Tuesday, January 8, 2013


Potato boats were island landmarks for a number of years
 after Anderson's farming ended.
They were sold in 1973 as scrap steel.
Detroit Harbor, Washington Island -

The Edward Anderson potato farm on Washington Island grew to become a factor in midwest potato markets and more importantly, a significant contributor to Washington Island's economy.

By 1967 the farm was all but finished.  What caused the decline?  Poor potato markets?  Higher costs of farming?  Over extended borrowing for capital improvements?  Costly operation and maintenance of the potato boats?  Did a successful Chicago business prop up the Island farm, doomed sooner or later for failure?  Or could it have been a combination of many related factors, plus the strong personality of its owner and founder, Ed Anderson?

Records that speak directly to the decline of the potato farm don't seem to be available, and there are few who have enough background to make a calculated judgement.  Even those who were at one time close to the daily farming operations may not have had access to the full range of contributing economic factors.  In the end, we're left with personal accounts plus conjecture.

Physical leftovers

A few visual reminders of the potato farm days dot the Island's landscape:  the white tractor sheds on the land next to the main farm on Detroit Harbor Road; ten-ft. lengths of aluminum irrigation pipe here and there, some now lying beneath Island driveway entrances as culverts; a handful of rusting International Harvester Farmall tractors in the yards of Island residents;  berms and irrigation ponds.  These are the visual clues that remain.

Then there is the old pier called the Potato Dock where the potato boats moored, one of the more obvious physical features left to jog faded memories.  The boats themselves, supposedly made of  high-quality Bessemer steel, were sold for scrap and towed from the Island in 1973 to Canada, and from there to Italy.

The several ponds, and the deep wells that fed them to supply irrigation water for the fields, included  Screwdriver Lake, a pond off Range Line Road borders the Freddie Koyen cedar swamp. Another pond existed north of Bill Jorgenson's log home on Town Line Road.  A third pond is near Lee Bjarnarson's, off Jackson Harbor Road in the northeast sector of the Island.  In addition to these manmade features and the drilled wells that supplied them, the potato farm also drew water from Detroit Harbor through use of a large, engine-driven pump located in the Ed Anderson boathouse along the shore.  (In the 1990s, Brad and Judy Gordon built a home on that shore property; it was later purchased by Rusty Murray.  Coincidentally, today Edgar Anderson and his wife Martine own that property.)

Ideas on the farm's decline

Following one week of marriage and ready to return to San Diego, where I was assigned to a naval destroyer, Mary Jo and I were onboard the Eyrarbakki in early October 1972.  Also onboard, by coincidence, were Ed and Sylvia Anderson.   A conversation with Ed, who introduced himself, soon brought up the topic of his farm, competition in the potato markets, and what he perceived as growing demand nationwide for french fries requiring specialized, larger potatoes.  I was given a quick primer on the farm and what had happened, from Ed's point of view, most of which I no longer remember.  At one point, to punctuate his claims of achieving status as a major figure in potato agriculture, Ed opened the trunk to his Cadillac and pulled out an oversized facsimile of a check made out to him (about 18 inches long) for $1 million.  It had been signed by Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Benson, who served two terms in that capacity under President Dwight Eisenhower.

It was Ed's energy that day plus his eagerness to show this newcomer his marker of prosperity and accomplishment that stuck with me.  Ed's belief in himself may have been symptomatic of both the rise and the fall of his Island potato farm.

Other perspectives

Next door to the tractor sheds on the main farm at Airport and Detroit Harbor roads was the James Hanson home.  Hanson was acknowledged by Anderson in the Rohm & Haas article (referred to in an earlier blog) as being a major contributor to his farm's success.  As the potato farm manager, remembered by his son Jim, a Ferry Line captain, Hanson took great pride in having helped build the farm from scratch.

According to Jim who was young at the time and may remember only the bits overheard from his father, Anderson made his money in the futures markets trading potatoes.  Ed's first wife, Lydia, who died when quite young, was an integral part of that business.  It was profits from Anderson's Chicago potato brokerage operation that enabled his investment in the island farm.  Shortly after Lydia's death, Jim believed, the Chicago brokerage business began to decline.  The Island farm, however, still did well, according to Jim's father.

As potato farm manager, James Hanson's arrangement with Ed was to receive a ten percent commission on farm profits.  But he never actually received his commission.  When the 1965 crop was brought in under Hanson, it yielded a profit of $150,000 according to farm books kept by Hanson.  When no commission was forthcoming, Jim remembered, "Dad put his foot down.  'Ed, either pay up, or I'm out of the farm.' We moved to Sturgeon Bay in January, 1966. Two years later, no more potatoes were planted."

