Jenny’s Pennies: The Neshannock Potato

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.

Shortly after the potato was shared with the community, it was proved that this hybrid potato was no fluke.  Spreading the seed potatoes had shown that this variety surpassed the other current types in productivity, size, and flavor.  Other farmers began to see the same amazing results cultivating the Neshannock and by 1830 a farmer in Michigan began planting the Neshannock and was able to cultivate 700 bushels of this great potato on a single acre.  By 1870 these wonderful spuds were being produced all the way to California with similar results.

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.

I hope this little story of a simple Irish Immigrant by the name of John Gilkey can remind us all that little things can make a huge difference in the lives of others.  Thank a farmer and remember that from humble beginnings, great things can sprout. That’s Jenny’s Pennies, I hope you enjoyed learning a bit about our local unsung hero; John Gilkey.

2 thoughts

  1. I’d like to talk to John Gilkey. My grandmother was a Gilkey and I helped start the Gilkey Potato Festival. I have an idea that I would like to talk to him about.

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