Stalking the Celery City
The Celery Industry in Kalamazoo
In an ice age long ago, a glacier ground its way slowly south in Michigan and stopped just north of Kalamazoo County. In front of it stretched vast flood plains of black, loamy muck that lay over water-impervious clay. The glacier retreated, leaving sandy terminal moraines to watch over the rich soil that stretched to the south. On this expanse, the leafy stalks would push skyward to make Kalamazoo known throughout the world as the Celery City.
There is some dispute about how the celery industry took root in Kalamazoo. In 1856 a Scotsman named George Taylor brought celery seeds from his native land, where it grew wild, and planted them in Kalamazoo’s fertile soil. His celery became known when he learned there was to be a banquet and ball at the Burdick House attended by the elite and fashionable people of the city. Taylor convinced the hotel to place his vegetable on the menu and provided it free of charge. Greeted with much curiosity by the attendees, celery soon caught the fancy of the public, so Mr. Taylor planted an acre of it the following year for the dining tables in Kalamazoo.
Dutch Celery Growers
Industrious and hard working Dutch immigrants flooded into Kalamazoo and Portage before the end of the 19th century to develop their own plots of muck into green gold. Celery fields covered the north side of Kalamazoo, stretched east to Comstock and south beyond what’s now I-94 into Portage. By 1910, six and one-half pages in the Kalamazoo City Directory were devoted to celery growers. As late as 1939 there were still more than 1,000 acres of celery beds under cultivation in the Kalamazoo vicinity. Growers didn’t have it easy. Horses had to be fitted with special wide wooden shoes to keep them from sinking as they plowed the muck fields. The Dutch farmers wore traditional wooden shoes, or “klompen,” which were ideal for swampy work that lasted as many as twelve or sixteen hours a day.
A Unique Variety
Kalamazoo’s unique celery was “white” or “yellow” and much sweeter than the green Pascal celery that was grown in California. This whiteness was achieved by placing long bleaching boards on each side of the stalk for part of its growing period. The boards blocked out the sun, which, in turn, suppressed some of the plant’s naturally bitter taste. There were two harvestings of the crop, generally in July and late October.
Celery on Every Street Corner
By 1871 the amount of celery shipped from Kalamazoo by rail gave it a Michigan freight rating second only to Detroit. Celery packing plants sprang up in the 1920s for year-round shipment across the United States. Some of this celery came from farms in Florida and was washed and repacked here in Kalamazoo for shipment elsewhere.
Local marketing of the street vendor variety tapped into the tourist trade that flooded into Kalamazoo. Practically every street corner had some youngster hawking bunches of celery. In 1936 travelers could not get into or out of the Celery City without being offered the crunchy white vegetable. The Michigan Central Depot was flooded with salesmen who swarmed onto the trains and dispensed celery to startled travelers.
Other traditions attribute the rise of the celery industry to one Cornelius De Bruin, who came to Kalamazoo from the Netherlands in 1866. He is said to have been walking near the corner of Cedar Street and Westnedge Avenue when he saw a strange plant growing in a soup celery bed. De Bruin asked for the seed to transplant to his garden, and table celery, or Kalamazoo celery, was developed.
Celery as a Cure-All
The celery industry also spawned an abundance of patent medicines to further the careers of the energetic hucksters. Patent medicines were compounds that had their names, but not their ingredients, registered with the U. S. Government Copyright Office. At the turn of the century, celery was thought to have “ever-soothing” and aphrodisiac properties supposed to strengthen a person’s “exhausted nature.” It was claimed that celery products could purify blood, quiet nerves, regulate the liver, renovate the kidneys, relieve stomach disorders, and treat nervous disease. One dispenser of such remedies was not a physician at all, but a veterinarian. Many patent medicine vendors, however, were highly respected members of the community and legitimate drug manufacturers, such as the Upjohn Company.
Celery Wilts as New Industry Blooms
The celery industry died here for a variety of reasons: the city’s many paper mills sank deep wells and lowered the water table, a failure to rotate crops caused celery blight in the 30s, competition increased from other areas of the country, and the growers failed to adapt to new growing techniques. The Celery City adopted its new nickname, the Mall City, in the 1950s. By 1985, there was only one celery farmer left in Comstock, and he too was gone by the end of the century.
But all was not lost. The enterprising farmers switched to growing flowers instead, and Kalamazoo is now one of the foremost bedding plant producers in the United States.
Written by Fred Peppel, former Kalamazoo Public Library staff member, February 2005.