. He didn't care for me.
But, I don't know, after a while I guess I -- I won him over just out of hard work. I just did everything he said to do and finally he liked me.
But, he was kind of a tough nut to crack. But we learned how to get along, and, you know, I helped him a lot.
And, you know, he was older, and I think the hours and the heaviness of the work were hard on him, so when he saw that I could really help him he -- you know, then I became the second cook and I really helped him with a lot of the -- the cooking. And, you know, that made his life easier.
LARECE EGLI: Well, beyond cannery work you have never left. BECKY SAVO: I did leave actually. LARECE EGLI: You did leave? BECKY SAVO: I did.
LARECE EGLI: But, you are now a resident of -- BECKY SAVO: Of Naknek. LRECE EGLI: -- this community. BECKY SAVO: I know.
LARECE EGLI: So, can you bridge that for me? How did you go from a seasonal cannery worker and a cannery brat down in Blaine, Washington -- ? BECKY SAVO: Well, I didn't really plan that, I'll say that.
So, I went to the University of Washington to be a landscape architect, which is not really a profession that's sought after in Naknek, Alaska.
However, I did go to work in engineering, which is a related discipline. And I have kind of evolved that into my current job as the planner with the Bristol Bay Borough.
But, basically, what happened was, um -- So, I worked at the cannery until '83. And I was married to my oldest daughter's father then. And he also worked at the cannery. He's a marine welder and he worked on the "Lois Anderson," which was a big flat scow.
And several -- I don't even know how many years later, we divorced. And then I met my current husband, who is from South Naknek. But we lived in Washington.
So, we lived in Washington for maybe four years. And then, he was in a training program that lost its funding, and I was pregnant with our third child.
And my doctor said, "Your job's too stressful, you have to stop work." So basically overnight we had no source of income, and he was coming up here to go herring fishing anyway, so we just decided to move up for the summer.
So we came for the summer, and that, was over thirty years ago. We just didn't make that return trip. LARECE EGLI: Wow. So -- BECKY SAVO: Yeah.
LARECE EGLI: -- you -- your time working in the cannery overlapped you entering into motherhood. Can you tell me about what that’s like to be a mom and a cannery worker?
BECKY SAVO: Well, I stopped coming up when I got pregnant. So -- LARECE EGLI: Oh, you did? BECKY SAVO: Yeah.
So, I graduated from the University of Washington, and then I came up that summer. And at the tail end of that summer, I got pregnant.
So, I had my first child in May, so it was obvious I wasn't coming up to work in the cannery. However, my husband did, and he was on "Lois Anderson" that summer. So, yeah. So then I stayed home after that.
But, I've -- I've always enjoyed the excitement of the fishery, and, you know, I still enjoy when there's boats in the river and everybody gets going.
I still see a lot of the people that I knew from the NN cannery. A lot of the fishermen still recognize me. A lot of them still call me the store keeper. Like that name never went away. "Oh, there's our store keeper."
So -- but a lot of 'em have retired out now. So, I guess they're smarter than I am. I haven't quite retired out yet. That's kind of it in a nutshell. LARECE EGLI: Life in a cannery. BECKY SAVO: Unless you have any other questions.
LARECE EGLI: Just, if there's any other memories about cannery work or work in relationship to NN that you'd like to share?
BECKY SAVO: Well, I -- I have some tremendous friends from many, many years of being associated with the cannery and having that in common.
It's been a -- a great thread with my dad and I. The people we knew, and just keeping in touch with these people that we knew around the cannery.
But, fro -- you know, from a personal interest standpoint, I just would love to see some of the cannery's structures saved and some of the buildings around the cannery.
You know, I know that's a tremendous task at this point, but I really appreciated the architecture of the cannery, and all the beams and the sounds in the warehouses and the -- j
ust the grandeur of a company or a group of people coming out really to the middle of nowhere and building an industry.
I mean, the -- when you look -- when you think about the work that it took for them to build the NN cannery.
All that stuff had to come here on a ship. They had to bring carpenters, they had to bring -- you know, they made all their hinges, they've made a lot of their metal -- metal works they used at the cannery.
They made everything right there, because they had to. And that to me is amazing.
And I -- you know, I hope that this project will document some of that. And, um,
just, you know, I just really appreciate the craftsmanship that went along with the fishing industry, you know.
All those boats were wood back then, and they brought shipwrights, they brought, you know, people that cork the boats. Every year they were sanding them, stripping them, corking them. You know, that's when they fill in the planks to make sure they -- they float.
And it's just s -- some of those skill sets have been lost and it was -- it was really amazing to meet all those people. You know, there were people building boats, there were people -- this great craftsmen, you know.
And then, you know, the diesel mechanics, the welders, the pipe fitters. I mean, they just -- the people that kept the cannery going.
You know, they ran all their own water lines. They, you know, took care of every -- every piece of infrastructure that was there. They built it, they took care of it, they kept it running year after year.
And, you know, it's -- it's amazing. They ran -- they generated their own power. And, you know, they had two or three guys that knew had to do that. They made sure they brought them there every year for thirty years to make sure that power was staying on.
You know, and those -- those people, you know, a lot them were self-taught, and you just don't really meet people like that anymore.
And I -- I just think, you know, we should appreciate the -- the brevity of the task that they had at hand to process the fish here in the first place.
And, I mean, obviously, it paid off, because Bristol Bay is still the processing capital of the state in terms of volume. You know, we process most of the fish from the Nushagak right here in Naknek now.
And I'm still in the fishing industry, because in my job with the borough I do all the building permits. So I'm still, uh, you know, assisting the fishery on some level, I guess.
LARECE EGLI: Well, yeah, that is an interesting perspective, because I would say a majority of the large buildings that you are approving projects for continue in that same vein. They're all processing faculties. BECKY SAVO: They are.
LARECE EGLI: They've got a lot of different architectural features. They've got a lot of different purposes, and a lot of different technology, but it's still cannery architecture.
BECKY SAVO: It's -- yeah. It's still -- It's still the same mission. Capture that run, take care of it, get it out of here.
You know, and our port gets it out of here. You know.
Ah -- it's -- it's still an amazing -- an amazing task the way those fish show up here in a tremendous volume and all these people jump to attention to take care of 'em, package 'em up, get 'em out of here, and -- and they're some of the best seafood product on the globe, really.
And so well cared for compared to many of the -- the fish and things that you get in other countries. We really know how to take care of our salmon.
And I -- I think people are starting to appreciate that in the market the -- the great care that we give to our product here.
But, um, yeah, I think really, you know, my background from working in the cannery is I am maybe more vigilant with the processors about providing safe housing, and, you know, how do those cannery workers get in and out of that building in an emergency, because I've been there. You know.
And I -- you know, I still see these kids coming up here with their suitcases, and I -- I know what they're in for, you know.
And some of them, you know, you see them rolling up the highway after two weeks, 'cause it was too much for them, but it's --
We have a responsibility to keep them safe, and I try to do that in my job.
So, but I, you know, I -- I love the fishery. I love being involved in it. I think that's all I have. LARECE EGLI: Thank you, Becky. BECKY SAVO: Hm-mm.