MEMOIRS OF A JEWISH FARMER IN INDIANA
by Abe Rederman
I am seventy-eight years
old, now living in Sacramento, California with my wife, Adele. At the
request of Mr. Levine of the Indiana Jewish Historical Society, I have
submitted this article about my experiences as a Jewish farmer in Indiana
covering a period of almost fifty years. To the best of my
knowledge, there have been very few, if any, Jewish farmers in Indiana,
although Jews have owned farms which they leased to others.
The story starts in 1922, when my Uncle Louis Ruderman arrived in Columbia City, Indiana, from New York City to buy onions on a joint account with a New York produce firm. At that time he purchased a 31-acre muckland farm in LaOtto, which is fifteen miles north of Fort Wayne, Indiana, on what is now known as Indiana Road No. 3. On this land was a storage, which was necessary for the storing of this produce prior to shipment elsewhere. The question now was what to do with the land. He decided to go into the growing of onions also, and in 1923 his first crop, which yielded abundantly, was harvested. This gave him the incentive to purchase more land, which, of course, meant more help was needed. Uncle Louis came back to New York and persuaded his brother and his wife to allow me, their son, to come out to Indiana to help him. I was just seventeen years old at the time, and I was promised there would be a future for me.
In those days Uncle Louis went about the countryside purchasing onions from the many muck farmers. I was just a hired hand. I had been brought up in an extremely Orthodox home and now I lived alone in a house in LaOtto without lights, water, or a bathroom. Yet I was able to maintain a kosher home, eating mostly salmon and whatever I could obtain from cans. Once in a while I would order meat or chicken from the kosher butcher shop in Fort Wayne, and as I had no car, the butcher would send it by mail to the local post office. One week before Christmas, an order was placed for a freshly slaughtered chicken. Usually, a package postmarked in the early forenoon would arrive in the evening mail. I forgot about the Christmas mail rush and my package was delayed for two days in arriving. The postmaster called me to tell me he had to put my parcel in the back room -- mail bag and all -- as the stench was so terrible. I had to take the entire package home, clean out the mailbag, and bury the contents -- and, of course, do without this delicacy!
Life was very hard to a seventeen year old. I worked along with the farm hands from 6:30 in the morning until after 5:30 in the evening. Then I would come home to cook my kosher meal. In the summer we worked in the fields, and in the winter we worked in the storage, packaging and grading onions and patching crates.
After Franklin Roosevelt came into office, electricity came into our area. It replaced many of the old vogues of living. The old cattle tank, which was my first solar water heater, was removed, and the crescent moon building was removed from use.
Eventually Uncle Louis left Columbia City and came to LaOtto to live with me. Also my brother Morris came out from New York to serve as bookkeeper in the office. By the time I was twenty-one, I was no longer working as a farm hand, but I, too, became a buyer and shipper for Uncle Louis.
Some years passed, and Morris and I decided to go into business for ourselves. Our firm became known as the A&M Ruderman Farms. We became the first commercial growers of iceberg head lettuce. We also grew spearmint and peppermint which we distilled into oils, and we specialized in the growing and storing of potatoes for many potato chip companies. When he retired, Uncle Louis sold part of his land to us.
Uncle Louis died in 1966. I believe he was 83...and close to his 84th birthday. My brother, Morris, died on April 24, 1969. The title of being the ONION KING was given to Uncle Louis by the "trade", and not by any organization, as far as I can remember. They -- the "trade" -- usually called him on the phone for HIS assessment of an onion crop in Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. The reason for this was that, before he would answer a question pertaining to the "size" (production in bushels per acre), he would check the fields personally, BEFORE harvesting took place, to estimate the total production of said acreages, by WALKING crisscross over a field of onions growing...usually two weeks before harvest time...THEN checking back with the growers to see what their actual production (bushels) was. He seldom missed his estimate by a few bushels...say 5 percent. He trained me to this policy. I would make the journey (by car) to New York state, and include Wisconsin and Minnesota. He therefore "knew his onions" and was called the "ONION KING". This information he tried hard to conceal.
He was rewarded by Purdue University as being the "Potato Champ" for two different growing seasons, thanks to their Extension Service. It was then that he was given a silver water pitcher. They asked him to say a few words upon receiving the award. He said, "I am a Broadway (New York City) Farmer and have learned a lot from the cooperation with the Purdue Extension Service capable men." (Of course, A&M Ruderman assisted him in winning the second such honor...but we never received the pitcher...or a dinner.
One year we were given the prize for growing the finest crop of onions on our farms. I do not remember the exact year, but I believe it was 1940. It was then that, unknown to us (A&M) the check was made by Purdue University Extension Service Agriculture Department. When we did not know the correct answers, we would contact these knowledgeable men for the needed and vital information on onion and potato growing.
