While nearby towns grew larger, and industrial sites opened,
New Garden stayed fairly unchanged for many, many years. Its towns actually
diminished in importance. It was known for its many greenhouses where
carnations and other flowers, and some vegetables, were grown, and it remained
principally a community of family farms, and small family oriented businesses.
One greenhouse operator, Charles Starr, gained state-wide recognition in the
1800s as proprietor of "Pleasantville Green-houses" which were located at
present Starr and Penn Green Roads. As a matter of fact, the name "Pleasantville"
was given to the entire area there for a short while. Starr was especially
noted as a grower of tuberoses and carnations which were shipped to all parts
of the country. He, also, conducted a mail order business and his bulbs and
plants found their way to all parts of the United States. The old homes on the Starr Road corner today were owned by various family members. The first Starr, Moses,
settled in New Garden Township in 1790.
There were other greenhouse operators throughout the area,
particularly in and near Toughkenamon, while the southern part of the Township
stayed taken up by large farms, usually dairy farms. Land remained open and
relatively unsettled for a long time. The one other industry that developed
early in the Township was, also, a farming operation.
Two hundred years ago, George Washington was said to have
been served "mushrumps" in the inns of the area when he fought near Kennett Square. Since "mushrump" farming is so important to our Township; and since so many
changes have come about recently, and many more will probably develop in the
not far distant future, this lengthy section is included on many facets of
mushroom cultivation and its allied businesses.
The first knowledge of mushroom cultivation in the United States probably came from English gardeners working here, and the first center for them was
around New York City as early as 1864. The next extensive development was
around Kennett Square, probably aided by Italian immigrants and their knowledge
brought from Europe. Many worked in local greenhouses where mushrooms were
first grown under the benches. Mushroom farming took hold, especially in the Toughkenamon Valley area. William Falconer wrote in 1891 in his book entitled, "Mushrooms -
How to Grow Them," that mushrooms "should concern everyone" since they were a "healthful
and grateful food," and could become a most profitable crop. The demand was
said to have been increasing for them especially in America which had an
inadequate supply, and particularly since Americans paid more than twice the
amount paid by purchasers in any other country. He further said, "We have no
fear of foreign competition for all attempts to import them so far have been
Mushroom farming was considered a simple, remunerative
business, but only a few men knew how to grow them. "The industry is one in
which women and children can take part as well as men;" it furnished indoor
employment in Winter with very little hard labor attached to it! Wives and
daughters were told they wouldn't have to worry whether their hens were laying
eggs at Christmas, for they could take over management of the crop once a farmer
laid out and spawned the beds. The secret of growing mushrooms was so well-kept
that, supposedly, even neighbors and life-long friends had not been in the
cellars of growers.
Spawn was considered most mysterious, for most people were
unaware that spawn, or what botanists call mycelium was the true mushroom
plant. The delicate white, mold-like network of threads grew and spread quickly
in their growing medium, usually horse manure. In due time mushrooms were
produced. Spawn could not be produced from the spores (which are analogous to
seeds of other plants) and the mushroom plant, itself, was broken into pieces
and planted. Before formation of mushrooms began, the plant along with the
manure in which it had spread and adhered, were dried for future use. It could
be kept that way for several years, but growth began, again, when it was put
under proper conditions of moisture and heat.
William Sharpless, the Creamery owner of Toughkenamon, was
probably the first major grower of mushrooms in New Garden Township. His son, W. Warren Sharpless, wrote that William Sharpless, Harry Hicks, and William
Swayne, father of J. Bancroft Swayne, got an urge to try to grow mushrooms
about 1890. Sharpless said, "I've a hunch it was my father's idea because he
was ready to try anything once." They were carnations growers and grew
mushrooms beneath the carnation beds. Black chintz hung from the benches to
keep the area dark. Spawn came from England through a Philadelphia seed house
in bricks about four by six inches, by one inch thick, and was chopped into
pieces with a hatchet. (This type of spawn, known as "brick spawn," and French "flake
spawn," a loose straw-like mixture, were the only types available then.)
Sharpless wrote on, "My father's crop came on first, late in Fall of 1890,
ahead of the others, so that made him the first to grow mushrooms in the United States." This, of course, conflicts with Falconer's book and statements of other
early growers, but Sharpless may have been first in New Garden Township.
