Growing Saginaw • The Legacy of Farming in Saginaw County

The Castle Museum of Saginaw County History Unveils Fascinating Exhibition on the Legacy & Impact of Farming in Saginaw County

    icon Jun 15, 2023
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As we enter these summer months the Castle Museum of Saginaw County History is unveiling an expansive new in-house exhibit that encompasses the broad and profound significance of how farming has shaped, defined, and nourished the soul of the Great Lakes Bay Region.

Titled Growing Saginaw County: Agriculture & Enterprise, this fascinating exhibition will take over Centennial Hall for the remainder of 2023 and features stories, historical context, photos, and artifacts from around the county tracing the beginnings of farming in the region and its evolution from small family farms to the manufacturing of flour, sugar, pickles, and more, illustrating how farming reshaped the landscape, provided economic development, and how the labor and dedication of those who came to the region to work the land continues to impact and shape the region.

According to Vice President and Chief Historian of the Castle Museum, Thomas Trombley, “As you drive through the farmland of Saginaw County, you may notice a dominance of a few types of crops. This exhibit will explore how this region become a center for raising sugar beets, navy beans and wheat and changes and technology that impacted - determined - what is grown by individual farmers. Agriculture has been and continues to be a constant presence in Saginaw economy and history.”

Additionally, as a companion exhibition, the Castle Museum is showcasing a selection of Saginaw County’s centennial farms in their West Gallery, which focuses upon farms that have been existing in townships and villages throughout Saginaw County for 100 years or more.

According to the museum’s outreach coordinator, Jennifer Vannette, “We kicked off about the importance of farming to Saginaw County with a national traveling exhibition about the American farmer, and now we’re bringing it home to think about how it impacts our local community not just in terms of farming practices, but in terms of the economic picture that comes with it and how agriculture serves as an economic driver for Saginaw County.”

“These companion exhibits offer patrons a micro and macro view of farming throughout the region,” explains Trombley. “First we look at individual efforts and then we look at what happens after products leave the fields. Grain ha to be milled into something and each of these products need to processed and distributed, so with the advent of railroads and shipping the county changed. Over time we see how those individual family farms transitioned into a larger crop pool and how whether through buyouts or consolidations, family farms evolved into these large economic drivers for the region.”

Prior to the 19th century, the inhabitants of the Saginaw Valley practiced a mixed strategy of domestic crop production and harvesting wild plants.  Archaeologists have found a few domesticated squash/gourd seeds in Saginaw/Bay county that date back 3000 years ago. They are the first evidence of cultivation in the region.  Additional cultivated plants made their way slowly over time and by around 1000-1200 CE the archaeological record shows evidence for the cultivation of maize (corn), sunflowers, beans, tobacco and goosefoot ( a wild and domesticated native species with starchy seeds.)

According to Trombley, it’s difficult to answer exactly how many Centennial farms that have been around 100 years and remained in the same family exist in Saginaw County. “According to a list from the Historical Society of Michigan at least a couple dozen of them existed in each township of Saginaw County, which brings the number well up to over one hundred. However, if the property sold or someone died, it could be an inactive farm today. Townships with a lot of suburbanization tend to have lost more than others.”

The biggest crops produced throughout the region include wheat, beans, sugar beets, and specialty crops such as pickles and cucumbers. “Because of the soil an weather conditions here the climate is very conducive for the production of these products and then a whole infrastructure had to be created to process these products, which is as much of a story as what goes on in the field,” adds Trombley.

As an example, the Wardin Family Farm in Richland Township began in 1893 with a herd of just six cows, which over the next century grew to 125. Before ending milking operations in 2019 due to retirement, the Wardin Dairy Farm was producing some 11,000 pounds of milk daily. This small family farm organically grew into a large specialty farm through the years as more and more cows were added. While Richland Township was once home to multiple family operated dairy farms, today only one survives.

As farms became fewer but larger in size it created specialty farms and agribusiness corporations. By the 1970s the size and scale of farms meant that management skill was necessary for anyone entering into farming. As a result, only one small farm operator was replaced for every six who left farming.

The Mayflower Mill is considered by competent experts to be the best constructed and arranged flouring mill ever to exist in the United States and is one of the oldest in Michigan. It was built by New York investor Jesse Hoyt in 1851 and located at 424 S. Water St. in East Saginaw. Fire destroyed the first mill in 1860, but Hoyt rebuilt an even larger mill on the same site. By 1882 the capacity of the roller mill was 500 barrels daily.

