Around the Island

A true, funny, inspiring story of 1950s Shelter Island: It all comes down to a ‘Hill of Beans’

On July 23, 24 and 25, the Shelter Island Historical Society will present “A Hill of Beans,” a musical that tells the story of a farming cooperative that sprouted on Shelter Island in 1950, employed upwards of 70 people, and died on the vine in 1954 after mildew, two hurricanes and a plague of beetles brought financial catastrophe.

If you think this sounds like perfect fodder for a musical comedy, so do more than 40 people; old timers and youngsters, Islanders who go back generations and folks who found shelter here quite recently. They all volunteered to memorize lines, don unflattering costumes, and transport themselves and you back to a semi-mythical time when men ran things, and women cleaned up afterward. Whether inspired by a longing for the old days, or a feeling of how far we’ve come, the cast and crew are pouring their joy into the show written by Lisa Shaw and Tom Hashagen.

Remembrance of things past

Lisa’s own distinct inspiration is honoring her grandparents and passing along their Shelter Island history. She discovered it when Rachel Lucas, archivist at the Historical Society, shared a folder of Farmer’s Cooperative documents that included a story about Ben Spitoza, the town barber who preceded Louis “The Clip” Cicero. Ben was Lisa’s grandfather. Soon Lisa realized that her grandmother, Mildred Spitoza, worked on the line in the lima bean factory. “They practically raised me, and I immediately thought this was a story I had to tell,” Lisa said. 

The story opens after World War II when most of the land here was farmed, and the trees and shady woods we know today were so sparse you could see across the Island from bay to sea. The year-round population was fewer than 1,100 people, and the small hotels and rooming houses didn’t attract enough people to support the year-round economy. Erich von Karp lived on the Island in those years, in a home owned by his mother’s family, where he still lives. “Nobody had any money,” he remembered. People think because you have 100 acres of farmland you’re rich. But it was usually owned by four or five kids, so you couldn’t sell it.”

In 1950, 10 local farmers — Anton Blados, Albert Dickerson, Dan Dickerson, Elliot Dickerson, John Garr, Evans Griffing, Frank Mysliborski, Sylvester Prime and Everett Tuthill — led by Richard Moser, formed a cooperative to grow, harvest and process Shelter Island’s lima beans. The idea was to deliver them frozen to companies like Birds Eye and Libby’s, which specialized in an emerging new business — frozen food.

Shelter Island became one of the premier lima bean producers in the Northeast, and one of the first to employ the new flash-freezing technology for fresh vegetables, years before freezers became ubiquitous appliances in American kitchens.

In addition to local men hired to drive the trucks and run the viners and freezers, the Shelter Island Farmer’s Cooperative employed as many as 40 women to sort and package beans and 15 migrant workers brought in for a few months every summer.

No chapter of Shelter Island history is closed as long as memory abides, and there are still quite a few Islanders with memories of “the beanery,” as it’s come to be known. They touched Shelter Island’s industrial past, either through the experiences of their parents and grandparents, or in some cases, because they worked at the beanery themselves.

Coming and going … and staying

For two or three months each summer, migrant workers from Alabama, the Carolinas and Puerto Rico came to work harvesting crops and in the beanery, but they rarely stayed. Jim Hayward was the exception. He grew up in Ridgeland, S.C. “I met some guys from Shelter Island who were farming down in Ridgeland and came up to work for them for three years, growing tomatoes, potatoes and string beans,” Jim said. “I used to drive a truck and then I used to haul lima beans — but I never worked in the factory. Starting in the 50’s I stayed here and farmed for a couple of years and then I went out on my own. Landscaping, a chauffeuring job in the 60s, and as a caretaker.”

Jim now owns Commander Cody’s Restaurant and Seafood Market, where his daughter Amanda is chef.

Gordon Edwards is 94, retired and living in Texas now, but he grew up spending every summer on Shelter Island fishing, crabbing, playing golf, and very briefly working at the beanery. “I pulled bad beans off the conveyor belt for two days,” he said.  “At the end of the war, virtually every piece of farmland on the Island grew lima beans.”

His younger brother, Richard Edwards, drove a truck, hauling beans to Southold for processing and was known for a lead foot on the accelerator. “He was a wild man, a speed demon,” Gordon said about his brother, who later owned The Dory.

Foundations

Frozen food for consumers was just starting; the TV dinner was not introduced until the early 1950s. “We’d harvest the beans and all the women on the Island worked on the picking table,” said Erich von Karp. “They wrapped the boxes with cellophane, and one machine put Libby on the box and Birds Eye on the other. All the same beans. We’d haul them over to the train over in Greenport by truck and they parked the train and we filled it up with frozen beans. We were one of the early freezer plants in the county. Most people still just had iceboxes.”

Lisa Shaw took the people and events on Shelter Island in the late 1940s and early 1950s as the foundation of her story, and her imagination provided the rest. Still, her characters are based on actual people, and the show lovingly depicts them as they were, right down to their hairnets, old-fashioned attitudes toward social equality, corncob pipes and fear of anyone who didn’t come from here.

Hoot Sherman’s father, Herbert, was in charge of keeping the equipment running at the beanery and Hoot worked there himself at the age of 13 alongside his brother Herb. An infamous workplace injury described in the show actually took place according to Hoot.

Going to work in farming as a teenager was completely unremarkable in the 1950s. A permit to operate farm equipment, including tractors and trucks could be had by any qualified 13-year-old, and Erich von Karp was still a teenager when he remembers spraying the bean crop with DDT, thought to be a perfectly reasonable and wholesome way to farm in 1954.

Up to 40 Island women found work on the line, sorting beans and packing them for freezing. On the left is Florence Olinski wearing a stylish and practical 1950’s headwrap called a ‘snood.’ (Credit: Shelter Island Historical Society)

Other characters in “A Hill of Beans” based on actual people include “Mrs. Jackim, a seamstress who lived across the street from Sylvester Manor.” Lisa said. “Phoebe Johnson was Williette Piccozzi’s grandmother, and Frank Mysliborski was Tommy Mysliborski’s grandfather.”  Ernest Shepherd, a mechanic at the beanery, married Edith Shepherd, who worked on the line.  Their children and grandchildren, including Paul and Gene Shepherd, live on the Island today. Donna Cass’s grandmother, Eleanor Scheibel, worked on the line, and Joy Bascom’s maternal grandmother, Phoebe Simons Johnston, was in charge of the shifts.

The success of the lima bean enterprise on Shelter Island was short-lived. By 1955, reeling from insect infestation, damaged by hurricanes, and saddled with debt, the Cooperative folded. The workers lost their jobs, the 10 farmers who formed the cooperative lost the money they invested, and the Island’s economy began a shift from agriculture to tourism that would continue for the rest of the 20th Century.

The physical and spiritual remains of the beanery are with us still. At the intersection of Cobbetts Lane and Manhanset Road is an entrance to a public property called “Old Lima Bean Fields,” marked by a piece of aging farm equipment.

“We built that viner on cement,” Erich von Karp remembered. “You may still find the foundations.”