Shipping Strawberries That Pass the White Shirt Test


2501 Valley View Drive, Springdale, AR 72762


n the spring of 1938 I got a job in the strawberry sheds just east of the Doniphan, Kensett and Searcy Railroad depot on South Main Street not far from Spring Park in Searcy. The work was to unload crates of strawberries from farm trucks backed up to the platform and carry them inside refrigerator rail cars spotted on the other side of the platform.

            My employer was Theodore Solm from Springdale. He arrived at Searcy in his black Cadillac and took up temporary residence for the shipping season at the Mayfair Hotel. Mrs. Solm came with him, but she never came to the sheds.

            Mr. Ted would negotiate with the growers and pay them if their berries were up to his rigid standards. To inspect the berries he would have me or one of the other workers take a crate, or case, chosen by him and set it down on the platform. He then directed that the case be opened and one quart box of his choosing be removed. Oftentimes he chose a box on the bottom tier. Then the box was handed to Mr. Ted who took it in both hands and spread the berries on his ample stomach, which was covered with a freshly laundered shirt. In this process all berries from the box could be examined closely. I suspect that the white shirt test was to check for overripe fruit that would not survive rail shipment.

            If Mr. Ted was satisfied with the quality and uniformity of the berries, he would direct that all cases on the truck be carried by hand into the “reefer.” If the one quart inspection was unsatisfactory, the entire truckload was rejected and appropriate notations made in Mr. Ted’s book.

            The berries were loaded into the RR car and placed seven cases across with about three inches of space between cases. Then each case was nailed to the wood floor. Next, wood laths were tacked to each end of the cases after which another seven cases were stacked on top. Then more nailing and more laths and more cases until the load was four cases high. Each end of the car was thus loaded until 448 cases were loaded, nailed and braced with laths. [(7 across x 4 high x 8 stacks) x 2 car ends = 448 cases per car.] This arrangement left a space of about seven feet between cases in the center of the car where the doors were located.

          Next, two frames resembling gates were made of lumber. These gates were wedged tightly against the two banks of cases with more lumber and shims ready for shipment. WRONG! Much work was yet to be done.    While the strawberries were being loaded and braced for shipment, other workmen were busy on the catwalk even with the top of the car. They were loading ice into the bunkers on either end of the car. The 300-pound blocks were picked into 25-pound pieces and dropped into the bunkers after which further size reduction was achieved by long steel rods. When the ice bunkers were full the car was ready to ship. Not quite!

            The next step was to install a steel cable from the top of one ice bunker to the other, being the entire length of the car. The cable was stretched taut with turnbuckles. Then, two powerful electric fans with canvas shrouds were hooked over the cable and pushed along the cable to either end of the car. Next, the canvas shrouds were nailed to seal the fans to the upper bunker vents. A temperature sensor was installed in the space between the two gates with wires leading to a thermometer outside the car. The fans were turned on and temperature noted. Then 100 pounds of rock salt was dumped on top of the ice in each bunker and lids closed.

            The fans pulled air in through the lower bunker vents and up through the ice-salt mixture, cooling the air in the same way an ice cream freezer works. The cool air was discharged through the upper bunker vents, shrouds and fans into the car of strawberries penetrating into the spaces between the cases and eventually back to the lower bunker vents. Temperature readings were taken at regular intervals until the inside temperature reached the desired value, probably around 32 degrees Fahrenheit. At this stage water from the melting ice was dripping from the bunker drainpipes. Mr. Ted tasted the drain water from time to time, and when most of the salt was washed out, he directed that the thermometer, fans, shrouds, cable and turnbuckles be removed and the car doors sealed. Then the ice bunkers were topped off with ice only and the lids closed.

            Now, the car was ready to be picked up by the DK&S locomotive and taken to the Missouri Pacific Railroad at Kensett where it would be added to the northbound fast express train to St. Louis. The berries would be in the stores for sale by 9 a.m. the next day. The engineer on the DK&S engine stationed at Searcy was John Davis and the fireman was his brother Collett Davis. The agent was George Musick.             I learned a lot from Ted Solm including the work ethic, leadership, teamwork and basic carpentry.

Many years later after I retired from Arkansas Power and Light Company and moved to Springdale, I met Mrs. Solm, who has since died. vvv

The author is a member of the White County Historical Society.