The Orleans-Genesee Muckland, often called the Elba Muck, or simply The Muck to local residents, has been seasonal work for local and migrant workers for almost a century. For many young people in the surrounding communities, it was a combination of summer work and play. Workers brought with them lunch pails, lunch bags, and thermoses to work from dawn to dusk in hot summers augmented by the heat reflected by the muck soil. A few youths also worked weekends during spring planting and fall harvesting while school was in session. The sociability of working on the muck was so great that daughters were known to cry and beg their fathers to allow them to join the youths hired on street corners by Muck managers. Perhaps many people know little about the Muck, so here are a few paragraphs about the history of this valuable part of American farming.
Muck is a very dark brown soil, appearing black when moist, with about 80% of organic matter, that is drained from swamps. Muck forms when dying vegetation is submerged in swamp water that cannot drain. The decaying organic matter uses up the oxygen in the water, which arrests further decay, thus preserving the organic matter. This soil is augmented by decaying vegetation falling from above over thousands of years. Muck is a fine, loose, fibrous form of peat that feels like sawdust when dry. Because muck is rich in organic matter, it contains a high concentration of plant nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, that promote high plant yields. The underlying strata is usually clay or marl (a crumbly mixture of clays, calcium and magnesium carbonates, and remnants of shells) with a grey color. This rock is impervious to moisture, so it traps water that falls and drains onto it, thus creating the original swampland.
Although highly productive because of the highly organic soil content, muckland has its unique problems: Wind erosion that blows away the soil, oxidation of organic matter, and compaction by farm machinery reduce muck depth by about 1 inch per year and result in the muck subsidence, which has become so pronounced in some areas that ramps are used to drive farm machinery from muck roads to the fields. Also, fires, droughts, floods, early frosts, plant diseases (e.g., onion smut) and pests reduce crop yields. Because muckland was formerly swampland, it lies low and therefore accumulates water from higher ground, so muck must be tiled and pumped continually to keep it dry and tillable. When fires occur, they can burn unseen underground for months. Wind erosion is partially contained by fences and bushes planted in long parallel rows. High winds sometime blow the dry muck onto washing hung out to dry miles away at a time when muck workers cannot see 10 feet ahead.
Mucklands exist in various parts of the world, including the eastern Great Britain, where it was originally fen and
bog. They are located in various sections
of the United States, such as New York, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida.
New York State has 5 muckland areas covering a total of 30,408 acres in 2006:
Onions and potatoes are the largest crops in Orleans-Genesee Counties, while onions, turfgrass and corn prevail in Orange County. The other 3 areas plant onions and a variety of other crops. Of the 6,000 Orleans-Genesee acres, about 3,900 are located in Orleans County towns: 2,100 in Barre and 1,800 in Clarendon, and 2,100 are located in Genesee County towns: 400 in Byron and 1,700 in Elba.
Onions are the main Muck crop because they are hardy and thrive in the loose soil, which makes them easily harvested by machine. However, other crops, such as potatoes, carrots, celery, and lettuce are grown too. Crops have changed over the years. Wheat, hay, beans and peas have given way to corn and turfgrass along with changing consumer preferences and muckland yields. Muck growers reduce their exposure to unfavorable markets by storing produce for months waiting for more favorable market prices. In the early days, most muck workers were local, but as transportation improved migrant works were brought in during the harvest season.
The Village of Elba, located about 5 miles from the center of the Muck at the intersection of routes 98 and 262, is the closest village and has always been identified with the Muck. The Elba area was first settled in 1801. The village was first called Pine Hill, but was later named after the Island of Elba, where Napoleon was exiled, when incrorporated in 1884. According to the 2000 census, the village had a population of 696. The Town of Elba, located in Genesee County, was formed in 1820. Its population was 2,439 in 2000.
