The following story is based on a speech given by Noel Stuckman at the Midwest Mint Growers Meeting on Feb. 23 in Valparaiso. Stuckman, who currently lives in DeWitt, Mich. shared his recollections of growing up on a Nappanee mint farm in the early 1900s.
In the early 20th century, northern Indiana was the center of the nation's mint production. With four mint stills strategically placed in the area, farmers had the option to go to the nearest mint still to have the oil removed from the plants and their mint distilled.
In his adolescent years and when he wasn't in school, Noel Stuckman spent most of his time on the end of a hoe handle or crawling on his hands and knees going down a row of mint, onions or carrots on his family's 120-acre muck farm in Elkhart County near Nappanee. Mint was the Stuckman family's second most important crop, with onions being the first.
"I like to say that I'm really a muck farmer. That's where I spent most of my boyhood and actually farmed a year after graduating from high school," he said. "Having muck ground requires you to grow crops that do well in muck such as potatoes, mint, carrots, onions, etc."
Root planting of both spearmint and peppermint plants happen in early spring.
"We removed the white roots from the ground using a manure fork, loaded them on to the trailer and hauled them to the next field where they will be planted. Farming with my family included all labor-intensive work as most of the commercial equipment was too expensive for my family and several others to purchase. This led my father into creating his own root planter.
"The planter had rubber tires with a wooden platform on top of it. Two V-shaped knifes were fastened to the front of it, which breaks the ground for the plants. Then, two people would sit on top of the platform and place the roots into the ditch created by the V-shaped blade. At the back of the platform were two sets of tires that pushed dirt over the roots. This doubled the number of roots that could be planted and it also cut the time in half," he said.
Working in muck soil on hot summer days with sweat dripping off your cheeks and running down your arms, makes the soil stick to you even more. After the plants were set, Noel, along with his siblings and the hired hands, went down each row of mint every five days keeping the mint plants free from weeds. The tiresome, unpleasant and back-aching job of weeding was a must in order to have a successful crop.
"Dad eventually allowed me to drive the horse-drawn weeder. One day everything was going fine until a part of the weeder broke loose, hitting the back of one of the horse's legs. That caused the horse to take off and spooked the other horse. I didn't know what to do, so I grabbed the lever, pulled the weeder up off the ground and tried to stop the horses. As the horses kept going, I saw a corn shock in the ditch and sure enough that's where the horses were heading towards. The weeder hit the corn shock, shot me up in the air and before I knew it I was looking down at the horses. Finally, the horses slowed down, I jumped off and they stopped themselves before they got to a bridge."
Under the heat of the July sun, the peppermint stems develop small lavender blossoms. Blossoms on the spearmint plants are a creamy white. This means it's near harvest time for the mint.
"The aroma of fresh mint was so strong when the plants were in bloom that you could almost taste it in your mouth. The mint had to be harvested before the plants became too mature, which causes the plant to be tough and the oil to be stronger than desired," said Noel. "Harvesting was done by plucking the plants with your bare hands. Dad would rake the mint into long rows after it was left out in the hot sun all day. Before sunrise the next morning, the mint had to be loaded onto wagons and taken to the mint still."
At the still, the mint oil is extracted from the leaves in a tub similar to a pressure cooker. The furnace heats the water, causing steam to pass through the mint creating fragrant droplets of oil, which are sent to another tank. After the mint leaves rest in the tub for approximately an hour, the leaves are then removed and