Of Mushrooms and ManurePosted: May 25, 2015
To my six year-old, more literal, mind the idea of a “Mushroom Factory” did not make sense. Factories were those things that featured on “Industry on Parade,” a series of short films that Channel 10 seemed to show continuously when I was young. They were places of steel and iron, and boiling cauldrons of liquid metal. Not a place to “manufacture” something like mushrooms. Mushrooms grew out in the soggy woods, and were the things that Grandpa and Uncle Wayne and I would tromp though late Spring afternoons looking for.
For that reason, the “mushroom plant” between West Terre Haute and Toad Hop seemed a rather dark and mysterious place to me whenever we drove past it. But, indeed, there was a mushroom “factory.”
The Indiana Mushroom Corp was a subsidiary of the Michigan Mushroom Company. The company took over the defunct clay tile plant west along the National Road in 1938. It spent the early part of 1939 refurbishing the plant and making it ready for the first “planting” In April the plant manager V.E.Pederson told the local press that “all the raw materials” were in place and the growing would soon begin. The first crop would be ready for harvest in in 6-8 weeks. He noted that five railroad car loads of manure were being delivered each week. The manure was then treated with chemicals to prepare it. The initial workforce numbered 25, but would increase to over 100 employees. This was exciting news for an area still wracked by the Great Depression.
True to his word, the first crop was harvested and canned by the first week of June. The initial crop was sold locally, but soon mushrooms from West Terre Haute were shipped across the country under the “Dawn Fresh” label. The company was indeed a boon to the local economy. Eventually it would also can tomatoes from local farmers in season. By the 1950s, the plant was approaching a quarter of a million dollars in sales.
But how did one “manufacture” mushrooms? The best description I have found is the one below. It comes from a 1945 lawsuit filed to determine which of the four unions that claimed members at the plant would be named the primary bargaining agent for the workers in future labor negotiations.
“The Company is engaged in the growing, packing, and canning of
mushrooms on a large scale, and in the seasonal canning of tomatoes.
In its operations, the Company uses buildings formerly occupied by
a title Company, where it grows all of its mushrooms and where all of
its packing and canning processes are performed. Mushrooms are
grown; processed, canned, and packed on the premises, whereas tomatoes-
are obtained from surrounding farms and canned on the premises.
The growing of mushrooms is a highly specialized and scientific
business. The entire process is conducted in sheds and buildings by
employees, each of whom is trained to perform a particular operation.
The first step is the preparation of a compost from horse manure,
straw, and chemicals. This compost is then placed in growing
boxes and put in a dark room which is called a growing room. The
room is then closed tightly and live steam is turned on in order to
sterilize the air and soil and to kill all rodents and bugs. Thereafter,
spawn is planted in the growing boxes and from 12 to 21 days after
the planting, casing soil is placed in the growing boxes. Approximately
57 days after the growing boxes are filled, the first mushrooms
are ready for picking. After these are harvested the holes left by
the stems of the extracted mushrooms are filled and more mushrooms
continue to grow in the same mushroom beds. Several crops or flushes
of mushrooms are thus obtained from one filling, the cycle lasting
approximately 90 days from the time the first growing boxes are filled
until they are ready for a new filling. The filling of the growing boxes
in the various growing rooms is staggered at such intervals that the
Company obtains a constant supply of mushrooms throughout the entire
year. In order for mushrooms to grow, the temperature in the
growing room must be controlled and the growing boxes watered daily.
Growing rooms are kept at temperatures between 55 and 65 degrees
Fahrenheit. This is done by heating the rooms in the winter and
artificially cooling them in the summer.
The plant continued to be a prime employer in Sugar Creek Township. It was not the most glamorous of work. Jack D Flowers’ job “was to stick a thermometer in that chicken poop to take the temp.” In addition to those working there, it benefitted local farmers who sold tomatoes to it during the season. Howard R. Baugues recalled that his dad used to haul chicken manure to the plant back in the late 40’s/early 50’s. While Arthur Hall remembered that local farmers and gardeners were allowed to go into the tunnels and dark rooms of the plant to shovel compost for their home gardens.
The beginning of the end for the plant was a massive fire that took place in August 1964. It took over 50 firemen to control the blaze, but not before the plant suffered over $150.000.00 in damages.