COLHS to Host Talk About Ginseng

COLHS Photo Collection
Noted ginseng expert, Robert Beyfuss, gave a talk about American Ginseng (panax quinquefolius) and its history in North America, on Thursday, July 28, 2016.

Of all the crops that our local farmers have tried over the years, probably none are as challenging and misunderstood as ginseng. American Indians in our area knew of the plant from ancient times and began trading it with French missionaries in the early 1700’s, who in turn made a profit by sending the roots to China.

Much later, a craze swept through our area beginning in the 1880s. The story is best told by Samuel Hopkins Adams in an article called “The Treasure Hunt” that first appeared in the January 16, 1954 issue of The New Yorker magazine. The article later was published as a chapter in Adam’s best-selling book, Grandfather Stories.

In his story Adams tells of discovering a wild ginseng plant in 1884 in the woods near his grandfather’s camp on Owasco Lake. He and his cousins began trading with Frank Clark, the station master at Ensenore, who shipped the plants to Chinese dealers in New York. By the end of the first summer the cousins had sold over $20 in wild roots to Clark.

They weren’t the only ones engaging in the practice and within a few years the wild form of the plant had virtually become extinct. Today ginseng is categorized as exploitably vulnerable on New York State’s list of protected native plants. Local gardeners and farmers made several attempts at growing the plant, but most were unsuccessful and soon moved on to other ventures.
Among those who prevailed was local entrepreneur Arthur J. “Sandy” Bowen. Born in Montville in 1868, Arthur went into the blacksmith trade at age 17, later operating his own business on East Cayuga Street in Moravia. His blacksmith shop became a general wagon repair shop, which later evolved into an auto repair shop and gas station that he operated along with his son Carl. The building has recently collapsed and is in the process of being removed.

View of Arthur Bowen's Gardens in Montville, COLHS Photo Collection
Probably the most ambitious of Arthur’s various projects were his ginseng gardens. Not only did he sell thousands of seed roots to traders from Japan, China and Korea, he supplied other growers across the country and published articles and pamphlets on the subject. Using original 1910 photos from the COLHS research library, Mr. Beyfuss and COLHS member Roger Phillips were able to locate and visit the site of Bowen's former operation on Dresserville Road in Montville.