W. Warren Sharpless said, "My mother did packing for my
father and every mushroom was brushed clean with a fine hairbrush and laid just
so in the basket." The senior Sharpless at one point tried mushroom beds such
as those found in the grottos and caves of France where compost was packed by
hand into mounds two feet high, and two feet wide. To somewhat simulate a
French grotto, he had a long cave-like trench dug, roofed with railroad ties
and a foot of dirt. It was warm in winter without heat, and kept fairly cool until
late in the Spring. He only grew one crop on the mounds and then put in benches
and tiers. The cave was used for quite awhile until the roof started to cave
About 1905 an improved brick spawn was made in America by inoculating bricks with a pure culture made from mushroom tissue, or "Tissue
Culture." The French developed, and we adopted, cultures inoculated with
germinated spores which produced better spawn, but failures due to impurities
resulted when neither the growing medium nor the container in which it was
grown were sterilized. By the 1920s growers were assured of a good crop, all
other conditions being right when "Pure Culture Spawn," developed about two
years earlier, was in use. Spores were dropped and germinated under sterile conditions
by L. F. Lambert, then inoculated into bottles of sterilized horse manure which
were closed to prevent contamination. Growing conditions are almost ideal, now,
and quick crops are desired. Grain spawn is principally used, in which the
growing medium, rye or wheat, replaces the manure first used years ago. Bottles
are automatically filled and sterilized, inoculated under sterile conditions,
shaken to distribute the spawn after a week or so passes. Growth is complete in
about another week and the spawn is then put in cold storage until needed.
Mushroom Supply Company and All-Fresh Spawn Corporation are
two makers located in New Garden Township. William Sharpless entered the
spawn-making business in 1924 and, after a hesitant start under the direction
(and misdirection) of a representative of the U. S. Department of Agriculture,
the technique was mastered. Sharpless and his son remained in the business
until 1932 when Alex Guthrie of Kennett Square successfully took over the
operation. Preliminary work was done in Toughkenamon because of complaints
about the odors connected with the business, but the finished product was
stored in Kennett Square.
Southeastern Pennsylvania is said to be similar to those
areas where mushrooms are cultivated in Europe - well-watered, and having ample
supplies of composting materials - which helped development of the industry
here. It was, also, on the major routes of trade and transportation that made
spawn easily acquired in the late 1800s. The scientific contributions of
Swayne, the closeness of Markets, and the conservative nature of the Quakers
that discouraged the spread of knowledge of mushroom cultivation all aided the
growth of the industry. It soon became apparent that mushrooms needed special
houses in which to grow. Since fungi do not require light, the frame buildings
were windowless, but an adequate ventilating system was necessary for air
circulation and to provide as constant a temperature as possible. Many
endeavored to make a science of mushroom culture. The part time industry
passed; a full-fledged American industry developed.
By the early 1900s Italian immigrants began building their
own mushroom houses and went into business for themselves, for mushroom growing
was an ideal way to supplement their often meager incomes. It was a business in
which the whole family could participate. Often several families who lived
together or near each other would pool resources. Houses were filled by the men
at one location for a day or two, at another for a few days, and so on until
each was completed. Women and children picked and packed to help - for men in
the family usually kept their full-time jobs in greenhouses, with the railroad,
or in the quarries. The mushroom crop was often worked only at night.
Until 1926 all mushrooms grown commercially in the United States were the brown cream variety in color, not the white ones to which we are
accustomed today. A great event occurred in that year when a clump of white
mushrooms was discovered growing in a cream bed. Growers immediately
anticipated the commercial possibilities for the white mushroom had more
eye-appeal than previous varieties. All white ones today have been propagated
from this chance cluster; all have the same ancestry. Another big factor that
helped growth of the industry was a new and expanded market created in 1928 by
mushroom canning, particularly canning of mushroom products such as soup. About
80% of all mushrooms produced in the United States in the 1920s were produced
in this area. The canning market, plus increased scientific aid, helped the
industry weather the Great Depression. Some growers did overextend themselves
in the pre-1929 boom; too many new facilities were constructed; some owners
were unable to meet financial obligations and were forced into bankruptcy. Many
houses deteriorated through disuse and fire destroyed many others between 1930
The U. S. Department of Agriculture encouraged research in
the study of the nature of mushroom growth - proper conditions, diseases and
their control, and pests. Most of the research was so scientific that it was
necessary for someone to teach it in away the grower could understand. Since
the research labs had difficulty contacting growers, Chester County Mushroom
Laboratories was established in 1929 to do this. The industry was stimulated
when such aid produced poundage increases and reduced chances of crop failure.
Double-cropping began in the industry in the 1930s. Most data on the value of
mushrooms as a food was unorganized at that time, and often confused with
information on wild ones. Research in this field prior to World War II provided
enough facts to have mushrooms declared an essential food by the U. S.
