Sunday, December 30, 2012


Edward Anderson in foreground, City of Cheboygan
and City of Munising moored behind him.  Pier was constructed
with two old, iron dry-dock boxes towed from Sturgeon Bay, 
and by dumping tons of fill, some of it coming from old stone fences.

Detroit Harbor, Washington Island -  

While cleaning out books files and other materials yesterday from my office at the Ferry Terminal in preparation for the next tenant, I ran across a folder containing information on the Anderson potato farm. It occurred to me that many readers may not know the history of island potato farming as it related to the Potato Dock, why the dock was built in the first place and how it was used.

The key individual in this story is Ed Anderson, an island boy who became a successful commodities broker in Chicago and knew the potato markets well.  He brought his ideas and energy and resources to Washington Island, where for nearly two decades his potato farming operations provided work for many islanders.

The above photo was published in Rohm & Haas Reporter,  the July-August 1965 issue. (It was copied in an early copy machine, and then scanned into a digital file) and shows Anderson posed with his car ferries in front of the potato dock. 

There were several excellent articles in my file that covered Anderson potato operations.  Besides the Rohm & Haas article, from a house organ magazine published by the fertilizer company, the Door County Advocate (DCA) also published a story (April 26, 1960) with this headline: "Processing of Island's Potato Crop Nearly Done; Ship to Be Remodeled."   
   Following are paragraphs reprinted from that DCA article:

  "The last of the 1959 Washington Island potato crop will soon be processed, according to Edward H. Anderson. 
  Anderson, whose big potato boat is named after him, will then take the 259 ft. ship back to the Island for a major facelifting this summer.
  This season's crop amounted to nearly a quarter million bushels of quality Russett Burbank potatoes.     Right now, the market is high, over $5.50 for 100 lb. bags of U. S. No. 1s.   When you figure that a bushel of potatoes weighs 60 lbs. the total crop amounts to 15,000,000 lbs.  Then take 80 percent of that for No. 1a (Idaho gets only 40 percent, according to Anderson) and you come up with 12,000,000 lbs., or 120,000,000 100-lb. bags.  That times $5.50 makes $660,000."
  Of course, that doesn't work out exactly that way, but it does give one an idea of the size of Anderson's operation.
   Not all potatoes are put in 100-lb. bags.  There are also 10's, 25's and 50's.
   Price fluctuates wildly.  A 10 lb. bag on the Chicago market ranges from 43 to 65 cents.
   When this reporter went over to the boat Anderson was in his little cubicle under a stairway ("ladder" for marine purists) talking on the phone to the chief buyer for National Foods.  The two are good friends.
   Anderson said his only problem in selling is to get the customer to try his Wisconsin Russet Burbanks once.  If they do they're convinced.  Idahos have a mighty reputation but they apparently don't stand up in comparison with Island spuds.  The Burbanks are just as good baked and don't disintegrate when boiled.
  Anderson presently owns 550 A. on the Island but intends to expand to 1,000 A.  He'll be putting out a million bags of potatoes annually, going all over the country.
  Pinebrook and Washington Island are the brand names now, but everything will be under the Washington Island label in the future.  And what a label for Door county!  It will have a map of Wisconsin, conspicuously showing Door county and the Island.  Everywhere the potatoes are sold people will see the peninsula.
  The potato boat is a new industry for Sturgeon Bay.  Twenty people work aboard her, washing, bagging and shipping out the cargo.  A cold storage warehouse will be built at the dock, further boosting Sturgeon Bay's economy.
   Orrin Gunnlaugsson is Anderson's manager aboard the boat, and James Hanson manager of the Island farms.
   Washing and bagging is now done on the car deck of the former Michigan auto ferry but this summer's remodeling will change all that.  The work will be done above, where the lounge, galley, etc. are now located. The ship will be closed in out to the rails for added space.  Filled bags will go down and out to trucks by gravity.
   All equipment to handle the potatoes will be completely new.  Now, for example, potatoes have to be hand loaded onto the washing conveyor.
   Anderson, a native Islander, started out in the potato business in 1920, getting a salary of $25 a week in the  South Water St. market in Chicago.   He learned from the bottom up.
  He now buys potatoes in 43 states.  Figuring by carloads his Door county operation is less than 4 percent of the firm's total volume. 
   Yet that 4 percent has 100 percent of Anderson's heart.  This is home, and he loves it. "I'd rather be in Door county in a snowstorm than in Florida a sunny day," he said as he looked out from the bridge of his ship.
  He confided that the ship filled a lifelong dream for him.  "I always wanted to have a boat and now I finally got it, even if it is a barge," he smiled.  (A Roen tug tows the ship.)
  He had an anxious moment with the ship last November when a sudden early cold wave threatened to wipe out $100,000 worth of potatoes.  Leaving the national convention, of which he was chairman, he flew to Door county to supervise protection of the cargo.  Insulating board was placed over the whole upper deck.
   Anderson, by the way, is a veteran air traveler.  He was the 126th person in the country to receive an air credit card.
   The big Island crop and the picturesque ship would not exist but for the vision of Mr. Anderson.  he was told he couldn't grow potatoes on the Island, that the land has been farmed out.  Anderson's reply was to build the soil with the proper mixture of fertilizer and to put in a large irrigation system.  Results this year:  450 bu. per A."   (name of the news writer was not credited in this article)

