Opinion: Building an alternative

Creating the first portable meat canner put nonresistance in action — and was a highlight of a lifetime of service to others

May 11, 2015 by

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I remember walking down the street in Hesston, Kan., in 1946 toward Aden Holdeman’s machine shop. In the lead was my father, Jess Kauffman, then 35 years old and pastor of Hesston Mennonite Church.

Two men work on the portable meat canner built in Hesston, Kan., in 1946. — MCC archives

Two men work on the portable meat canner built in Hesston, Kan., in 1946. — MCC archives

With him was a young volunteer, just out of Civilian Public Service. I was 8, allowed to tag along. People called me “Little Jess.”

Holdeman was a member of the local Church of God in Christ, Mennonite (Holdeman) community. His machine shop was a quonset building on the edge of town. When we arrived, he, dad and the volunteer cleared a space on the floor and began building the first Mennonite Central Committee portable canner. I remember it as a rather crude flatbed trailer with enclosed sides that folded down to make space for a canning crew.

Dad had conceived the idea of a portable canner when he heard people were facing starvation in Europe after the war. Some Mennonites had already responded by sending food in glass jars, but much of it did not survive the trip across the ocean. If food from America was to arrive in Europe, it had to be in tin cans.

When he went to Kansas City to present his plan to the American Can Co., he was told it was impossible. It had never been done. But he finally convinced them. They agreed to lease him canning equipment if he would buy the cans from them.

My next boyhood memory is of a boxcar of empty tin cans arriving in Hesston and being unloaded at the local grain warehouse, owned by a member of the Hesston Mennonite congregation. The men involved were in their 30s, like my father. Some had donated the money to pay for the initial load of cans.

Then came the test run. The canner was towed into our yard, and one rainy, muddy Saturday, volunteers from the church who had found a recipe for pork and beans cooked and canned a huge batch. It lasted our family for years. I can still remember the taste of those beans.

Apparently the test run was a success, and Kansas Mennonites began canning food and sending it across the Atlantic.

‘They kept us alive’

Some years ago I was speaking to a group of Catholic lay people in Philadelphia, charged by their bishop with helping them understand their Mennonite neighbors.

One woman in the audience had grown up in the Netherlands during the war and had vivid memories of the Nazi occupation. When she learned that Mennonites had been conscientious objectors during World War II, she grew angry. “Why wouldn’t they help free us from the Nazis?” she asked, rather indignantly. But later in the talk, when I told the story of the portable canner, a huge smile came over her face. “Those cans of food kept us alive after the war!” she told the other Catholics.

I told her, “You can’t have it both ways.”

Positive pacifism

What motivated my father and the other members of Hesston Mennonite Church to take this risk, putting money and time into something that others considered impossible?

None of them are now living to ask, but I think they were looking for something positive to do that showed their non-Mennonite neighbors they had not simply been avoiding war — that they were willing to make sacrifices to save life.

It is known that shortly after this a Sunday school class at Whitestone Mennonite came up with the vision that would eventually produce Mennonite Disaster Service.

During the war, Dad was faithful to the Mennonite nonresistant tradition and continued to teach it from the pulpit. But at the same time he had a younger brother who was in combat with the Marine Corps in the South Pacific. He had been like a father to his kid brother after their father died, and he knew that any day the family could get the news that his brother had been killed.

The brother survived, rejoined the Mennonite Church and became a health insurance salesman known as someone who would sometimes pay his customers’ premiums when they could not.

His son, my cousin, became an Air Force fighter pilot. Now retired as a high-ranking officer, he volunteers each year with his wife for a week of service with MDS.

Once this cousin was a guest in our home in Washington, D.C., at the same time that one of our Mennonite colleagues was visiting. It was an interesting conversation. The military officer had never talked to a pacifist. The antiwar activist had never talked to a military officer. My cousin said to our Mennonite colleague, “I hope you can do your job so I don’t have to do mine.”

Voluntary poverty

A year or so after the canner began operation, it was turned over to MCC, and Dad turned his gifts to other things. He left his pastorate at Hesston and for three or four years was one of the first employees of what would become Hesston Corp., founded by local Mennonites, which became a major agricultural equipment manufacturer.

Had he stayed in the business world he could have been wealthy, but instead he moved to Colorado Springs, where he founded Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp. From there he moved to Camp Friedenswald in Michigan, and then to Lakewood Retreat Center in Florida. In retirement he wrote a history of Mennonite camping.

For much of their life together my parents lived in voluntary poverty, working at odd jobs when necessary to survive financially. In a memoir for his grandchildren, Dad wrote, “I was never able to find anybody who could pay me for doing what needed to be done.”

He was also fond of saying “You can get a lot done in this world if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

He died at age 89 at the Mennonite-founded Sunnyside Village retirement center in Sarasota, Fla. On his bedside table when he died was a model of the portable canner, given to him by MCC. He considered it his major accomplishment.

Ivan J. Kauffman is a poet and historian who has been a leader in Mennonite-Catholic ecumenical dialogue since the 1990s. He lives in Philadelphia.

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