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Kalamazoo, MI: Celery Days

These Parts/In the early 1900s it was the celery center of the nation. What happened?



"Lambert Greendyke's experience has taught him it is always darkest just before dawn, and now that the sun is beginning to shine on his business, this Hollander is wearing a happy smile," effused the writer of a feature article in a Portage, Michigan, newspaper. In an accompanying photo, Greendyke in coveralls and high rubber boots posed proudly between robust rows of celery plants. The year was 1926, five years after Greendyke had quit his job at a nearby paper mill, plowed his savings into four-and-a-half acres of "muck lands," and moved his large family from a house in the city to a one-room wooden shack. His ambition was to market premium celery that would fetch high prices and gain renown as "the best." For a short while, he appeared to have succeeded.

"Things did get a little better just before the war," says Bob Greendyke; the youngest of the late Lambert's seven children, he's now in his late 60s. "But it was hard work, and that never got any better. Then there in the late 20s, we had a big drought for about eight years. We had the blight. We had every kind of insect. We were so poor we didn't even wear shoes. We only had one pair of overalls. My mother would just wash them out at night by hand, and the next morning you put them back on."

The elder Greendyke was following in the mud-caked footsteps of fellow Dutch immigrants, hundreds of whom had arrived in Kalamazoo County in the late 1880s. Accustomed to cultivating marshes, the Dutch were the first immigrants to brave the rich, wet muck lands of southwestern Michigan. There they established a burgeoning celery-farming industry that would make Kalamazoo County the bustling celery capital of the nation in the early part of this century--a distinction that completely disappeared in the course of two generations.

A small amount of celery, considered a delicacy at the time, was grown in the area before the Civil War. Farmers in Boston and New York also grew it. The turning point for Michigan came in 1866, when Dutch immigrant Cornelius DeBruyn, raising celery in his Kalamazoo backyard, crossbred a new pale-stalked variety and dubbed it "ivory pascal." By 1887, his farming neighbors were cultivating 500 acres of the new breed throughout the area and doing a brisk $300,000 in business. Soon this particular strain and the related "golden plume" were known throughout the country as Kalamazoo celery, and the city had picked up the monikers "Celery City" and "Celeryville."

Kalamazoo celery was a common ingredient in many a bowl of soup and pot of stew. Cookbooks included recipes for fried celery, creamed celery, and celery sauce for boiled fowl. One Samuel J. Dunkley, a local entrepreneur, started a company that turned the vegetable into everything from salad dressing to patent medicine. Celery extract was alleged to "prevent nervousness, headaches, sleeplessness, and general depression." Celery was employed as a diuretic and as an agent in cough drops. And celery tonic bitters were marketed as an aphrodisiac.

By the turn of the century, 4,000 acres comprising hundreds of celery farms stretched in every direction from Portage, the town immediately south of Kalamazoo and the geographic center of the celery- growing business. Two crops a year, summer and fall, were pulling $1 million into the region annually. But nobody was getting rich. Most celery farms were quite small, no more than three to ten acres, because the Dutch immigrants were too poor to buy more land and the work was extraordinarily labor- intensive. Earnings came to no more than a couple of thousand dollars per family each year. In the best of times, the nine members of the Greendyke family survived on about $40 a week.

"We ate a lot of potatoes," says Bob Greendyke. "We didn't eat celery. The only one in our family who liked celery was our dog. Sometimes, come Saturday night, the only thing left in the house was an onion."

Lambert Greendyke emigrated to southwestern Michigan from the Netherlands with his father and six siblings in the late 1800s, when he was 14 years old. His uncle had paid his steamer fare, so to pay him back Lambert went to work for his uncle on a "high land" farm in Portage that grew potatoes and raised cows and chickens. After repaying the debt, he found a job at the paper mill, married, and began raising a family.

"My father worked in the paper mill during the First World War," says Bob Greendyke. "Then the war ended and we got into a depression. The paper mill got real slack. He was working only two, three days a week. That's when he bought the muck land in 1922. He built a little wooden barn about 14 by 20 feet, and that's where we lived."