Another source of information about island potatoes came directly from Anderson himself in an undated, handwritten letter addressed to Mrs. Burgoon. (Janet Burgoon was one of the Washington Island Archives' founders.)

Anderson's letter read:

“Dear Mrs. Burgoon:

From about 1895 until 1932 there were approximately 80 farmers on Washington Island who raised from 2 to 10 acres of potatoes.  The planting & harvesting of this crop was done by hand.  The most difficult was the harvesting.  They were dug using a fork to remove from ground.  At the field they were picked by hand and placed in bags, hauled to a storage, there they remained until put aboard a schooner.   When the schooner arrived the farmers hauled the potatoes (in sacks) to the Booth dock in Washington Harbor West Side.  Sometimes a line up of wagons extended half a mile waiting to be unloaded.

  George O. Mann and the Farmers Union were the principal sales agents for the farmers.  The schooners went to Milwaukee, Kenosha & Chicago, where the potatoes were sold in small lots.    

  Generally the farmers realized from 15 to 35 cents for 60 pounds of potatoes.
This continued until the crop had removed the food elements from the soil, such as nitrogen, phosphate and potash.  When the writer became interested in growing potatoes on W. I.,  I first had the soil analyzed, found it was sorely lacking in phosphate and potash.  I was advised by many farmers not to attempt to grow potatoes, however plants need food, the same as humans.
  Testing the soil was then accomplished and found same sorely lacking in phosphate & potash.

  I planted 15-varieties, found the Idaho russets were the best for this soil because it has a very high P.H. around 6 to 8.  This make a scab to form on smooth skinned potatoes, but perfect for russet burbanks.  With the working of the soil to 8 to 10 inches deep proper application of fertilizer, half a ton of 6-24-24 per acre a good spray program to eliminate insects and blight, the average yield per acre was 450 to 500 bu. per acre.  The average yield in 1895 to 1932 was 75 to 125 bu. per acre.  In 1919 when the writer started in the carload potato business in Chicago, there were 100,000 potato farmers in the U. S.  Now in 1974 there are 15,000 left.  The last 20 years except 1973 and 1974 the prices to farmers have been mostly at cost or below cost of production.  This applies to almost all farm commodities.   

  Washington Island has a wonderful soil to grow russett burbank potatoes, but they must bring a price to realize above cost to the producer.
 At present cost of labor, fertilizer, insecticides, equipment, taxes, etc. 4.00 per cent is needed to realize cost.  Most all costs to farmers has increased from 100 to 150 % in last 18 months:  a farmer gambles with weather, markets and other conditions.

