The Shelter Island Farmers’ Cooperative:
A Grand Idea that Was Blown Away
by Patricia Moser Shillingburg © 2002
In the early 1950s ten of Shelter Island’s farmers experimented with single crop cooperative farming on a large scale. The hurricanes of 1954 and 1955 ended it. From that final August day, most fields were never plowed again. They have been sprouting houses ever since.
In 1873, when the first summer tourists came to the Island, it had 77 known farms, totaling 7,013 acres under cultivation. Most of this was subsistence farming. Families had horses, cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, vegetable gardens, orchards, and fields in which they grew their own grain and fodder for their livestock. They brought their wheat and corn to the mill which now rests in the Windmill Field on Manwaring Road but then was situated in the town center on land between the school and Wilson Circle. Most of the 100 or so families lived as they had for two centuries.
As two large family hotels -- The Prospect and Manhanset houses -- were built on either side of Dering Harbor and opened to rave reviews in both New York and Boston, it eventually became clear that life on the Island had changed forever.
By 1930 there were only 24 farms with 1,834 acres under cultivation. Shelter Island farms were no longer subsistence. Farmers were exporting their produce by rail west and by steamer north and were making a cash living off the land.
In 1950 when The Shelter Island Farmer’s Cooperative was formed, there were 31 farms cultivating 1,576 acres. Evans Griffing, a member of the Coop, recalled in 1980, “There wasn’t a piece of land available anywhere that didn’t have trees on it that wasn’t plowed up. Anywhere you went: Long View ... was all a farm. Jimmy Rowe’s [Westmoreland] was all a farm. Harbor View Acres was all a farm. The monastery lot ... was a farm. Even four holes of the golf course, Gardiner’s Bay Country Club, was a farm. I have sixty acres, myself ... from Clarks’ to Betty Halsey’s to my own property, to any place you could find to plow. Most people let you farm the land just for the privilege of keeping the land clear, for having it not go back to seed.”
Richard (Dick) Moser, according to Evans Griffing, “strangely” was the catalyst for the Coop. In 1946 he had purchased the old Walther homestead with 20 acres of farm land at the top of Menantic Road, now Burro Hall. Dick Moser was not an Islander. He was a Wall Street lawyer married to Alice House who had spent her childhood summers in The Heights. The farm was intended as a summer retreat for his family. Dick had a neighbor, Alfred Polywoda, who was farming, “so he decided to hire Polywoda to work for him, and he added him to his payroll and his farm to ‘Polly’s,’ and that started it.” The crop was to be lima beans. “He hired Herbert Sherman, and he bought from him what is now the highway building, and the land back of it, and set up a pair of viners.”
Other farmers on the Island were taking lima beans to the auction block in Southold. They liked what Moser was doing. One of them approached him about joining forces. He was amenable. The farmers bought Moser out and together they formed a cooperative to grow and thrash lima beans. Each put up $3,500. The ten partners were three Dickersons -- Elliott, Albert, and Dan -- Everett Tuthill, Dick Moser, Frank Mysilborski, John Carr, Anton Blados, Sylvester Prime, and Evans Griffing. Sylvester Prime was elected president.
According to Griffing, “Dick was thrashing beans and taking them to a plant in Mattituck run by the Long Island Duck Packing Corporation ... We joined him in 1951. For the first year we did likewise: we bought additional viners and put them out back. We hired Richard Halsey, and [he] carted beans to the Moritches ... where they were cleaned and frozen. He made as many as three and four trips a day from Shelter Island with tons and tons of beans, up there and back ...”
A broker from New York, Fritz Brahm, liked the look of the beans coming from Shelter Island, so he visited the farmers and convinced them that they should go into the freezing business themselves. They applied to the Federal Farm Loan Association for a loan -- maybe $275,000 at 4% interest to be paid back in ten years -- to set up the plant. So, by the 1952 season, the Coop was running an ammonia freezing plant, with a holding room that would store about 4,000 cases of beans, a blast tunnel that was 38 to 40 feet long that had 20 degree below zero temperatures, and two huge fans to circulate the air.
The whole process took a great deal of manual labor. The bean stalks were loaded onto hay trucks and hauled to the plant. The viners “out back” of the plant took the pods off the vines, and then the debris was returned to the fields. The Chisholm-Rider bean thrashing machine popped the beans out of their pods onto a canvas conveyor belt where they were steam blanched and then frozen solid in the tunnel. The beans were then sorted, boxed and weighed by a group of dedicated women. They included Isabelle Jackim, Sadie Madore, Adele Juzapavicus, Lily Januick, Irene Polywoda, Vera Hudson, Sophie Sherman, and Phoebe Johnston.
The equipment all had to be kept in working order. This was done by Ernie Shepherd, who could fix anything. “ If it broke down, he’d improvise. He kept it going ... if it wasn’t for Ernie, we would have no end of trouble. He always solved our problems,” remembered Evans Griffing. Frank “Tiny” Silvani ran the compressors, the diesel engines, and the ammonia system. Tiny, “he’d work 18, 22 hours a day and laugh all day long. He never stopped laughing.”