Muck proved ideal for growing celery, which requires fine, moist soil. But the Michigan muck lands were so wet they required draining. Farmers dug trenches about two feet deep, sometimes laying tile pipes along their length to carry off excess water. The resulting farm fields in these flat, low-lying lands were called celery flats.

Labor in the flats was done by horse and by hand, the workday starting at dawn and stretching till past sunset.

"You worked as soon as you were big enough," says Greendyke. "We did everything: planted celery, weeded it, picked it, cleaned it, packed it. When you were four or five years old you'd start weeding--get up in the morning, put on your fighting clothes, and crawl up and down the rows on your hands and knees. You could weed all day."

Celery seedlings were grown in greenhouses on the farm, the first batch ready for outdoor planting in mid-April. Planting was a slow, backbreaking process for man and animal alike. Horses pulling equipment in the soggy fields were fitted with muck shoes--horseshoes with wide metal rims around them, like snowshoes, to keep the wearer from sinking. Still, says Greendyke, "I've seen horses go down clear up to their belly. A horse that weighed 1,300 pounds, you had no problem. But if a horse weighed 1,600 pounds, if he was big and fat, he'd sink. The only way to get him out was to unhook the harness, take a shovel, and turn it over on the flat side. One guy grabs the horse by the head and he jerks him, the other guy takes the shovel and swats him, and he'd jump right out of there."

After planting, there was plenty more work to be done, from weeding to fertilizing. Originally farmers could rely on manure from local stables, but later they required shipments by the boxcar from the Chicago stockyards. In the event of a spring frost, long sheets of parchment paper (produced, incidentally, in nearby Parchment, Michigan) had to be placed over all the young stalks to prevent their being damaged by the cold. After the celery had reached a certain height came the muscle-building task of "placing the board": miles of heavy two-by-fours were lined up on their edges along both sides of each celery row in order to shade it, a process that blanched the stalks while promoting flavor and crispness.

During dry spells, the suffering plants required watering by the only means available--one pail at a time. "For every row of celery, 30 rods or about 480 feet long, we'd carry a hundred pails of water all the way from the creek," says Greendyke. "The next morning we'd start all over again. And they'd still die."

And then there were the insects. The Michigan State Board of Agriculture assembled in 1906 a long list of insects injurious to celery, including the celery leafhopper, celery aphis, celery thrips, celery looper or plusia, celery tortrix, celery borer, and celery flea-beetle. "We had everything," says Greendyke. A few insecticidal dusts and sprays were available, but many bugs had to be removed from the plants by hand, one by one, usually by small children.

Celery plants that managed to survive nature's assorted hazards were ready for harvesting around the Fourth of July. Harvesting had to be done quickly during the cool early-morning hours, before the day's heat could wilt the crop. Families sometimes arrived in the fields as early as two in the morning and worked until about 7 AM, moving through moonlight as they lifted the blanching boards and set them out as planks to walk on, jammed their knives into the earth and sliced the celery at the roots, piled the plants high in wheelbarrows and rolled them to the shed.

It was in the shed that Lambert Greendyke's dream of premium celery was realized. There his family cleanly trimmed the celery's roots and scrubbed the plants in big tubs of cold, clean water. Each bundle was precisely tied with red string bows in two places by a mechanical tying machine and then dipped into a tub of fresh water for a second rinsing. Finally, all the bunches were trimmed to exactly the same length, and exactly 20 of them were compactly placed in a wooden box of Lambert's construction and covered with milky-white waxed paper.

"I wish you could see it," says Bob Greendyke. "You don't know what a perfect box of celery is. There wouldn't be one speck of dirt, not one piece of root on that celery."

Lambert Greendyke's perfectly presented celery won first prize in the 1934 Kalamazoo County Fair. The Greendyke children were strictly instructed by their parents not to divulge to anyone how much money their celery fetched, because it was sometimes as much as three times the going rate. Greendyke even had his own private label, sending celery to individuals as gifts.