The Muck has a long history. At the end of the last glacial period, 20,000 years ago, a huge lake called Tonawanda covered much of Western New York. Through the slow passage of time the lake drained to the north, becoming Lake Ontario, and and land filled until only a long swampy area remained ranging from Lockport and Clarence in Niagara and Erie Counties in the west and running eastward through Genesee and Orleans Counties into the town of Clarendon on the border of Monroe County. The entire area was called the Tonawanda Swamp, composed of the Alabama, Oak Orchard and Sandy Creek (Bergen) Swamps. The Oak Orchard Creek is a small river located primarily in Genesee and Orleans Counties that drains part of the swamp. The river rises south of the swamp, passes through the western edge of the Town of Elba, the Village of Medina, and empties into Lake Ontario at Point Breeze in the Town of Carlton. Presently, the remaining swamp contains a state preserve, called Oak Orchard State Wildlife Management Area, and a national preserve, called the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, both of which are known as major stopover points for migratory birds. The Muck was farmland created out of the Alabama Swamp in 1914. Other swamp areas were not converted to arable muckland because the soil and bedrock were too shallow to sustain agriculture. Muckland must be several feet deep to remain arable for many years because it erodes over time. The original Elba Muck was from 4 to 5 feet deep, whereas the nonarable parts of the swamp were less than 1 foot deep. No rocks existed within 10 feet of the muck surface, thus enhancing tillability. The Oak Orchard Swamp drained a substantial area of highland, but the swamp itself could not be drained completely by the Oak Orchard Creek or natural evaporation; therefore, excess water continued to accumulate to form a permanent swamp.
Early settlers considered the swamp a big nuisance and often talked about draining it: it smelled, flooded, contained hordes of mosquitos and reptiles, and caused malaria in the nearby communities. Many workers not living near the swamp still had to cross it on makeshift dirt roads for work in Batavia, Medina and Albion, thus subjecting them to disease. People also complained that the artificial feeder between Tonawanda Creek and Oak Orchard Creek to feed the Erie Canal caused Oak Orchard Creek to back up into the swamp, although this contention was proved incorrect by canal engineers by showing that successive deepings of the feeder allowed for a complete discharge of waters into Oak Orchard Creek and the canal.
An 1884 New York State
health report on malaria and other diseases associated with the Tonawanda, Oak Orchard and Black Creek
Swamps that at that time covered parts of Orleans,
Wyoming, Niagara, and
Monroe Counties. The swamps
at that time totaled 30 miles in length and seldom more than 3 miles in width along Tonawanda Creek, through the
northeastern part of Erie County, the
southeastern part of Niagara County, and along Oak Orchard Creek in the southern part of Orleans and the
northern part of Genesee Counties. It also touched the headwaters of the Black Creek and the east branch of
Sandy Creek. The Oak Orchard Swamp itself covered 25,760 acres distributed as follows:
Shelby 3,482 acres Barre 6,117 Clarendon 2,361 Orleans Total 11,960 acresIn Genesee County:
Byron 524 acres Alabama 5,721 Oakfield 4,045 Elba 3,510 Genesee Total 13,800 acres GRAND TOTAL 25,760 acres
The report recommended that the State drain the swamp by deepening, enlarging and straightening a channel through Oak Orchard Creek, which would also enhance the value of the drained land. Lateral canals to the main canal could be dug by individual towns at their expense.
Some people imagined that the swamp could be turned into valuable farmland, but the cost of reclaiming the land was prohibitive at a time when steam-powered machines were non-existent. Nevertheless, all swamp lands became privately owned. At that time, the muck was covered with trees, brush and water, and its only value was the timber in its woods, which could be retrieved only in winter when the ground was frozen. Wild "hay" (a mixture of wild plants) was also harvested from accessible swamp areas. It was sold to china factories for packing china shipped in barrels. In January, 1902, Mr. Landers of Alabama and Mr. Belson of North Oakfield promoted a swamp drainage project. In April, the New York state Supreme Court appointed a commission to conduct hearings in all the towns adjoing the swamp to listen to evidence regarding the effects of swamp drainage. The affected towns were Shelby, Barre, Clarendon, Alabama, Oakfield and Elba. Many testified to the damage caused every year by water overflows and illnesses of people living near the swamp. Drs. Lewis and Gray stated at the hearings that the swamp and adjacent lands caused malaria and bowel troubles. The Commission's findings were published in August, 1903. It considered the swamp a health hazard and proposed constructing a main channel from near the eastern swamp boundary toward the west, following Oak Orchard Creek with lateral canals feeding into it.