It was James Hanson's knowledge that helped build the farm, his son believes.  Hanson decided which fields to plant, how the crops should rotate, and other daily decisions often made on a large scale to keep production at its peak. "He considered building up the farm as a major accomplishment.  It was a significant blow to him," Jim said of his father's ending farming and leaving their island home. "He had to do that for the welfare of his family."

While the energy and drive of Ed Anderson are what enabled the considerable investment in Island potato farming in the first place, his strong personality may have led to its demise.  According to Jim Hanson, "Ed always felt his potatoes were worth more than anyone else's." There are accounts of Ed holding on to his crop, waiting for the best price.  This in turn led may have led to eventual dumping of unsold, spoiled potatoes.

Another perspective

At the time the potato farm went out of business, Anderson was heavily mortgaged.

Larry Young, who began work on the farm grading potatoes while in high school, soon worked full time.  He assisted Walt Jorgenson by maintaining tractors and other farm equipment.  Toward the end of the farm's existence, pay checks were bouncing, he said.

The old ferry hulls became floating warehouses, stripped of non-essential wiring, piping and machinery, but the boilers still had to function, according to Young. The boats were moored on the island in summer through late October, when the crop came in.  Then, before towing, the boilers had to be fired up and the dynamo operating for shipboard electricity.  The steering and the winches and onboard lighting were dependent on steam produced from coal-fired boilers.  Young believes the potato boats were costly to maintain and to tow back and forth between the Island and Benton Harbor, Michigan.  There in Benton Harbor, through the winter, supervisor Oscar Garcia and other workers processed and packaged the crop at a shore facility.  "The potato boats may have been the back-breaker," Young said.  "And, the cost of fertilizer went through the roof."

Anderson also owned land on Detroit Island, with separate ownership from the potato farm. There, he developed lots for sale.  Walt Jorgenson and Larry Young helped lay out the lots and cut access roads in the off-season.  Many Detroit Island lots were sold to fellow parishioners from Anderson's home church in Oak Park, Illinois.  Some of the original Detroit Island landowner families and their offspring are still regular summer residents there.  As with farm land on Washington Island, Anderson's unsold Detroit Island lots went into receivership in the early 1970s.

The Potato Dock property, roughly 5 acres, was purchased from Chicago's Continental Mortgage by members of the Slenys family of Chicago.  WIth no immediate purpose for the property in mind, they put it on the market after more than ten years, and in 1995 the Ferry Line made an offer that was accepted.  Eldred Ellefson was the island realtor who as a young man worked for Anderson's potato brokerage in Chicago.  While the dock property was on the market, it stood against persistent seas during the high-water cycle of 1986-87.   Portions of the dock were nearly washed through and were impassible to motorized traffic.

Since then, stone protection, stone fill, sheet piling and dredging - at a considerable expense for a dock that sits idle much of the time - were added. That brings us to the present day Potato Dock with its distinction for being, potentially, the only available island ferry landing in the coming months.

-  Dick Purinton


Martha Bennett said...

A wise investment. I don't remember Bill or Louse mentioning the potato boats being in Benton Harbor- something they certainly would have known about being the wharf rats they were.

Richard Purinton said...

Did you mean potato boats (ferries) as a wise investment, or the purchase of the old pier? - DP

Jim Richards said...

Thanks for the history of the potato farming and the "Potato Boats". I remember as a kid our family riding the C.J. Richter over to the Island and back (just for the trip) and seeing the old ferry tied up to the dock. I remember my dad explaining that the potatoes were farmed and stored in the old ferry, but never really understood the whole program and the bacground. Thx!

Richard Purinton said...

From Valerie Fons...
Dick -- I tried posting a comment to the blog and found the protocol of identifying letters and making note of them was not possible for me. My message was lost -- the basic comment I wanted to get across is: thank you for keeping the water way, landing and launching open to Washington Island. I am so grateful for the Washington Island Ferry and all that you do. Valerie Fons

Richard Purinton said...

Harry Lee Jensen wrote:

Thanks for all the info and updates on the Island history. It brought back some interesting memories on the days of driving the Ed Anderson tractors in the field during 55-57 . Also of why Jim Hanson and Ed A split. I didn't know why that had happened.I think Jim Hanson did an excellent job of running and managing the farm for Ed. Thanks . Harry

Heidi Bywater said...

Thank you for writing about my grandafther that's information I never knew. He died when I was only 11 years old. Thank you !

Heidi Bywater said...

This is eds granddaughter Heidi, thank you for all this information ! He was a great man

Heidi Bywater said...

I loved coming across this and what dick wrote. Thank you for sharing ! All these things about my grandfathers farm I never knew! My aunt Marilyn Nelson is the family history buff so I need to make a copy of this and send it to her ! This is great !