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History

Callao is home of the famous crab pot - and more!

Tomato canning in the Northern Neck and Callao

The farming industry in the Callao area is vast and rich. From Native-Americans to settlers and until the 20th century, the Northern Neck rich soil has been prosperous to the farmer.

In the days of community tomato factories, the water at nearby creeks ran red with tomato peelings. The peelings would bob in the water as schools of minnow nibbled at the red crust of the fruit. The busy-body talk of women steadily peeling and coring tomatoes would only be interrupted when a line of gals would break out in song or when shovels filled the steam boiler with coal. It was a majestic time in Tidewater Virginia history. The vegetable canning business that grew out of the steamboat era provided many jobs in a time when this area’s economy was still trying to recover from the Civil War and, later, the Great Depression.

In the early 20th century, tomato canneries began a rapid growth in the Northern Neck. In 1915, John Welsh opened his first tomato cannery, located on his farm near his store at Downings. The process for canning changed over the years, but much of it in the early days were by hard labor. Not until into the late 1940s, tomato factory work was more automated. The factory owners used tokens to not only pay workers but to keep track of the amount of work done at their plants. Today, these tokens are collectable.

In addition to the cannery at Downings, Welsh opened a cannery at Indian Point, also known as Indian Valley. This was on a tributary of the Great Wicomico River and at the Crabbe Milling Company's flour and corn mill locations as well as in Lancaster County.

The J.W. Welsh Co., canners of the Evenripe Brand Tomatoes, operated for 55 years, being among the longest continuous tomato canneries on the Northern Neck. The last tomato cannery to operate on the Northern Neck was the Lake Packaging Company at Lake, Northumberland County. This cannery started canning tomatoes in 1948 and close the tomato processing in 1997. At the time of its closing, it was the most up-to-date cannery in the state, capable of canning 12,000 cases of tomatoes a day.

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Crab Pot inventor, Benjamin Franklin Lewis, a Callao historical figure.

The blue crab has long been a delicacy in the Chesapeake Bay area and anyone around who knows the first thing about crabbing has heard of the crab pot. But ask them who built the first crab pot and there is a long silence. Benjamin Franklin Lewis is a name that won't be found in any Virginia history books but is a name that will live forever in the annals of the Chesapeake fisheries. Lewis was the designer and patentee of the crab pot, an invention that revolutionized the harvesting of blue crabs. It was on the Yeocomico River, at his home in Harry Hogan in Northumberland County, that Lewis first started experimenting with the pot.

A waterman most of his life, Lewis was out working a trot line for crabs on a hot summer day when he decided it was time to find a better way of catching the tasty crustaceans. He wanted a more reliable method of catching blue crabs. Lewis's first attempt resulted in a 1928 patent on a wire pot that didn't work a man nearly to death and was as efficient a contraption as had ever been invented to harvest crabs. Lewis's first pot was just a square wire cage, but in 1938 he was issued a second patent of the pot that was identical to the present-day crab pot. After a few designs and trials, he installed an upstairs, upper chamber, that trapped the crabs in the top of the pot when they swam upward trying to get away. When Lewis began crabbing with pots, he used brine-salted bait in the tradition of trot lining. After Lewis successfully patented the crab pot in 1938, he had the awesome task of trying to collect royalties on his invention. Once Chesapeake Bay watermen learned of the success of the pot, its use spread rapidly. Lewis tried to collect a $4 royalty on every 50 pots. Lewis put Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay blue crab on the map.

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The Chambers Stamp Factory

The Chambers Stamp Factory, where the steel postmarking and canceling stamps were made, was located in Northumberland County at Lodge, Virginia on a point of land named Tucker’s Point, on the Yeocomico River. The small plant known as the "Chamber’s Shop" by the men who worked there and by the surrounding community, operated for 50 years. This plant made all the postmarked canceling stamps for all the post offices in the United States and some foreign countries.

Dating back before the Civil War, in 1851 Benjamin Chambers Sr. secured a patent on an improved and better product. However, during the Civil War years, he lost the contract because Ben Chambers Sr. was too aged to manage the business and his son was a captain in the Second Pennsylvania Regiment. Ben Chambers Sr. died in 1971 and his son, Ben Chambers Jr.. came to Northumberland around 1877. He found the Lodge area an ideal location due to its proximity to Washington D.C.

The manufacturing process was painstaking, especially when compared to present day automation. By hand, using chisels, workers would carve each letter of the town and state from a steel plate. The company was later owned by a Willie Sayre of Haynesville. The company went out of business in 1932 and later the building was torn down. Sayre, however, for a number of years afterward, continued to cut plates for cancelling machines.

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