Uncle Louis had the foresight to predict "the market" on onion crops. He "established in his mind "after he had his figures" (as he called it), and usually before the USDA United States Department of Agriculture) gave out "their" figures. This would then be used to know when to market his own crop or buy additional supplies to speculate on. He always said to my brother and me each year, "I have my money back now, in growing my crop," after shipping as many carloads (no trucks then) to the market as necessary to recoup his outlay. He had his own original idea of drying, or curing, onions -- usually the white globe southport variety -- for very early shipment. Before we had air-drying processes installed, his method was this: Fill the wooden crate only one-third full. Face these crates on an angle toward the forenoon sun, then rearrange this procedure toward the afternoon sun, THEN pick up all these crates of white onions and place them under a shed for the night, repeating this operation the next day or two, whatever it took to "dry" or "cure" the onions for "early" shipment to New York City wholesale market. Competitors would be surprised to read in the Produce Packer, a trade paper, the headline, "First White Onions" (boiler size) Arrive to Market," shipped by Louis Ruderman. And naturally, they brought very good prices. P. S. The rainy weather prevented the drying process, and these competitors would wonder "How did Louie do it?" In fact, they called up. (A&M was not established at that time in the 1924 to 1930 eras.) Electricity came into the area, and it was called R.E.M.C.
Benefactor...or one of the few men who supplied men with work. Uncle Louis purchased a large farm near Huntertown, Indiana. The woodland had to be cleared. Wages for farm hands at that time were thirty cents per hour. Some were paid thirty-five cents per hour. There were men who needed "grocery money" and they asked for some work in clearing the wooded area, offering themselves to work for twenty-five cents per hour. They were put to work with their saws and axes. Some offered to work for less, but Uncle Louis said twenty-five cents per hour is as low as he will pay, and they had to be turned away, because the "steady men" grumbled. Was Uncle Louie a pioneer? Believe me, he was. He wanted a day's work for a day's pay, and he got it.
After the trees and stumps were removed from this virgin land, it was necessary to install tile drainage. The same men were employed opening up ditches, with the ditcher placing tiles in these open ditches at the stakes provided by the surveyor's specified readings. This was very important for the movement of water through these tiles at a decline (about one inch per 100 feet). Modern ditching equipment replaced the hand-laborers in later years. Blustery weather in springtime did not deter the men from working. They really appreciated the wages at the end of the week. I know, for I was there with them.
Before the frost was out of the ground, we began to drill onion seeds into the soil. In about three weeks, the seed would sprout through the soil, ready for the spring sun.
It was necessary to remove the weeds from between the onions, which were only about six inches tall around Memorial Day. Wheel-hoeing each row kept the weeds from growing between the rows. This cultivation was also done by a single wheel hoe being pushed by hand in each 13’ row. Usually 14-16 seeds would be sown per foot.
Crawling on your hand and knees to remove the weeds from between the onions would at first cause soreness. Blisters on the knees would eventually become calluses, a very painful "breaking in" process. Ten hours a day walking with the cultivator or ten hours a day weeding onions would be rather long. I know, because I was there!
Youngsters usually were hired to do the weeding. Our trucks would pick them up at different stations--in the cities of Fort Wayne, Huntertown, Garrett, and Avilla. The LaOtto youngsters walked to work, as the farm boundary line joined the town or corporation line. Huntertown farms...all hands had to be "bussed". Years later, some of the people who worked for Uncle Louie, when they happened to meet, would say to him. "You don't know me -- I worked for you weeding onions." Some of the people were in professions, business, etc.)
Chemicals do all the work now in weed control on most crops. Machinery replaced hand labor - all efficiently done. "Bulk storages with forced air replaced the men who had done the backbreaking job of "stacking" crates of onions and potatoes.
In the production of the finest grown iceberg head lettuce, on a commercial basis, I believe A&M was the leader. I believe, in Indiana, the fine grade iceberg head lettuce produced by A&M was a "first". Purdue University as yet haven't any publications on it on their experimental farms.
There is an important fact I must relate. Besides our selling western grown lettuce, there were reports from some people I knew who believed that there was "therapeutic value" in it. A doctor in our town who enjoyed this lettuce made that remark to me. An elderly woman, a retired school teacher, who was our neighbor, confirmed the same, but for some other reason than the doctor, that, after eating head lettuce for about two weeks, her arthritic hands were less swollen and she was able to move her fingers much easier than she has done for years. She also abandoned her two crutches, and instead used a cane as she walked across her lawn to ours. However, when our supply ended, her arthritic condition returned. Eli Lilly & Company of Indianapolis was apprised of the findings. They replied that "At present, we are busy with government work." They never did contact us afterwards.
After the death of my brother, Morris, in 1969, and the death of our foreman at that time too, I decided it was time to retire.
So many people are surprised when I say that we were Jewish farmers in Indiana. We had worked at this profession for almost fifty years, during which time there were many good years shared with many years which were the opposite, but all in all, it was a most rewarding experience.
Published by the Indiana Jewish Historical Society, 103 Standard Bldg, 315 E. Berry S. Fort Wayne IN 46802
Contributed to this website by Dan Replogle, November 2014 email@example.com