By Caleb Talley | Historic photos courtesy of Shiloh Museum of Ozark History
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, canning was a successful and growing industry in Northwest Arkansas, and Joe M. Steele was quick to get in on the action.
In 1924, while still a teenager, Steele began a small canning operating inside of an 800 sq.ft. shed on his farm in Lowell, just south of Tontitown. He packed tomatoes during the summer months when classes at the University of Arkansas weren’t in session. When he discovered just how high the demand was for his products, he went into the business full time.
By 1932, Steele’s young business had outgrown the small plant, and he moved the operation to Springdale. His cousin, Luther E. Johnson, joined him in 1935, and the Steele Cannery was officially born. Their operation grew rapidly until the Great Depression.
Steele made local history, when, in 1937, his company became the first individual enterprise to ship a trainload of canned foods in the United States. The 24-car train shipment was reported on by the Springdale News on Sept. 30, 1937:
“Mr. Steele stated that orders enough to fill the 24 cars…came in last week, and enough more goods were sold to fill eight more cars, had there been time to label [the cans] and load the cars by the time for the train to leave. …The cans were filled with … turnip greens, mustard greens, spinach, green beans, and tomatoes. …The Springdale plant processed 3,500 cases of beans in ten hours and three of the factories, which can spinach, processed 8,000 cases per day, the latter meaning the same as two and a half cars of empty cans.”
The following year, Steele gained attention once again for becoming the first customer in the canning industry to buy a complete trainload of fertilizer, to be used on area farms.
When World War II rolled around, canned foods produced by Steele Canning Company became a regular export to soldiers on every battlefront. The company would publish in their brochures some of the letters it received from soldiers overseas. One letter, written in 1943 by a lieutenant stationed in Tunisia, read:
“Today I found a case of your No. 10 cans of Nancy Jo spinach right in our kitchen. Some of the soldiers probably thought I was shell-shocked the way I acted when I saw those labels. I pasted on enough of those labels one summer that I shouldn’t ever forget them. I don’t mind saying it—it was just like a letter from home.”
Another letter, written in 1945 by a private in New Caledonia read:
“For several days all of the boys at our mess had been talking about how good the canned beans have been lately. I remarked that the reason they’re so good is because they were canned in Arkansas.”
In a region rich in canning, Steele Canning Company became the industry standard. And that booming industry, led by brilliant businessmen like Steele, can be credited with the growth and development of Northwest Arkansas in the early to mid 20th Century.
Steele’s legacy also lives on at the Beaver Water District. In the early to mid 20th Century, he and fellow community leaders banded together to explore ways to supply the region with a long-term supply of clean, safe water. They established the Beaver Lake Reservoir, and after World War II, the Beaver Dam Association was formed to promote the construction of a dam on the White River southwest of Eureka Springs.
Steele and his colleagues applied pressure on the United States Congress until the U.S. Water Supply Act was passed in 1958, paving the way for the establishment of the Beaver Water District. Steele served on the first board. Because of his efforts, long-term, abundant and economical drinking water became a reality for Northwest Arkansas.