Way Back When … 1860s
Published 4:45 pm, Thursday, February 23, 2017
Long ago, Southport was not a gorgeous residential area with sprawling estates and waterfront views. Rather, it was full of onion farms. The Southport Globe Onion was grown there by the Sherwood, Jennings, Banks, Burr, Hull, Meeker and Wakeman families. Their fields stretched from Sasco Hill and the Greens Farms coastal plain into the Mill Hill, Round Hill and Greenfield Hill areas. The onions were shipped right out Southport Harbor.
The Southport Globe Onion found favor in the New York produce commodity market because it was considered a very high quality onion with good color and a long shelf life. During the Civil War the federal government bought most of the New York market onions as a food staple for the Union Army, as they were regarded as a means of warding off scurvy. Output from the fields reached 200,000 barrels of locally grown onions per year. It was known as “The Onion Capital of the World.”
Planting began in early spring and an acre of tilled soil would produce around 600 bushels of onions. Children from farming families were kept out of school during the early spring and fall terms to help with weeding, raking out stones and “kneeing” the plants over with rakes to stimulate good bulb maturation. Small hands were best able to get at the weeds and the children became known among their peers as “onion boys.” When the day’s work was done, they would march home tooting on trumpets they made from onion plant stems.
The last good harvest was in 1882. After that year, outbreaks of cutworms and smut wiped out successive crops. The growers went into a slump and did not recover. Manpower declined as sons of farmers went west to earn a better living and the market prices were driven down as more farms in the Midwest and West competed with local farms due to the use of trains as transport. By the 1900s most of the farms were subdivided or sold to wealthy businessmen and manufacturers from New York and Bridgeport so they could create country estates.
Locals who want to get a taste of the authentic Southport Globe Onion are in luck. The Fairfield Museum Shop is selling packets of both the white onion seeds and the red onion seeds. According the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company “this [white] onion has a handsome globe-shaped bulb. It grows to a large size with pure white skin and flesh of mild flavor.”
If you are a gardener, the time to start sowing these seeds is now. They need to start germinating soon, as they should be planted before the last frost - and with this warm weather, that could be sooner than expected!
The Fairfield Museum and History Center is located at 370 Beach Road. Learn more about the history and culture of Fairfield, view rotating exhibitions and purchase Fairfield-themed gifts at the Museum. For more information visit Fairfieldhistory.org or call (203) 259-1598; Fairfieldhistory.org. The Museum and Museum Shop are open daily, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.