Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Wethersfield’s World Renowned Red Onion

(For the past year or so I was a member of the group that created the town’s new Heritage Trail – 22 markers scattered throughout Old Wethersfield that tell the story of the town from its inception in 1634 to its current incarnation as a Hartford suburb. The following is an edited version of one of my early drafts.)     


“It is peculiarly novel and interesting, on passing through the town in the month of June, to behold in every direction the extensive fields of onions. Whilst in a luxuriant state of vegetation, the growing vegetable exhales its strong savour. The atmosphere becomes impregnated, and the luscious qualities of the onion are wafted far and wide, upon every passing breeze.” Pease and Niles Gazetteer –1819

Wethersfield’s deep, rich soil was ideal for farming and from 1730 until the mid-1830's the major agricultural activity in Wethersfield was the cultivation of a flat red onion that came to be known as the “Wethersfield Red.” – earning the town renown throughout the world – and the nickname “Oniontown.”            

Strung together in long “ropes,” (or “skeins”) the onions were shipped primarily to New York – and to the West Indies where they were used to feed the slaves on the islands’ huge sugar plantations. At its height in 1774, Wethersfield exported about one million of these knotted bundles.  More than twenty sloops and schooners were owned and manned by Wethersfield residents engaged in the trade.  Onions were traded for sugar, salt, tea, coffee and spices as well as molasses from which New Englanders made rum.  Well-known for their large size, deep red color, pleasant flavor, productivity, and long shelf life, even President Thomas Jefferson grew “Wethersfield Reds” at Monticello.

Unusual for that time, many young women were responsible for growing and harvesting the crop.   These so-called “onion maidens” accounted for about one-third of Wethersfield’s onion producers.  Most of them worked in the fields for other growers.  Some, however, raised and sold their own crops. And a few women acted as agents not only for themselves, but also for other onion growers, including men. In 1774 Alexandria Frazier shipped 6,782 ropes of onions on behalf of 41 workers, 7 of them women.

The onions were such a valuable and stable commodity that they became a form of currency within the town. In 1764 Wethersfield leaders levied taxes to build the First Church of Christ meetinghouse. Many residents paid their fee in the form of onions, making it known as “the church that onions built.”  Around town the long ropes decorated the rafters and doorways of the village – like pretty red Christmas ornaments. 

The combination of a Civil War-era blight known as pinkroot and the end of the plantation system in the West Indies signaled the end of the reign of the red onion. Tobacco and garlic supplanted the onion crop. and Wethersfield transitioned to cultivating seed for the newly settled West. 

Today, Wethersfield Red Onion seeds are still available from the Town’s two remaining seed businesses – Comstock, Ferre & Company and The Charles C. Hart Seed Company.

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