Anyone familiar with the history of the Maine sardine canning industry will have heard of Peacock Canning. While the company was founded in Lubec, most people in the Portland area are familiar with the company’s Portland factory that was located on Brown’s Wharf. It was the largest of Portland’s sardine canneries. We’ve never really taken a good look at that company since it seemed to not have any ties with South Portland.

In this undated photo, we see an example of a fish pump (invented and patented by John Toft) in use at the Brawn Company packing plant in Portland. Rather than use the old style of hoisting fish up to the factory in baskets, this new pump/suctioning method helped to move the fish from the boat to the factory in a fraction of the time. Brawn-Hooper Collection/South Portland Historical Society

That changed recently when South Portland Historical Society member Stephen Keniston dropped by the museum for a visit. Steve casually mentioned the “old canning factory building” that he remembered being next to the South Portland Planing Mill. I mentioned this to one of our volunteers, Sue-Ellen Tupper, whose dad was a principal at Megquier & Jones. She didn’t know of any sardine company there, but when I mentioned the name Peacock, she realized immediately that might be the origin of the nickname for the building behind (what is now) the day care building on Broadway.

The old, long building had always been called the “Peacock Building” when her dad was there. Our volunteer Jackie Dunham then headed over to see if there was any identification to be found and she came back with photographs of the front of the building, with a very old, nearly entirely blackened sign, but on which was just barely visible “R.J. Peacock Canning Co.”

R.J. Peacock Canning Company was first established in Lubec in 1918. Robert J. “Bob” Peacock was well-known in the Lubec area. Lubec and Eastport, Maine, are considered the birthplace of the U.S. sardine canning industry (an industry that no longer exists here).

Virtually all of the canned sardines in the United States were canned in Lubec and Eastport at the turn of the century. Bob Peacock had worked in the canning business there for many years, about 20 of which were spent working for Lubec Sardine Company for about 20 years just before opening his own business. Bob Peacock was also well-known in political circles. He served in the State House (representing Lubec) from 1905 to 1908, then in the State Senate from 1915 to 1920.

Robert J. Peacock, president of the R.J. Peacock Canning Company, Lubec, Maine. South Portland Historical Society photo

After its founding in 1918, R.J. Peacock Canning Company slowly grew over the years by acquiring other canneries. In 1932, it acquired the cannery on the Portland waterfront that had been operated by Seacoast Canning. In 1936, they acquired another canning plant from Seacoast Canning, in Eastport; and in 1943, purchased the canning factory of Union Sardine Company.

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The Peacock family owned the company throughout its many decades in operation, with Robert J. Peacock as its president from 1918 until his death in 1933. His son, Carroll B. Peacock, then took over as president from 1933 to 1977, then his son (R.J. Peacock’s grandson), Robert S. Peacock, took control of the company and he passed it along to his son, Robert S. Peacock, Jr.

The Peacock family members were very active in the business, but they lived in Lubec. When they purchased the Portland cannery, they left that plant under the management of John D. Toft. Since our interest is in the Portland cannery and its warehouse in South Portland, let’s take a look at the life of John Toft.

John D. Toft was born in 1887 in Trescott, Maine, just adjacent to Lubec. He spent most of his career in the sardine canning industry, but his start was as an engineer. He attended an engineering school in Boston and began his career working on merchant ships, becoming an instructor of engineers on the U.S. Merchant Marine training ship Calvin Austin during World War I, before becoming the chief machinist at the Seacoast Canning Company in Lubec.

In 1918, he was promoted by Seacoast to superintendent of its Lubec plant. With his background in engineering, Toft’s skill-set proved to be invaluable for someone running a packing plant with all of its machinery.

Before going into the sardine packing business, John Toft was trained as an engineer and served as instructor on the Calvin Austin, above, a Merchant Marine training ship during World War I. South Portland Historical Society photo

While working for Seacoast Canning, John Toft was sent to Portland in the late-1920s to build a modern canning plant for the company on Brown’s Wharf. He came down without his family at first, living at the Falmouth Hotel in Portland while the plant was under construction. When he had the plant up and running, Toft had his family move here to join him. They bought and lived in a home at 64 Bean St. in South Portland (their home was part of the Cushing’s Point neighborhood which was taken by eminent domain during World War II and razed).

