As the season of Leprechauns, shamrocks, and green beer comes to a close, I felt it was only appropriate to highlight a not so famous Irish immigrant that made a huge impact on not only the area, but the country as a whole. This not so famous Irishman was responsible for bringing over from Ireland 3 varieties of potatoes; which happened to be the colors red, white, and blue in the year 1797. These 3 original types of potatoes cross pollinated after a few growing cycles to make one amazing hybrid variety that was to be called the Neshannock Potato. This large, long, and reddish purple variety of potato was wonderful because it was easily stored and had an amazing flavor. Named after the Neshannock Creek that was near his farm, this little agricultural anomaly quickly began to spread through the region as its cultivator John Gilkey gave seed potatoes to neighbors and local farmers in the area.
During the Civil War the Neshannock was used to help feed both the Union and Confederate troops. One Civil War prisoner was boasting of home cooking in Western Pennsylvania, ‘Jim’ had said that “mashed Neshannocks with butter on em’ is plenty good enough for me!” This amazing little tot was a great asset to the military when rations were scarce and having easily preserved food was hard to come by.
Although by the late 1800’s new varieties were popping up and overshadowing the Neshannock, none of them can boast such humble and honorable histories. In fact, no other single food can be praised for feeding a nation through such tumultuous times as the Civil War as this little remembered potato. With the limits of agricultural experimentation at the time, it is a wonderful thing that John Gilkey had been able to develop such a hearty variety in just a few years from his original and patriotic red, white, and blue varieties. Almost like a warning foretelling that together we are stronger and divided we fall.