Navy Bean Farming in Huron County, Michigan (Part I)
Brian Wayne Wells
As published in the January/February 2005 issue of
Belt Pulley Magazine
As mentioned in past articles, agriculture in the United States has long served as a beacon of hope for many immigrant groups which came to the United States in search of a new future. This was especially true for the earlier waves of immigration from North Europe and Scandinavia. It is generally assumed that for the later waves of immigration from eastern and southern Europe were limited in their opportunities to only industrial and mining occupations. However, even for these later waves of immigration, agriculture in the United States still offered some opportunities. One such immigrant group who recognized these opportunities in agriculture were the Poles.
The struggles of the Polish population for a nation of their own had long been an important feature of European history. From 1773 until 1795 the Polish nation underwent three different land grabs (politely called “partitions”) by its more powerful neighbors—Prussia, Russia and Austria. (Norman Davies, God’s Playground: A History of Poland Volume I :The Origins to 1795 [Columbia University Press: New York, 1982) p. 512.) By the time of the third partition in the 1795 there was no independent Polish nation left, all the territory had been swallowed up. However, the spirit of Polish nationalism never ceased to exert itself. The Poles of Cracow (or Krakow) was located right on the border of the Russian occupied part of the old Polish State where that border met the Austrian occupied zone.
However, during the dislocations caused by Napoleon’s Wars in eastern Europe, which included the temporary establishment of the Duchy of Warsaw from 1807 until 1815. Following the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Cracow became an independent “free city state.” In February of 1846, the rising tide of revolutionary patriotism among the Polish people exploded into the “Krakow Uprising” against the occupying forces. This uprising was suppressed by the Austrian armed forces crossing their border with the Free City State of Cracow. In the end, the Austrian Empire annexed Cracow into the Austrian part of the Polish partition.
Two years later, in 1848, there was a rash of revolts which broke out all across German speaking lands. (This period of time saw the emigration of William Frederich Oltrogge from Germany to the United States. See the article called “Massey-Harris Farming: The Oltrogge Family of Waverly, Iowa” in the March/April 2004 issue of Belt Pulley. This article is also published on this website.) This series of revolts spilled over into the parts of Poland controlled by the German speaking kingdom of Prussia, as the Poles in the city of Posnan rose in revolt. (H.W. Koch, A History of Prussia [Dorset Press: New York, 1978] p. 236.) In both 1830 and in 1863, the Polish population of the part of Poland controlled by Russia revolted against the Russian Government. (Edward Crankshaw,The Shadow of the Winter Palace [Viking Press: New York, 1976] pp. 105-109 and 203-206.) All of these revolts were unsuccessful and were put down by the authorities. The suppression of each of these each of these revolts had the effect of spurring emigration from the various parts of occupied Poland. These Poles sought to build a new future for themselves in the United States. One of the major destinations for the immigrating Poles was the State of Michigan. Michigan had entered the union of the United States only in 1837. In 1848, the first Poles settled in Michigan. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, Poles were arriving in large numbers in Detroit, Michigan, which was rapidly becoming Michigan’s premier town.
Then in 1881, Czar Alexander II was assassinated. Despite the fact that Czar Alexander II had been assassinated by Russian radicals and not-Poles, the Russian Government began another round of persecutions of the Poles in retaliation for the assassination As a consequence of this Russian repression of the Poles, a second and much greater wave of Polish emigration to the United States was begun in the 1880s. (Maldwyn Allen Jones, American Immigration [University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1960] p. 198.) Russian immigration (of which Polish immigration was considered a part) grew from only 5,000 in 1880, to 81,000 in 1892 and rose to a peak of 258,000 by 1907. (Ibid., p. 202.) Of this total “Russian” immigration approximately 25% was actually Polish immigration. (Ibid.)
Once again Detroit, Michigan, became a destination for many Poles in this second wave of immigration. (See the article on the Wisconsin Motor Manufacturing Company in the September/October 2004 isue of Belt Pulley magazine.) However, not all of the Polish immigrants of the second wave chose to remain in the urban areas. Across the nation some of the Polish immigrants migrated out of urban areas to seek their fortune in the rural areas of the nations. “After 1900, there was a small, but significant movement of Poles from American cities, factories and steel mills to the semi-abandoned farms of the the East. In western Massachusetts and Connecticut, Polish farmers began to cultivated onions and tobacco, crops requiring special soils, intensive hand-labor and not a little technical skill and business ability.” (Maldwyn Allen Jones, American Immigration, p. 215.) Thus, some of the Poles that came to Detroit, chose to pass through the town and settle in a rural area of Michigan known as “the Thumb.”
Michigan is divided into two land masses—the Upper Peninsula and the Lower Penninsula. The geographical shape of the Lower Penninsula on a map appears to be in the shape of a hand or a winter mitten. North of the city of Detroit lies a protrusion out into the Lake Huron which appears to be the “thumb” of the mitton-shaped Lower Penninsula.