"We'd ship celery to Chicago every day, six days a week," says Bob Greendyke. "What we did, this guy had a truck, and all the celery growers, about 25 to 40 of them, would bring it to him, or he'd pick it up at your place. They would load it up in a semi and drive it all the way to downtown Chicago, to H.B. Calvert, I think it was 90 South Water St."

The shippers would leave Kalamazoo County at six o'clock at night, arrive in Chicago at about midnight, drop off batches to wholesalers until about 5 AM, and start on their way back at about 7. Some of these shipments were rerouted through Detroit and Canada to New York City, where Kalamazoo celery was gobbled up by fancy restaurants at major hotels.

Some of the Greendyke family's celery went out on passenger trains headed to Chicago from Kalamazoo. "We'd take about 30 boxes of our 'extra fancy' celery to the train," says Greendyke. "They'd pick out maybe 15 boxes for cooking, then throw one box right on the dining car. When that train started moving, they would open that box up and pass it around so people could eat it."

The Greendyke kids traded some of their celery for groceries at the local store. Kids throughout the county hawked celery on street corners. One 1938 travel guide noted: "Try to drive in or out of Kalamazoo without having great bunches of celery offered you every block or so."

At the same time that the first harvest was being shipped, the whole exhausting process was starting anew with the planting of a second celery crop, for harvest around Thanksgiving. After the second harvest, Lambert Greendyke kept the family in groceries by taking a winter job in a paper mill in town.

During one three-year period, his son recalls, Lambert Greendyke started every winter by having a goiter removed. "The doctor wanted to give him surgery sooner, but we had celery in the field and he could not go until he got the celery out in the fall," says Bob Greendyke. "He'd work in the shed and he used to pass out three or four times a day. We'd pick him up off the floor, put his hands in a tank of water, and get him to. He worked that way all summer."

When the Greendyke children were 18 or so, they too took winter jobs in the mills. In fact the demise of Kalamazoo celery began in the 1920s, when many a farmer's offspring began collecting a big paycheck at the mills and never came home. Meanwhile, insects and disease continued to plague the celery crops. Farmers organized the Portage and Kalamazoo Growers Association, which attempted to produce disease-resistant celery and to increase profits by raising prices and buying supplies more cheaply as a group. But by the late 30s the end was imminent. "When the war came, and you could find a good-paying job, a lot of folks said, "The heck with it. I can get a job anyplace and make a dollar an hour.' That's like making $15 an hour now," says Greendyke.

The final blow was the advent of green pascal celery, a greener, reportedly sweeter variety grown in California. "How could we tell California celery was getting more popular? Because we had no demand for ours," says Greendyke. "We just knew, the farmers knew. We couldn't grow our celery then anyway, because we were getting a lot of blight. We had no control over it. You could take a walk outdoors and smell the blight. The celery would be shrunken down and get smaller and smaller. In a week or ten days, the crop would be gone. If we had the chemical sprays we've got now, we could have grown it. But we didn't have nothing."

The Greendykes shut their farm down in 1949, after Lambert Greendyke died of cancer. Theirs was one of the last farms in the area to close. Now only one celery farmer remains, growing about 200 acres of the California variety with the benefit of modern equipment and chemicals. The Greendykes sold their muck lands to the city of Portage, which dug a well there from which it pumps public water.

Though the Greendyke family left the farm, for a few years they held onto the greenhouse, and their mother used it to run a flower-growing business. Eventually they sold that operation, too. But thanks to the area's plentiful ex-celery greenhouses, Kalamazoo County is now the country's largest supplier of annual bedding plants.

Most of the old muck land is now paved over with ranch houses, strip malls, and streets rushing with traffic. The area's largest shopping center, Crossroads Mall in Portage, sits atop a former muck farm. So does Portage's city hall. These structures are built on firm foundations and are in no danger of sinking, says Bob Greendyke. But locals have noticed that when a train goes by, the groundwaters vibrate, shaking the floors.

For information on the Kalamazoo area, see the Visitors' Guide in this issue.

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