Government. The industry was, thus, allowed to continue operating during
wartime, although a limited supply of labor and raw materials somewhat reduced
production. Mushroom growers made fortunes overnight, however, during World War
II. They easily obtained building materials available for civilian use since
theirs was an essential product. The mushroom became more and more widely
accepted by the American public, and improved refrigeration and wider
transportation enabled both the spawn-maker and grower to ship further to
market. Some growers had trouble with the Internal Revenue Service following
World War II because of erroneous tax returns and were fined and/or imprisoned,
rather severely it seems in view of today's enormous tax scandals. Most growers
today have accounting firms handling their affairs; the "mom" and "pop"
operations of yesteryear have virtually disappeared.
Pressure of war research forced the Government to
discontinue mushroom research, but as a result, it discovered that equipment
and the experience gained could be used to quickly obtain quantities of
Penicillin needed for research purposes. Research advanced to the stage of a
commercial success by 1943 and Chester County Mushroom Laboratories were
absorbed in this work.
To continue the work of Chester County Mushroom Laboratories,
Mushroom Supply company built laboratories at its existing facility in
Toughkenamon. Organized in June 1924, by Charles H. Thompson and L. F. Lambert,
Mushroom Supply had furnished specialized tools and materials, machinery,
packages, and other equipment to the industry, and manufactured baskets. Prior
to organization of the Corporation, Thompson sold supplies while working his
own mushroom houses, aided by previous selling experience. Changes were made
after 1930 when his son, Forrest G. Thompson, accepted responsibilities for
company management. When basket sales became too competitive, manufacture was
discontinued; spawn sale was dropped in 1932; the Thompsons bought out the
Lambert interest in the business in 1934. Forrest G. Thompson succeeded his
father in 1941 when Mushroom Supply enlarged its efforts and facilities to
develop specialized machinery, equipment, and supplies. Many specialties were
engineered and built by the company. Marketing of spawn began again in 1940
when Mushroom Supply became exclusive spawn distributors for Grocery Store
Products, Inc., previously known as Jacob's Spawn. It was interesting to read a
catalog printed during World War II when everything from sticky fly-paper, "devils,"
or manure turning machines were offered for sale. Basket papers, "slightly
off-white color," and not the blue to which we are now accustomed, were listed.
When Grocery Store Products discontinued spawn-making in
1945, Mushroom Supply Company began its manufacture. The company absorbed
various patent rights of Chester County Mushroom Laboratories. A leader in
penicillin development and in production with Wyeth, Inc. of West Chester, G.
Raymond Rettew, became associated with Mushroom Supply as technical consultant
in spawn research and development.
Since 1972 the Company has been under the direction of
Forrest Thompson's sons, Charles Thompson, President and Treasurer; Robert
Thompson as Secretary. Edward A. (Ted) Strode has been with Mushroom Supply
since its very beginning in 1924 and serves as Vice President and Sales
Manager. He is facetiously called "Mister Mushroom" because of his knowledge of
the industry. Donald Baker became associated with the company shortly thereafter
in 1928. Jean Hoopes has handled office affairs for several years; Ernest
(Ernie) Baer, now in charge of the spawn plant, has been employed since 1945;
Thomas B. Strode has been a salesman since 1949; while Earl Holston, Research
Director in charge of spawn culture, has been there since 1953.
Compost is the material in which spores are spread for
growing. First, it was pure horse manure whose sale was handled by brokers. Often
brought from city livery stables by railroad cars to the Toughkenamon siding,
it was unloaded by hand into horse drawn wagons. Today, a synthetic compost is
used which can be a mixture of many things but the commonest is horse manure,
baled hay or corncobs, poultry manure or some other source of nitrogen, and
gypsum with certain chemicals added to balance the mixture. While the chemical
balance is important, the senses of feel and smell are vital to a good maker of
About 1950 Louis Pia of Kaolin mixed up some "artificial"
compost for use in their mushroom houses and found it worked successfully.
Other growers became interested and soon the composting business developed.
Large equipment was used for turning the mixture at growers' docks, but insects
and diseases were often transferred to the beds. Composters then began mixing
at a central spot and trucked the material to growers as it was needed. The
filling operation (putting the compost in tiered beds) which was earlier done
with shovels and baskets has become mechanized and is now handled with
Pia, under the title of Kaolin Kompost; Louis Toto under the
name of Penn Green Farms; Frezzo Brothers; and Philip A. Lafferty, Inc. are the
principal composters and suppliers based in the Township. Some of them also
operate companies with varied names that remove manure from race tracks and
Mushrooms are still grown in windowless buildings, but most
are now constructed of cement blocks. After tiers of beds are filled with
compost, they are "sweated out" for several days in tightly closed rooms to
kill disease spore and drive out insects, then allowed to cool. Spawn is spread
and kept properly moist and ventilated and soon grows. "Casing" is then done - a
layer of good, loamy, sweet soil is spread over the surface. With all conditions
right, mushrooms soon "break" and are ready for picking. In between "breaks" or
growth cycles, few are picked and breaks become less pronounced as the crop
matures. Mushrooms are pulled from the beds, not cut, and the dirty bottom end
is cut off before packing. The whole process sounds relatively simple, from the
mixing of compost to spawning to casing to picking, but almost any grower will
confirm that all of the information in the wor1d regarding mixtures and
processes is of little help to the man who does not have the "feel"' of his
houses and his particular crop. Spawn varies; compost varies, houses vary.