In April, 1904, the Commissioner requested a meeting with the supervisors of the six affected towns by considering the draining of almost 25,000 acres of swamp land. The supervisors said that the entire area could be drained without any serious side effects. On May 4, the Commission estimated that $5,000 would cover the cost of surveys and preliminary work and requested the Court to order this appropriation. This cost would be assessed to the six towns, which would in turn collect from the property owners, all 25,000 acres being privately owned at the time. Clarendon was the only town not interested. In March, 1906, surveyors began work.
While these studies progressed, businessmen began to show interest in the swamp, figuring it would become valuable when drained. In 1910, Professor M. E. Carr, an expert from the Agricultural Department in Washington, D.C., was hired by swampland owners to examine and test the agricultural potential of the swamp soil in parts of the swamp, the owners believing that the state would soon drain the land to make it much more valuable. Carr's chemical analyses indicated that the muckland soil was fertile and would be productive for onions, celery, lettuce, spinach and similar vegetables. The owners also hired Charles G. Eliott of the U.S. Ag Dept., who showed that drainage and reclamation was practical. Supported by these scientific analyses, the owners bought options to purchase 25,000 acres. Thereafter, the swampland would be bought and sold many times on speculation.
A New York City enterprise called Western New York Farms Company was owned by a holding company called the Spokane Securities Co. It would eventually buy 11,000 acres, 9,000 swamp and 2,000 acres of adjacent upland. Farms Co. called its property the Double O Ranch, after Oak Orchard. (Its products carried the trademark of twin O's in a diamond.) Another big swampland option buyer was David B. Carse of New York City, president of D. B. Carse & Co., a prominent New York engineering firm with considerable experience in drainage projects.
In late 1911, the New York State Supreme Court ordered that commissioners investigate and report on the feasibility of swamp drainage and that all interested persons appear on January 6, 1912 at the Lockport term of the court to show cause why the drainage should not be done at once and paid for by the owners of the land benefited by it. The contemplated drainage was 25,760 acres (about 40 square miles) located in these towns: Alabama, 5,721; Oakfield, 4,044; Elba, 3,511; Byron, 524; Shelby, 3,482; Barre, 6,117; and Clarendon, 2,361. The hearing lasted two hours and after instructing owners to prepare detailed maps and costs for the following session on February 24 allowed the work to proceed.
Drainage bids went out in January, 1913, and work began within 60 days. Using a huge steam-driven, floating dredging machine (telephone wires across roads along the way had to be disconnected) that scooped earth from beneath it as it straddled the canal, 8 miles of canal, 7 feet deep, for a total of 2,000 cu. yds. was drained (The canal depth was 6 feet after the wet ground shrank.) The dredge workmen lived right on the huge machine. Sightseers wanting to see the colossal work brought nonstop traffic through Elba on Sundays. Later, a similar dredge was brought in sections and assembled at the swamp so it would not interfere with the telephone lines and roads. The dredges dug 600 feet of canals and by 1914, 21 miles of main canal and 20 miles of laterals located about 2,000 feet apart, were finished.
Following drainage, 60 Adirondack lumberjacks felled the swamp timber. The wood would later be made into barrel staves when sold to a local sawmill. Underbrush was burned and hauled away. In January, 1915, work was completed. The last steam dredge had completed their work in two years and were sent back to the owners in December, 1915, via the West Shore Railroad (a subsidiary of the New York Central Railroad) that ran through Elba. The huge dredge could not travel on roads because of telephone wires. Instead, workmen accompanied it across farms to the railroad, cutting and mending fences along the way. 9,000 acres of swamp had been cleared and planting could begin in a small segment of this area.
