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Voices of Spencer Creek
|The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Sweet Smell of Peppermint
Mentha piperita– Other names are American mint, brandy mint, lamb mint, lammint: an ancient plant known to the Greeks and Egyptians for medicine and culinary delights, we still enjoy mint.
By Lois Barton
Posted on Apr 17, 2004
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|Mentha piperita illustration from a Modern Herbal at Botanical.com|
A Register Guard article dated September 5, 1954, states Oregon "is the nation's largest peppermint oil producer... Washington state is the No. 2 peppermint oil state." Well, Dear Readers, this fact got me thinking...Several years ago I interviewed nine local folks who had mint growing experience and prepared an article for publication in the Lane County Historian of which I was editor at that time. The following story is excerpted from that article which appeared in the spring issue of 1991.
Stan Bettis, in his book Market Days, says, "The first mint roots arrived in Eugene in a cardboard box, tucked among the luggage of a new-comer named Oliver Harvey Todd. Todd, 65, had come to Eugene more or less to retire. But he'd raised mint--the oil of which was and is used in the manufacture of chewing gum, candy and medicine--in Michigan and Idaho and he was curious to see how it would do in Oregon.
"He planted the roots on his property out near 25th and Willamette. They did well, so Todd sent for a barrel of roots from Michigan and planted those too. His next step was to build a peppermint oil distillery, a device of boilers and copper coils that made teetotaling Eugeneans wonder just what Mr. Todd was up to.
"They soon found out and so did farmers in the area, who recogninzed a cash crop when they saw one. By 1915 several hundred acres of choice bottom land in the upper valley was given over to sweetly scented mint, which was worth (in 1915) $14 a pound."
Clyde Sidwell and Tom Green were early growers in the Coburg area. Clyde bought oil from other local growers. Morris Funke remembers when he was about ten years old (1930s) Clyde used to come around with his two wheeled trailer behind his Buick to pick up their peppermint oil. Sometimes it was packaged in gallon jugs and was "just like money in the bank." Jack Sandgathe is quoted in an undated Springfield News article. "At one time in the '20s mint oil was so expensive that gallon jugs of the stuff were stored in bank vaults."
There were a number of distilleries in Lane County early on. The boilers in those early stills are said to have often been from the steam donkey engines earlier used in logging operations. The early boilers were fired with slash wood. As that fuel became scarce, people turned to natural gas.
The volatile oil is extracted from peppermint leaves by exposing them to steam, which vaporizes the oil. The vapor is run through a condenser, and the oil can then be separated from the water because the liquified oil floats on water. There is a subtle difference in the flavor and quality of the oil which depends on the soil it's grown in and the climate. Because the first oil in this country was produced in the Middle West, oil from there is rated first quality by consumers - that being what they were first accustomed to.
Culture and harvesting techniques have altered over the years. A field is tilled and planted with root stock and will produce a crop the first year. At least three to five crops can be harvested before the planting needs to be renewed.
The roots are often distributed, in this area, by an adapted manure spreader. The spreader has shovels attached which make trenches the roots fall into. Then the field is disked to cover them. Irrigation must be started in early summer and continued weekly until harvest.
Both sheep and geese have been used in the past to control weeds in the growing crop. From a Springfield News article, "The bane of the mint grower...was weeds. At one time the farmer had to remove all weeds by hand and watch the field like a hawk." Weeds can really affect the quality of mint," a local grower pointed out. "The discovery of Sinbar was a real boon to us." In the mid 1960s Oregon State University scientists discovered Sinbar...a herbicide which killed most of the weeds. Sinbar is mainly responsible for the elimination of the use of geese in mint fields.
In the early days the mint was mowed, dried and gathered much like hay--in long "straws."
It was raked into windrows, loaded on wagon or truck and forked into steam vats where it must be trampled to pack it down.. More recently, after drying the plants are chopped into 1-3 inch segments for improved distillation. The chopper blows the mint into portable tubs which can be dumped mechanically.
In a good year up to 80 pounds of mint oil per acre can be realized. Oregon's cloudy weather during spring and early summer results in yields of 65-75 pounds per acre. The same cloudy weather allows the plant to produce high quality oil. There were some 6.300 acres of mint in Lane County in 1978. Willamette Valley acreage that year was 29,700 acres expected to produce more than $28 million in farm income. Fifty years earlier the tiny Lane County acreage had a combined output of less than five barrels. (400 pounds to the barrel.)
Rust problems and wilt have plagued mint growers, requiring expensive machinery to combat. One local grower, Rodney Chase, got started in mint growing as a high school student in the early '40s. His father "gave" him a field down by the river, where they could get a pump into the water. He made enough from that first crop to buy his first car.
Peppermint oil will keep for long periods. When the price is high more acres are planted, often resulting in a surfeit. A Springfield News article said, "The public generally believes that the mint producer is floating in money, mainly because of what looks to be an astronomical return for a fifty-five gallon can. Despite the figures, the profit margin is small and getting smaller as production costs rise." Pesticides are expensive and dangerous. Maybe it's time for a "back to the future" mint production method. Go geese!
Also see Weeding with Geese from the University of Missouri's Agriculture School web site.
Copyright renewed, ©2004 by Lois Barton
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Writer and historian Lois Barton is an 85 year old mother of eight children. She has lived on the same rural acreage just south of Eugene, Oregon for more than 50 years. All their children learned to milk, to keep the woodboxes filled, to do their share of household and garden chores. Her first book, Spencer Butte Pioneers, was published in 1982 when her youngest started to school. Since then she wrote five other books: Daughter of the Soil, now out of print; One Woman's West; A Quaker Promise Kept; and Through My Window, autobiographical sketches, sequel to Daughter Of the Soil.
Through the years Lois has been a 4H leader, president of the neighborhood association, a precinct committee woman, election board clerk, editor of the Lane County Historian, and a life long Quaker. She spent a month in Southeast Asia in 1974 as a member of a church peace mission, after working for ten years as director of the Eugene Chapter of the World Without War Council.
Visit the Sunnyside of Spencer Butte Section in our new format for more of Lois' stories. See more of Lois Barton's articles in West By Northwest.org online magazine's archives:
Visit the Heron Rookery
Sauerkraut and All That
Charlotte's Overdose - Just who is Charlotte and what did she take?
The Midwife - The midnight call awoke an unusual midwife.
The Mystery of Fox Hollow - Fact and fiction meet in this story of the origins of Faith Rock.
Trees, Tame Trees and Squirrel.
And follow the links of the Voices of Spencer Creek for the most recent articles by Lois Barton!
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