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Horseheads' 'green' past comes alive

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CNY/NNY/S. Tier: Your Hometown: Horseheads' 'green' past comes alive
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It's not often you'll learn something new about a place that's 175 years old. But that's just what happened in the Village of Horseheads in Chemung County. In this week’s edition of Your Hometown, our Katie Husband tells us about a recent festival that brought light to a community's 'green' past.

HORSEHEADS, N.Y. -- It’s something that very few knew about, passed around by word of mouth until it came to light this year.

"A little known secret about Horseheads. A lot of this was muck land and farmland,” said Horseheads Mayor Don Zeigler.

Horseheads was a large producer of the stringy vegetable, celery.

“It started in 1887 by a Mr. W.H. Smith and he had founded the Celery and Produce Company,” said Joan O'Dell, Horseheads historian.

In fact, Smith’s booming produce company had other vegetables, but none as popular as the celery stalk. He grew much of the celery in the heart of Horseheads until the early 1900s.

“It kind of was an obscure thing and disappeared and everybody kind of forgot about it,” said Zeigler.

Those few who knew of Horseheads' celery history from a previous historian wanted to bring it back. And digging deeper into archives, villagers have learned Smith was big into farming at the turn of the century, but not just in Horseheads.

“He also owned land in Chittenango, New York and he had quite a produce business," said O'Dell.

Smith's fields in Horseheads strictly grew celery. This is the only picture found so far to capture what they looked like.

“He had several celery fields because of the marshy lands around Horseheads. And I believe the biggest one is over on East Franklin Street,” said O'Dell.

This was Smith’s main celery field which, back then, was filled with that special soil known as muck that was perfect for growing celery.

“It’s very black, it’s moist and kinda gushy,” said O'Dell. “And the muck is a result of the head waters just north of here at Seneca Lake and due to the last ice age and that’s why that kind of soil is here.”

Because of that soft, gushy muck, Smith armed his horses with special shoes. They can now be found in the Horseheads Historical Society.

“This is a muck shoe and it’s the only one we have at the museum and it may be the only one around Horseheads, as far as I know. It’s made of iron, it’s very heavy. The leg of the horse would go through this opening, the toe would be there and back here would be where the two corks are,” said O'Dell.

Smith's two major celery fields filled with the rich muck put Horseheads on the map.

“They were priding themselves on having very special celery and it became known as, Horseheads became known as the celery capital of New York State and perhaps the United States,” said O'Dell.

This here was the building Smith and his workers used to pack and ship the celery along the East Coast.

“It was right beside the railroad and it went off to the east coast to the upscale hotels from Maine to Miami and he prided himself on having fresh produce,” said O'Dell.

There were five railroads that shipped the celery out in wooden boxes marked ‘Horseheads Celery.’ But the production came to an end in 1920 after blight wiped out the fields completely. Still the village's former title of Celery Capital gave leaders just the hook they were looking for.

“This is something that I’ve wanted for five years is our trademark. What do we have in Horseheads? We need festivals, we need Victorian strolls for Christmas, we need parties in Teal Park,” said Zeigler.

As part of its 175th anniversary, the Village of Horseheads put on a celery festival to honor the rediscovery of the past. And villagers say they plan on continuing the new tradition every October for years to come.

“We were teaching the children how to grow celery. It wasn’t just barbeques and bands and music, no, we educated people, especially the younger people who need to know the history of Horseheads," said Zeigler.

Now that the festival brought Horseheads' history back to life, it has villagers continuing their research to find out more about Smith and his company and hopefully even a picture of Smith himself.

The Horseheads Historical Society is asking for help trying to find artifacts. They're particularly interested in finding a celery box used to ship the vegetable. It would be a brown crate marked ‘Horseheads Celery.’

Richard Margeson
Horseheads Historical Society President
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