In August, 1914, Farms Co. built a large fruit evaporator on the former Hundredmark Farm on the Old Swamp Road (Hundredmark Road). It would employ a large number of women with Mrs. Nina Phillips and her daughter Gertrude in charge of the boarding house for the women and girls. Perishable vegetables, such as peas and spinach, would be dried and canned at the evaporator. Bunkhouses and offices were later built. By September, the Muck was ready.
In February, 1915, a company buyer approached a big Rochester seed dealer and said he wanted to buy some spinach seed. "How much?", asked the dealer. "Three tons.", replied the buyer. Gasping, the dealer completed the order and later cabled Germany for more seed. Agribusiness had come to the Muck!
In March, 1915, the first of newly-invented caterpillars ("steel mules") arrived at Double O Ranch. These 35-hp machines would draw plows, harrows, cultivators, and seeders in the spring and draw harvesters and binders in the fall. The original muck was an experimental section of 50 acres where in 1915 crops of potatoes, onions, kohlrabi, carrots, beets, turnips, celery and lettuce. Some plants, such as spinach, would later be planted in stages so that they could be harvested in quantities that the Elba Food Products Co. canning plant in Elba could handle. This experiment allowed the production division of the company to determine which land was suitable for which vegetable, while the marketing division studied the markets for the produce. The "steel mules" would be used to haul 8 or 10 wagons to the Elba canning factory - one trip per day over 5 miles. The plant eventually would process 200,000 cans per day for delivery to markets by the West Shore Railroad at Elba.
The Farms Co. Double O Ranch was financially successful, but it had always been the company's plan to lease sections of its land to growers. Therefore, beginning in 1916 it leased muck plots at $50 per acre and assisted buyers in production. In 1917, it leased sections at $35 per acre, but without Farms Co. assistance. Meanwhile, Farms Co. shipped its caterpillars, dredges and other equipment out of town and the growers were now on their own.
1917 statistics compiled by the Western New York Vegetable Grower's Association, a cooperative formed in September, 1917, showed that the Elba muck growers shipped 55,000 bushels of onions, 800 tons of carrots, and 30,000 crates of lettuce. Other vegetables were shipped as well. By 1919, cumulative shipments were 55,000 boxes of lettuce, 125,000 bushels of onions, 30,000 bushels of carrots, 5,000 bushels of potatoes, 2,000 bushels of turnips, 3,000 bushels of beets, 1,000 crates of celery, 100 tons of spinach. This totaled 5,500 tons (400 railroad cars) of vegetables over four years. At that time, only a little more than 1,000 acres of the 9,000 muckland was under cultivation. The Genesee-Orleans Vegetable Growers Co-Op Association was formed in 1921 to encourage development by providing seeds, fertilizers and chemicals to farmers. Later, it assisted the growers with marketing.
Before the era of superhighways, transportation cost was a perennial problem for the growers. The produce was hauled by 25 trucks, each making four to six trips each day, often tied up in traffic. Consequently, the growers petitioned the Genesee County Board of Supervisors for better state and county roads, which they estimated would cut hauling costs at least in half. Meanwhile, the West Shore Railroad cooperated with the growers by re-icing its refrigerator cars at Elba and building an ice plant in Rochester capable of producing 250 tons of ice per day. The railroad built 1,000 new refrigerator cars at a rate of 10 to 15 per day at a cost of $3,000 each. Together with the fruit growers, the railroad moved huge amounts of western New York crops, the weekly record being 970,000 carloads, surpassed only during WWI when it moved 1,250,000 cars in one week.