In 1932, R.J. Peacock Canning purchased the Seacoast Canning factory on Brown’s Wharf and hired John Toft to continue running the plant for them. He was named a vice president of R.J. Peacock and general manager of the new Portland plant.

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During World War II, as many men were going off to war or going to work in the shipyard, the sardine factories suffered from a labor shortage. Up to that point, when a herring boat tied up at a sardine plant, it could take up to six hours (and the work of many men) to haul the fish by bucket up to the plant.

John Toft put his engineering mind to work to come up with a solution. He invented a new process for unloading the fish that was detailed in a 1943 article in the Lewiston Daily Sun: “The fundamentals of an ordinary suction pump were applied by Toft. An eight-inch hose, dropped into a fish cargo hold, draws the fish by suction through a 12-inch pipe under 12 pounds of pressure and drops them into tanks. The biggest problem in his two years of experimenting, Toft said, was to overcome damage to the fish, which he surmounted by ‘floating’ the fish in the holds with several small hose. Another problem – separating fish from water before the fish entered the tanks – was overcome by use of a screen near the tank opening. Toft said he began experimenting when the manpower necessary for the scooping and hoisting method of unloading went to war and war industries.”

The R.J. Peacock Canning Co. warehouse building in the old plate yard on Broadway. Jackie Dunham photo

Toft filed for a patent on his “fish discharging apparatus” in 1943, and on his screening method in 1945. Both patents were approved in 1946 and became the new way of unloading herring from herring boats. By using the suctioning method, boats could be unloaded in less than an hour, with less workers required. Toft also invented a new process for cooking and canning sardines. He filed for that patent in 1960 and it was officially patented in 1964.

With business booming in 1948, R.J. Peacock Canning began looking for additional storage options for their canned product. They found the land at the former Broadway Plate Yard (the land between Evans Street and Lincoln Street Extension) to be a suitable site.

Portland Plateyards, Incorporated had already purchased the former World War II plate yard in 1946 and the South Portland Planing Mill was erected on the eastern side of the yard. R.J. Peacock began planning to build a warehouse on the western side of the plate yard and signed a memorandum of agreement with Portland Plateyards in November, 1948. Also in November, Peacock obtained a permit from the city of South Portland to erect a large warehouse on the site. In January, 1949, Peacock completed the purchase of the land from Portland Plateyards so that construction could proceed.

John Toft received a patent for his “fish discharging apparatus” in 1946. South Portland Historical Society image

If anyone has any photographs or other historic items related to the R.J. Peacock warehouse in the former plate yard, we would love to hear from you. Please contact the South Portland Historical Society at 207-767-7299 or by email at [email protected] Peacock Canning appears to have used the warehouse through at least 1970 or so. R.J. Peacock sold the land and building to Megquier & Jones on May 1, 1973.

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Peacock Canning continued in operation for many more years, becoming one of the longest running fish packing companies in the U.S. Toft ran the Portland operation for most of its years in existence.

Being the general manager of Portland’s largest sardine cannery, John Toft was sought after as a leader in the business community. He was often the person quoted in newspapers when there were stories about the fishing industry. Among his many affiliations – he was a director of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, and he also served as a director and chairman of the Maine Port Authority. Toft died in 1977 at the age of 90.

MEMBERSHIP DRIVE 2022: The South Portland Historical Society researches and documents local history. If you enjoy reading about South Portland history, please lend your support. A one-year family membership is only $25 and supports our mission of preserving local history. Donations can be made through our Online Museum website at https://sphistory.pastperfectonline.com, or if you’d prefer to donate by check, please make it payable to South Portland Historical Society and mail to us at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106. Thank you! If you need to contact the Society, we can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 207-767-7299.

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of the South Portland Historical Society. She can be reached at [email protected]

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