SEED STORIES | Wethersfield Red: The Pride Of Oniontown

It was the pride of Wethersfield, Connecticut. Thomas Jefferson grew the Wethersfield Red
Onion, also known as Red Beauty, in his gardens at Monticello. This plump, flattened onion with the vivid
purple-red skin made Wethersfield the center of the New England onion trade for more than
a century. Outsiders dubbed it “Oniontown,” and it
was said that you could smell the town long before you could see it. Wethersfield founders were drawn to the rich
alluvial soil of the Connecticut River valley, ideal for agriculture. Alongside it, a robust shipbuilding and maritime
economy soon developed, given Wethersfield’s prime location on a wide bend in the river. Through Wethersfield’s busy port, farmers
had access to faraway markets in places like Europe and the West Indies, exporting as many
as 1 and a half million five-pound skeins of onions each year. The onions — which were developed especially
for market — were particularly popular in the West Indies and the American South. Tending the onion fields was largely women’s
work — young women made up about a third of the 500 people employed in the town’s
onion business. In a fanciful 18th century account, the Rev.
Samuel Peters described the “Onion Maidens” as girls who “wept and weeded” and used
their earnings to buy silk dresses. In the 1960s, the story was turned into a
children’s book. Onions dominated the agricultural economy
of Wethersfield until the 1830s, when a fungus called pink root decimated crops and farmers
were forced to diversify. As the onion business faded, a new agricultural
business took off in Wethersfield — seed houses. In 1811, Joseph Belden printed his first seed
list in the Hartford Courant. A few years later, his brother James Lockwood
Belden established Wethersfield Seed Gardens. In 1838, William Comstock and his father acquired
the company, and it was eventually renamed Comstock Ferre. Comstock was a savvy marketer and garden guru. His book, “Order Of Spring Work,” was
an indispensable gardening guide, chock full of advice on storing and planting seeds. He also brought a new approach to packing
and marketing seeds in beautifully illustrated packs, and shipping them all over the country. Comstock Ferre still operates in Wethersfield
today, in the town’s historic district. It’s just down Main Street from the Charles
C. Hart Seed Company, which was founded in 1892. The onion fields around Wethersfield might
have petered out, but the onion that bore its name gained a wide distribution through
the seed catalogs of the day. Boston seed house Hovey & Co. first listed
it for commercial sale in 1834, calling it Large Red. But by 1850, seed houses including Comstock
Ferre were marketing it as Wethersfield Red. The 1901 Maules’s Seed Catalog called the
flesh “of a good, strong character,” and boasted of prodigious yields, including the
story of one patron who grew nearly 67 thousand pounds of the onion on a single acre! In 1921, Mills Seed Book, from Rose Hill,
New York, boasted of bulbs that would produce “very large crops of these onions, maturing
early in the fall and two-pound specimens the first year. 600 to 800 bushels of my Wethersfield per
acre are not uncommon.” While they may be among America’s most storied
heirloom onions, Wethersfield Reds aren’t easy to find. But they’re hardy, easy to grow and in the
right conditions, they keep beautifully!

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10 thoughts on “SEED STORIES | Wethersfield Red: The Pride Of Oniontown

  1. Michelle, thanks for doing a story about the "long day", Wethersfield Red, Onion. I'm putting together a seed order this week for my 2020 garden. The Wethersfield Red onion (#ON127) will be included in the order. By waiting until next spring to submit my order; the risk becomes too great that the item will sell out. Best wishes from Kate in Olympia, WA — 11/26/2019.

  2. I enjoy learning about rare seeds, especially interesting backstories. Thanks for your hard work putting this information and stories together for us.

  3. Thsnk you Michelle!Another one we all have to try now being ispired by the history of the seeds is super motivating!I'm going to need a work from home job with you guys, so i can get the employeee discount in order to afford all the seeds i need-er want- to buy!😊

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