As we moved into the 20th Century,  regional creation and then consolidation of large processors and shippers shaped the marketing of beans and wheat. Saginaw Milling Company opened in 1895 its new grain mill, which was located on the site of the CK Eddy Lumber Mill,  Not surprisingly, the investors for its construction were primarily those who had made their money in lumbering.

Though originally started in Port Huron in 1915, the Michigan Bean Company - a conglomeration of Ownedale Grain & Lumber Co, Vestaburg Elevator Co, Boslo Grain Co. and Port Huron Producers Elevator, moved to Saginaw in 1938 after leasing the Saginaw Milling Co’s building for its headquarters. By 1943 Michigan Bean had purchased the building, making Saginaw its permanent home. The reinforced concrete elevator located on Niagara Street was over 180 feet in height. By the 1940s Michigan had become the largest bean producing state in the country and was also hired to package for some of the nation’s largest canning companies.

In 1947 The Michigan Bean Co’s elevator - the largest in the world - became more recognizable with the addition of the 37 x 50 foot neon outline of the jack rabbit or ‘bean bunny’. The sign was the largest figurative neon sign in the United States. The bunny went dark in 1985 but was lit again in the 1990s through fundraising efforts and removed when the building was demolished two years ago.  The sign is currently in storage awaiting a decision on where it should be mounted and displayed.

According to Trombley, the jack rabbit logo of the Michigan Bean Company is a big part of its story. “When Michigan Bean was formed it was a consolation of regional bean companies who purchased Saginaw Milling’s bean elevator back in the 1930s. The elevator was the largest in the United States and In 1938 with newly appointed president Albert L. Riedel, Michigan Bean moved its headquarters there, making Saginaw its permanent home.”

Under Riedel's leadership, Michigan Bean Company became the largest exporter of grains in Michigan. At the time of its dissolution, December 30, 1955, to merge with Wickes Corporation, it owned nineteen elevators in Genesee, Gratiot, Huron, Isabella, Midland, Montcalm, Saginaw, Sanilac, Shiawassee, and Tuscola counties of Michigan.

“Two of the many things Riedel did was stress purity and cleanliness in his operations, and then he started marketing beans directly to the consumer, which is where the jack rabbit came from,” note Trombley. “It first emerged in late 1947 when the American flag is replaced on the elevator with the jack rabbit, and Riedel made his marketing campaign consumer friendly. He would put a kid’s embroidery pattern on the back of his packaging and in terms of marketing and branding, the jack rabbit was a really neat idea of doing something that would appeal to kids so they would say, ‘Mom, I want beans for dinner!”

“Bean cook-offs started popping up all around the country, and in the 1950s a New Yorker article appeared about Saginaw that was written by Philip Hamberger, who did an in-depth profile piece about with A.L. Riedel and became obsessed with people in Saginaw walking with their boots up, which I’ve never seen,”  continues Trombley.

Thanks to Michigan’s well drained and sandy soil along with a temperate climate, the state also produces a lot of cucumbers. Currently the Mitten State produces about $47 million worth of pickling cucumber crop per year. Most notable is the Vlasic Pickle Company. While some Vlasic infrastructure is located outside of Saginaw county, they still do operate facilities in Saginaw and Bridgeport.  Kenney Brothers Farm in Hemlock supplies Vlasic with pickling cucumbers and they produce between 300 to 500 thousand bushels each year. According to the census of agriculture, Michigan continues to rank first in the nation for pickle production.

Additional ancillary presentations associated with this exhibition consist of the following:

• June 27th: Lunch & Learn  with Bevin Cohen on Seed Saving & Sharing.  Starts at 12:00 noon.

• July 11th: Grow & Tell. Starts at noon.

• July 25th: Lunch & Learn with Saleem Mannan, Urban Gardening Program at Houghton-Jones. Starts at 12:00 noon.

• July 20th: History After Hours at 5:30 PM with Dr. Samantha Engel of The Dow Garden.

There is much to absorb, appreciate, and learn from each of these new exhibitions. The Castle Museum of Saginaw County History is located at 500 Federal Avenue in Downtown Saginaw and is open seven days a week, Monday through Wednesday from 10 am to 4:30 pm; Thursday from 10 am to 7 pm Friday & Saturday from 10 am - 4:30 pm; and Sunday from 1 to 4:30 pm. You can contact the museum by phoning 989-752-2861 and also visit them online.





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