Those on high ground are handled differently than those on low and weather
greatly affects crop production. Mushroom growing is still a farming operation,
and the grower must take as many things into account as does the dairy or truck
farmer. But, despite the problems, the smells, the dirty work involved, there
is no sight more thrilling to a grower, or to an uninformed visitor, than tiers
of trays filled with mushrooms glowing in the light shining from the hard hats
of the workers.
When work became too great for family members to handle
alone, outside laborers were hired. World War II found many people leaving the Appalachian Mountains region for work in the northern "war plants" and a number of them
drifted to the mushroom plants. As years passed, other jobs offered better pay
and working conditions and many left, but many also stayed in the area and
began growing mushrooms themselves. During the early 1960s Puerto Rican workers
were brought here to work in nearby nurseries and soon moved into work on the
mushroom farms. They are the chief labor source today, but an increasing number
of Mexican aliens are being employed, too.
Founded nineteen years ago with about 85% of the growers of
the entire area members, the AMI endeavors to open doors in Harrisburg and Washington for legislation aiding the mushroom industry. Tim King is Chief Executive
Officer at its headquarters near Kennett Square.
Because of cheap labor in Taiwan, South Korea, and China, imported mushrooms are produced at less cost than those here and present a serious
problem to the industry - one that has existed for a decade. Growers had hoped
for special tariffs and a floating import quota geared to production levels to
control mushroom importing, but recent decisions by President Carter have
dashed such hopes and dealt a severe blow to the industry. Ways are continually
sought to produce more American mushrooms at
less cost. Part of the answer, may lie in more mechanization which is
finding its way into our local industry.
Located on Newark Road above Toughkenamon, Modern Mushroom,
Inc., an impressive operation with six and a half acres under roof, is as fully
automated as any other successfully automated operation in the area. It is
believed to be the largest such plant in the East above ground, operated by
Vincent Leo, President, and Charles Ciarrocchi, Vice President and Treasurer.
Construction on the facility began in August 1971; the first crop was picked
just one year later.
The entire process of mushroom growing from tray filling
through various production stages, to the final clean-out is handled
mechanically. Compost is not touched by hand when spread; stacks of trays are
moved by lift trucks through the various pasteurization rooms, seeding rooms,
production rooms, etc. Environment is strictly controlled in each section, and
each stage carefully monitored, for the whole process is timed for a certain
number of weeks in operation from beginning to end. Each process must be
completed in time for the next step to take place.
Modern is a broker as well as a grower. About 7,000,000
pounds of mushrooms are picked annually, and another 3½ or 4 million purchased
from local growers. About 125 people are employed by this biggest producer of
mushrooms in New Garden Township.
Most mushrooms for fresh market are sold on consignment via
commission houses in Philadelphia, New York and other major cities. Many
hundreds of pounds of locally produced mushrooms find their way to canneries
and repackers. The cream or brown species is usually sold to canneries while
white ones are most often grown for fresh market, but it is interesting to
learn that the creams outsell whites in California markets. Repackers do just
that - repack into consumer sized units for resale. Vincent Santucci has been a
repacker in New Garden Township for probably longer than any other person under
the Elite Mushroom name.
It is impossible to list all the early mushroom farmers in New Garden Township who followed Sharpless and those first few pioneers. Some
well-remembered ones, however, are the Pugh twins - Jack and Frank, John Leo,
the Pratt family, the Lafferty family, Arthur Cox, Howard Walton, Oreste
Catena, Cococetti Bertrando, the DiJoseph family, the Ciarrocchi and Ciorrocco
families, John and Clarence Newlin; the Gallo, Bacchetta, Basciani, Cordivano
and Fieni families along with those of the Perrone, Camarano, Pizzini,
Guizzetti, Versagli, Ianni, Malchione, Frezzo, Toto, Ranalli, Fidanza, and
Santucci families; plus the Bertogli and Caligiuri families, and so many more!
One can readily see that most were men of Italian heritage. Much credit must go
to them for creating in New Garden Township the mushroom center of the world,
for such it is even though it cannot claim the title of Capital! Most of these
men were too modest to discuss their achievements in great detail so much
information will undoubtedly be lacking without proper credit given to men who
really deserve it.