Among the farmers whose personal stories included peppermint oil was Mary Clark of Galien, Michigan. Mary was first noticed by the Detroit Free Press in a 1905 article entitled “Woman Farmer’s Success—Miss Mary Clark of Michigan Does All the Work on 80 Acres.” The article began with the news that Mary Clark “was paying girls a dollar a day and their dinners” to work on her farm. As word of the high wage Clark offered spread, the article reported, “the story stirred up the sluggish imagination of half the wage earners of Berrien county, where flesh and blood are cheap—where women pick berries in the broiling sun for twenty-five cents a crate; where they toil week days and Sundays for the same pitiful sum and work in the kitchen for a dollar and a half a week.” The women who went to work for Mary Clark did not earn as much as Albert Todd’s farm workers, but they did much better than they would have otherwise. But the “fortunate few” whom Clark hired to tend her peppermint fields worked for their money, because “they literally worked shoulder to shoulder with the most indefatigable woman in the country—a woman noted for her tremendous capacity for work, and whose endurance is the marvel of men where brawn is the common heritage.”
The article described how Clark had taken over running her widowed mother’s farm at the age of sixteen and bought an additional forty acres next door. “She cuts and rakes twenty tons of hay,” the author of the article marveled, “milks ten cows night and morning, and once a week sends half a ton of milk eight miles to the creamery, where her checks average $50 a month.” Returning to the women earning a dollar a day and their meals on Clark’s farm, the article explained: “This is the basis on which these unusual wages were paid—the workers must keep abreast of their leader, like a regiment of soldiers, to get their dollar and their dinner. To their credit be it recorded, not one went hungry and every girl had her shining piece of silver when the day was done.” The following year, the Kansas City Star too ran a story about Clark, entitled “Girl Runs Peppermint Farm,” remarking: “She made a study of the chemistry of the soil and of the rotation in crops. With this knowledge she made the ordinary crop growing a secondary consideration, and went into the raising of peppermint and the distilling of peppermint oil.” The article noted that the peppermint farmer made her own decisions, which did not always conform with the accepted wisdom of peppermint culture. “Miss Clark has adopted a system of autumn planting, which is contrary to established rules,” the article remarked, and the region’s peppermint farmers predicted disaster. “But the innovation was a success, and is now heartily endorsed by farmers, as the cost of planting is doubled in the spring, it being hard to get hands at any price to work in muck soil in the wet season.” The article concluded, “Miss Clark employed fifteen women in the weeding season, paying those who worked shoulder to shoulder with her $1 a day and their dinners. However, she says women cannot stand the hard work in the peppermint field, and she has decided to employ men for this work hereafter.”
This last comment attributed to Clark was apparently a bit of fiction, because several years later in 1912 the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a half-page feature entitled “Wealth for Women on Peppermint Farms.” The article described her success as a peppermint farmer, naming Clark “the ‘Peppermint Queen,’ as her achievements in the cultivation of peppermint may well prove an inspiration to other women farmers to specialize on some one crop and make its cultivation a rousing success.” Peppermint farming, the article claimed, was becoming increasingly popular with women farmers in Michigan because it was “an ideal occupation for feminine bread winners and one in which the profits [were] practically assured.” The article included a long passage in which Clark told her own story. She had been fourteen, she said, when she took over the farm. Friends advised her to sell it and open a boarding house in town. She had begun with two acres of peppermint and had added two acres each year. But she rotated fields out of peppermint after five years, because, she said, “after that time the crop became less remunerative and my profits faded.” She rejected the claim that she had shifted to employing men: “I employ as many half-grown boys and girls on my farm as I can get. Mint setting is not heavy work, and besides, the stooping makes it especially adapted to people with young, supple backs . . . weeding must be done by hand, and for that purpose again I prefer women and children. They are lighter on their feet and more nimble with their fingers, and, if painstaking, do as clean work, covering more ground than men.” She concluded, “We make a good income and we now have a high-priced farm, free from debt, but both of us, my mother and I, have had to work for it. Every year that passes we are thankful that we stuck to our land and didn’t try boarders and the shop.” In a period when Progressive reformers were beginning to address the “Country Life Problem” and women were beginning to chafe at the limitations imposed by patriarchal society, Mary Clark’s peppermint farm offered a valuable example for women and for farmers eager to take charge of their own rural destinies.
From Peppermint Kings by Dan Allosso. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.
Dan Allosso worked as a systems engineer, salesman, and manager in the technology private sector for two decades before returning to academia. Now an assistant professor at Bemidji State University, he teaches environmental history, U.S. history, and modern world history.