Every night, beginning at midnight or so, the whole plant had to be blanched with live steam to kill the bacteria and make it sanitary for the following morning. The process annoyed the neighbors.
After the steam cleaning, the floors were treated with disinfectant which was flushed down a drain right into the leaching pond. Suddenly, the water used for blanching smelled of disinfectant. They had to dig a new, deeper well and pump the residue water into a new man-made pond in back of the hill.
After scrubbing and disinfecting the plant each night, Ernie Shepherd would take the bean scraps and dump them by the edge of the pond. A muskrat family got drift of his routine and developed one of its own. They began waiting for him.
There was a federal inspector who monitored the weight and made sure that lima beans were actually going into the boxes. Trying to be exact with weight was a challenge. One day after several thousand boxes had been packaged, the inspector found they were scant-weighted, and all the boxes had to be redone. From that point on, weight was set a little over.
A major problem for the farmers was that they were paid by weight, not quality. A green bean is quality, a yellow one is not. At first they did not cull out the yellow beans which meant that their market was institutional -- hotels and restaurants -- which paid less. They learned that lesson.
Beans were planted on a schedule so that eight acres of beans would mature each day throughout the twelve week season. Everett Tuthill, Frank Mysilborski and Albert Dickerson were a committee of three who kept track of the schedule. They determined who cut each day. “You’ve got to cut tomorrow morning,” was the word. Then the appointed farmer would know that he would need to get up at four thirty or five the next morning to harvest his beans. The harvesting team moved themselves and the machinery around the Island to be at the right farm each morning.
A good acre of beans would produce 2,200 pounds of shelled beans -- a poor acre about 1,500 pounds. “When we were going, and going good, this little community packed over a million pounds of beans in eight-ounce, ten-ounce, and two pound packages,” Evans Griffing recounted. The first season was only twelve weeks long because a black frost hit the beans. However, the second season they extended production by eight weeks with cauliflower. 1953 was a very productive year and a lot of Island and Greenport people were well employed -- at least for 20 weeks.
In fact, they were probably too well employed. The Coop was paying the prevailing wage at the time. But, people from the State Labor Department came down and insisted that every employee be paid an additional 25 cents an hour. Bean prices did not increase, but labor costs did.
During cauliflower season 35 to 40 women worked 12 hour days with their little pairing knives cutting a cauliflower head into little flowerets. They had to be quite small. They packed as many as 22 tons of cauliflower in a week.
Edith Shepherd was the book-keeper. The first year, she didn’t have an office and had to work in a corner There was a half inch of water on the floor most of the time. Evans Griffing remembered that Rutherford “Dukey” Lucas, who was a straw boss in the plant, got a couple of cement blocks and put them under her feet. “There, at least you can keep your feet dry.” The next year, the Coop built Mrs. Shepherd an office.
Evans Griffing opined, “When you come to think of the fact that we planted a million pounds of beans, harvested them and packed them and some 20 tons of cauliflower ... it was an accomplishment. It’s just too darn bad that it didn’t last.”
The beans were packaged for labels such as Libby, McNeil & Libby, Wheat Valley, Archley, Snowcrop, and Seabrook Farms. There was a time when Dick’s family’s freezer had a fair number of boxes labeled “Mrs. Moser’s Lima Beans.”
In 1954 the harvest was looking very good. The machinery was ready. Then hurricane season hit the Island with a vengeance. First was Carol in early August and two more quickly followed. Beans were blown over, the fields were muddy, and electricity failed on several occasions. It was a disaster.
In 1955, Elliott Dickerson gave up farming and went to work for the Shelter Island Heights Association and North Ferry as its manager, but Albert continued the same farm so there was the same amount of acreage. Dan Dickerson became president of the Coop. Crops were planted with great expectations.
That August, however, brought another devastating hurricane. Mildew and the Mexican bean beetle followed. There was no power for days and days.
Evans Griffing remembered having spent an entire Sunday trying to save his crop by dusting against the Mexican bean beetle. The next morning, he went to the barber to get a hair cut. The minister chided him for neglecting his church duties. Evans said to him, “If your house was on fire, just as you were about to leave for church, would you go to church and leave the fire? It seems to me I remember Jesus saying something about rescuing a lamb on Sunday, on the Sabbath.”
The crop was decimated. The last straw. The plant folded. Most of the farmers had to admit to themselves that never before had they been connected to a failure. Evans Griffing admitted that he lost $25,000 in the lima bean adventure.
The Federal Farm Loan Association came down and padlocked the door. Eventually, the buildings and equipment were auctioned off. In 1958, the Town bought the plant and turned it over to the Highway Department where it has remained ever since.
Journal, 350th Anniversary Celebration - Summer 2002