Wednesday, December 28, 2011

From Out of the Past - Part VII

          It was the introduction of “pounds” along the New Jersey shore that greatly increased those harvests.  The pounds were a combination of netting, wire-covered poles, and wooden boards that extended out from the high-water line on the shore to the low-water level of low tides.  They were built in such a way that when the tide ebbed, the horseshoe crabs that had been spawning left the beach and were “guided” by an arrangement of wire and boards into a pen at the end of a pound.  The crabs entered the pound via a ramp, falling off at the end into a crib.  Fish were also caught in these pounds and, as the water ebbed, they were able to swim back through narrow, vertical bars that prevented the crabs from entering the last crib.  The pounds were emptied daily at low tide and the captured horseshoe crabs were loaded onto a skiff or a horse-drawn wagon and pulled onshore.  As in earlier days, they were piled inside large wooden containers on the shoreline and left to dry.
          There was also an assortment of horseshoe crab fertilizer plants scattered along the New Jersey and Delaware shorelines – although not all of them were operating during the same period of years.  In most cases, collected crabs were taken to large storage areas and neatly stacked along the shore.  In some instances, crabs were unceremoniously dumped behind sand dunes or, when large numbers were caught, they were tossed into enormous wooden pens.  There they would be left to decay and dry out; after which they were taken to a nearby fertilizer plant.  In the plant, the crabs were pulverized by a sophisticated grinding mechanism - similar to the electric blender in your kitchen - and then passed through heated passageways to further dry the meal.  The resulting product was then collected, bagged, and distributed both locally and nationally.
          Interestingly, the product these factories created was not called fertilizer, but rather “cancerine.”  Because horseshoe crabs were mistakenly thought to be crustaceans (a mis-concept we’ll deal with later), the product shipped out of these factories was called “cancerine” which, literally translated, means “derived from crabs.”

Friday, December 16, 2011

From Out of the Past - Part VI

          The decades after the Civil War are often referred to as the Gilded Age« – an era of rapid economic and population growth in the United States.  It was during the Gilded Age that the modern industrial economy was created.  The 1870s and 1880s saw the U.S. economy grew at the fastest rate in its history.  Wages, wealth, GDP, and capital formation all rapidly increased.  A national transportation system and a sophisticated communications network were created.  Big corporations rose and prospered and a managerial revolution effectively transformed business operations.  By the time the 20th century rolled around, per capita income and industrial production in the United States led the world.  Towns and cities grew and expanded, new factories were built across the country, and employment soared. 
          At the same time, this was also an era of agricultural expansion.  Larger tracts of land were cleared and made ready for farming.  Farmers became more diversified as farming methods improved.  Crop yields increased as science played more of a role in the burgeoning business of agriculture.  In order to “power” these farming operations, the need for a cheap source of fertilizer became paramount.  As a result, the creation of fertilizer factories, specifically in the Delaware Bay region, escalated.  Horseshoe crabs had always been used (for generations) as a cheap and easily-obtainable source of fertilizer.  But now, there was an immediate need to supply farmers with a product that was both inexpensive as well as easily available.
          Crabs seemed to be a logical choice.
          Initially, horseshoe crabs were collected by hand from beaches during the spawning season.  Large “armies” of workers would scour the beaches along the Delaware Bay picking up crabs and tossing them into wagons for transportation to large wooden bins constructed along the shore.  Hundreds, if not thousands, of crabs would be piled into the bins creating, as you might imagine, a stench that would hang in the air for quite some time.  The harvesting of crabs was limited to the amount of crabs that could be collected manually.

« The term "Gilded Age" was coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in their book The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873).  The name refers to the process of gilding an object with a superficial layer of gold and is meant to make fun of ostentatious display while playing on the term “golden age.”

Monday, December 12, 2011

From Out of the Past - Part V

            By sometime in the mid 1800s, farmers throughout the region had adopted this practice – using horseshoe crabs (whole or in pieces) – as a form of plant fertilizer.  Indeed, there are several “testimonials” that celebrate the efficacy of these creatures as both a logical and ready source of soil nutrients:

§ “The dead bodies of the (crabs) themselves are hauled up in wagons for manure, and when placed at the hills of corn, in planting time, are said to enrich the soil, and add greatly to the increase of the crop.” (1840)

§ “Mr. Springer of Dyer’s Creek, with a compost of 7,000 crabs, 20 loads of muck, 2 coal-pit bottoms, 7 or 8 loads of hay, and manure applied on 6 acres of sandy loam, raised 151½ bushels of wheat.”  (1887)

§ “On land which would not grow wheat at all up to that time, crops of 20, 25 and even 30 bushels to the acre have been raised by the use of these crabs composted with earth.”  (1908)

Monday, December 5, 2011

From Out of the Past - Part IV

     For the next part of our historical sojourn we’re going to leave Delaware Bay for a while and travel northward to Maine to climb aboard Samuel de Champlain’s boat.  As you may recall from your high school history course, Samuel (1567-1635) was a French navigator, cartographer, draughtsman, soldier, explorer, geographer, ethnologist, diplomat, and chronicler.  He began exploring North America in 1603 and was the first European to explore and describe the Great Lakes; eventually publishing several maps of his journeys and accounts.  Champlain is frequently memorialized as the "Father of New France" and many places, streets, and structures in northeastern North America bear his name, or have monuments established in his memory.  The most notable of these is, of course, Lake Champlain, which straddles the border between the United States and Canada (Please don’t confuse this with Lake Champagne, which only appears once each year – usually around New Year’s Eve.).
            During those early years in the New World – specifically along the Maine coast – Champlain noted that the native peoples used horseshoe crabs to manure their corn crops.  One or more crabs would be placed into the ground in and around corn stalks.  Apparently, the natives had discovered that the addition of these sea creatures to their plantings significantly increased their yield of corn – one of the first documented cases of fertilizer.  What made this discovery even more fascinating was that the natives of this region also constructed a rudimentary hoe from the carapace of horseshoe crabs.  While we don’t know for certain, there is considerable speculation that these practices eventually worked their way down the Atlantic seaboard and were eventually embraced by native peoples in and around Delaware Bay.  It also seems logical that the “horseshoe crab as fertilizer = good corn crop” connection was eventually passed on to the early colonists who settled in this region.
NATIVE:        Hey, looks like you got a lousy corn crop this year.
COLONIST:    Yeah, what a bummer.  I just can’t get the damn plant to grow.
NATIVE:        Well, you could do what I do.
COLONIST:    What’s that?
NATIVE:        Plant a dead horseshoe crab beside each corn stalk.
COLONIST:    Say what?
NATIVE:        No, really.  Just take a dead horseshoe crab and put it in the ground next to each one of your corn plants.  By harvest time, your corn stalks will be touching the sky.
COLONIST:    You’re pulling my leg, aren’t you?
NATIVE:        No way, man!  Believe me, it’s the only way to go.
COLONIST:    O.K., I’ll try it – but I still think you’re pulling a fast one on me.
NATIVE:        No way, José!  You’ll see; years from now schoolchildren all over this land will be making paper hats and donning black and white costumes and celebrating these days in song, skits, and all kinds of Thanksgiving pageants.  We’ll both be famous!