  At present the writer is studying the feasibility of putting a French Fried processing plant, if producing is to be resumed.
   (signed) Edw. H. Anderson”

And from the Rohm & Haas article, there is more information about the role of those old car ferries:

 "The fleet of "potato boats" is owned and operated by Edward H. Anderson, a Chicago carload potato dealer who is also one of the Midwest's major potato growers.  Mr. Anderson acquired his tow large vessels several years ago when they were made obsolete by the construction of the Mackinac Bridge connecting Michigan's Upper and lower Peninsulas.  He figured the boats would solve one of his biggest problems in connection with producing potatoes on Washington Island:  getting the spuds to market economically and efficiently.
   "Before we got our boats we had to store out potatoes in a warehouse, ship them out in small lots, and then send them by rail and truck to Chicago for final grading and packaging," says Mr. Anderson.  "Once we figured out that we handled each potato 14 times before it reached the customer.  That made for a lot of bruising and a lot of expense."

    The old ferry boats have made a big difference in this marketing system.  They've enabled Anderson to reduce by more than a half the amount of handling his potatoes get and to cut substantially the cost of delivering his crop to customers.

    From the Field into the Ferry

   Here's how this amphibious operation works.  during the fall harvest, wagons of potatoes are brought directly from teh fields to the boats.  Here the tubers are loaded loose into the holds.  The converted ferries have a combined capacity of approximately 200,000 bushels.  This is close to the total crop produced on the Anderson farms, with the exception of seed potatoes, which are stored on the island for next year's planting.
   Harvest runs to the end of October, at which time the boats are towed to their winter berths at Benton Harbor.  While the boats are in the harbor, a crew processes the potatoes for the market.  This involves washing, sizing, grading and packaging.  It takes from five to six months to unload the boats.
   During this time, the potatoes keep well in their unusual storage area.  The cold waters of Lake Michigan that surround the boats keep temperatures low and prevent the potatoes from deteriorating or sprouting.  When required, propane gas heaters are used to maintain a temperature of about 40 degrees in the holds, and thus avoid any problems with freezing.  Fans circulate fresh air through channels in the floor.
   In May, after the last bags of potatoes have been moved out, the Edward H. Anderson and the City of Munising - now referred to as simply "Number 2" - head back to Washington Island.  They're not empty, though.  They carry a cargo of fertilizer, agricultural chemicals and other supplies needed on the island for raising the next crop of potatoes."

    Further along in the article Anderson talked about locating his farm on Washington Island, and of his manger, Jim Hanson.  Hanson's children still have roots here:  daughter Lois (Tim) Jessen has an excellent reputation for her kitchen skills, and a son, Jim, is a Washington Island Ferry Line captain.]

 "By the mid-1930's, Anderson was moving several million bushels of potatoes a year (in the Chicago markets as trader).  About that time he began looking for a summer home where he could spend his slack season.  "I explored the New England states, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, and then I came back to Washington Island and found the most beautiful place I'd seen.  It was my old home.  I bought it, dressed it up a little, and we began spending our summers here," says Anderson.

   "I loved it, but I got restless.  The first of June to Labor Day was too long a time to be idle. So then I started buying land.  My first idea was to plant cherry trees. But then I decided I'd better stay with m own business - potatoes.   I was lucky enough to find a man who really knows that crop - Jim Hanson - to run the operation.  We gradually expanded our operation and now we're in the business in a pretty big way. But we still really get a kick out of farming."

    Anderson and Hanson have something in common besides potatoes"  their love of the water and sailing.  During the First World War, Anderson was a wheelsman on an iron ore carrier on the Great Lakes.   Hanson for his part spent 10 years on a freighter and served in the Merchant Marine during the Second World War.  Their diversified experiences serve them in good stead.  Hanson is an expert at growing potatoes.  Anderson - with 45 years experience as a broker - knows every aspect of selling them.  And they both put their seamanship abilities to good use in operating their private flotilla of potato boats.
 - the end -           Dick Purinton


Anonymous said...

Well, I don't know about the snow vs. sunny Florida, but will be doing the snow again soon.
Martha B

Anonymous said...

Next tenant???????