Located on the very tip of the Thumb is Huron County, Michigan. The townships along the shoreline of Huron County, Siebewaing, Fairhaven, McKinley, Seville, Lake, Hume, Port Austin, Huron, Gore, Rubicon, Sand Beach and Sherman Townships were predominately involved with fishing and later became the tourist and vacation destinations for the population of the Detroit metropolitan area. Thus, after the fading of the fishing industry, the economy of these shoreline townships came to revolve around the summertime tourist trade coming largely from Detroit. However, in the middle of Huron County are fourteen townships, Chandler, Meade, Lincoln, Bloomfeld, Windsor, Oliver, Colfax, Verona, Siegel, Brookfield, Grant, Sheridan, Bingham and Paris, which are primarily agricultural in economy. The level ground of these townships with their covering of the clay/loam soil is conducive to agriculture. Furthermore, the mild summer weather moderated by the close proximity of Lake Huron adds to the natural plant growing capability of Huron County, Michigan.
Huron County was organized as a political sub-division of the State of Michigan in 1859. However settlement of the area had begun much earlier. Polish settlement of Huron County began in the late 1840s and early 1850s, by immigrants coming directly from Poland but arriving in the Michigan from Canada. The early settlers gathered around the small town of Parisville., Michigan. In 1852, the first Roman Catholic mission was opened in Parisville. By 1858 the foundation of St. Mary’s Church in Paris Township was laid by Reverend Peter Kluck, himself an immigrant from Poland.
The town of Bad Axe was located in the middle of Huron County and became the county seat of newly organized Huron County. Poles arriving in Huron County from Detroit as a result of the massive second wave of Polish immigration and worked on farms owned by others. However, they soon became farm owners themselves. Polish Settlement of the Huron County tended to be centralized in the townships east of Bad Axe. Immigrants of German heritage tended to settle the townships west of Bad Axe.
Like most frontier areas, the early settlers on the Thumb raised a great deal of alfalfa hay and small grains—largely for their own use. However, with the coming of the market economy and modern transportation, farmers on the Thumb began to find a specialized niche in United States agriculture. The flat land and silt loam, clay, well drained soil of the Thumb was found to be extremely accommodating to the raising of dry edible (field) beans—specifically navy beans.
The navy bean is a very high source of protein and obtained its name because of the fact that once dried, the beans could be stored for a very long time. Thus, the navy bean was perfectly suited for storage aboard ships. The first navy beans were introduced to Huron County in 1892 as six (6) acres were planted to navy beans that year. In 1895, still only eight acres of navy beans were grown in Huron County. However, an explosion in the growth of navy bean production occurred in 1900. By 1909, Huron County, alone, was raising 10% of all edible beans raised in the whole United States. In 1910, 20,015 acres within Huron County were devoted to navy beans. Following 1909, the navy bean market stablized for a number of years until 1914, when the outbreak of war in Europe created an increased demand and another spurt in production of edible beans occurred.
In 1915, one particular farmer in Bingham Township in Huron County became interested in raising navy beans on his own 160 acre farm. Just like his neighbors our Bingham Township farmer raised oats, hay and winter wheat. Just like his neighbors, our Bingham township farmer used nearly all of the hay and oats that he raised on his farm as animal feed. Only winter wheat served as a “cash crop” which was sold each year.
Winter wheat was planted each year in mid September. It grew some in the fall and then went dormant in the frozen ground under a blanket of snow during the winter. Upon the first thaw of the ground in the spring, the winter wheat began growing again. Having already established a root system the winter wheat always matured well ahead of other crops that had been planted in the spring. Consequently, winter wheat usually ripened and was ready to harvest each year in July.
Each year, our Bingham Township farmer would carefully watch the price of wheat. Sometimes he would sell his wheat immediately after threshing in July if he thought the price was right. He did this in 1910 and in 1912 and had been able to get $1.00 per bushel and $1.01 per bushel, respectively. (From the Macro-history Prices page of the National Bureau of Economic Research web page on the Internet.) However, in most years the price fell in July as a result of the glut in the market, created when everybody attempted to sell wheat at the end of the harvest. In 1911, he stored his wheat and waited until October and finally sold his wheat at 97¢ per bushel. This was nearly 10¢ more per bushel that the price had been in July of 1911. Last year, in 1914, the price of wheat reached $1.09 per bushel. He really felt that this high price would not persist. However, the war in Europe had created and was continuing to create some unusual price conditions in the market and the price of wheat had continued to rise in the winter and spring of 1915 until the price reached $1.57 per bushel in March of this year—1915. He now wished now that he had held on to his wheat through the winter. However, hind site is always 20/20.
Our Bingham Township farmer was a member of the grain co-operative that owned the grain elevator in Ubly. Ubly was a small village located in the central part of Bingham Township. Every winter the co-operative held its annual meeting to elect new members to the Board of Directors. Speakers were invited to this meeting to talk about new trends in farming. For some years now, speakers at this meeting had been urging farmers in the Ubly area to plant navy beans in addition to their other crops. Pointing out the recent “volatility” of the winter wheat market, they noted that navy beans would provide Huron County farmers with some economic stability by providing at least some diversification of their cash crops. By not having all their “eggs in one basket” Huron County farmers would have a “hedge” against any dip in the price of winter wheat. These speakers pointed out that since 1909, the overall price of dry edible beans had increased from $3.30 per hundred weight in 1909 to $4.00 per hundred weight in 1914—a 52% increase in the price. (A “hundred weight” referred to a 100 pound sack of beans. One hundred pounds of beans was equivalent to roughly two (2) bushels of beans, since a bushel of beans weighed about 56 pounds.)