In 1924, Cornell U. established a fellowship to investigate and conduct experiments of diseases and pests affecting muck crops and their prevention and control. Its expert in plant pathology made his headquarters at "The Point", the intersection of Oak Orchard and Watson roads.
In 1927, the Farms Co. offered for sale all their holdings. Lots to be sold upon payment of 1/3 of the purchase price and the balance to be paid in 5 installments. Mortgages would carry 6% interest. Current lessees would have first chance at ownership. $573.50 per muck acre was the quoted price. Prices over the next few years would range between $400 and $550 per acre. Farms would continue to provide drainage and road maintenance until they would turn over the roads to the town of Elba. The yearly $125,000 required to continue drainage would be assessed at $10 per acre over succeeding years. In addition to its muck acres, Farms Co. also owned 44 upland farms that muck purchasers would be allowed to buy for farms or buildings.
In 1928, the Genesee and Orleans Vegetable Grower's Cooperative Association of growers production exceeded $500,000 in sales. In December, Pres. Calvin Coolidge sent the Association a Christmas present by signing the long-awaited tariff that placed a higher tariff on imported onions to allow growers to compete internationally.
In 1934, during the Great Depression, Porter & Bonney of Elba introduced a new method of potato growing called the twin-row method. Potatoes were planted in double rows about a foot apart with the seed planted 7 inches apart in each row. A space of about 34 inches between double rows was left. Consequently, production yields were higher and the plants grew more uniformly. Next year, Roy A. Porter was elected chairman of a joint committee that sponsored a research program designed to bring about improved potato yield. Mr. Porter was elected president of the Empire State Potato Club, which cooperated with the New York State Farm Bureau Federation in this research. In that same year, Porter was one of 12 members nationwide who served on the National Potato Committee to recommend rules and regulations for growers' allotments, information, packing and distribution stamps. As another example of the growers' dedication of improved yields, in 1935, the Calarco Brothers set a new lettuce raising record of 4,500 crates or 108,000 heads from three acres.
In 1936, the Muck experienced devastating fires. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Soil Conservation Camp at Attica-Varysburg was called to extinguish the blaze. Moats were dug and pumps flooded the affected areas, but the fires continued until a sharp frost assisted in putting out the fires. However, the frost hit the blooming potatoes and ripe lettuce that resulted in production that was only 1/3 that of the previous year. Thus, nature provides limits to productivity.
In 1953, Charles Zambito & Sons erected the first bulk storage building for onions. Instead of onions being packed in crates for storage, they were loaded directly into trucks and dumped 10 feet deep into storage with very little damage. Thus, more onions could be stored compared to crate storage and less handling was required. The success of bulk storage resulted in the building of more bulk storage buildings by other growers.
Maintaining muck canals to avoid flooding is an ongoing effort that requires cooperation and money. When Farms Co. sold the mucklands, canal maintenance was deeded to an association of growers called the Conservation Cooperative, Inc. However, maintenance was expensive, especially as number of growers declined. Therefore, the Co-op formed a flood protection plan within a small Watershed Protection District under Federal Public Law 566 in September 1976. In 1979, the Oak Orchard Small Watershed Protection District was established whereby the Federal Government assumed all construction costs of the flood protection plan. Owners of acres benefited assumed all costs for land rights and easements, utility line relocation, roadway modifications, bridge and culvert replacement and maintenance. Phase I construction of the $5.3 million project began in June, 1982, on 6.5 miles of main channel. It was widened to 26-30 feet and deepened to 15 feet to expel larger amounts of water. Similar work, called Phase II, was completed in 1986. Work completed in later years were (1) the north Transit channel and laterals east of Transit Road, (2) all channels west of Transit Road, and (3) diversionary ditches around the muck perimeter to intercept highland water run-off.
In this environmentally sensitive age, muck farming is controversial because the drainage of wetlands destroys wildlife habitat and migratory bird stopovers. Much American muckland has been reclaimed for wildlife preserves. Therefore, it is unlikely that any more muckland will be created in the U.S. When first reclaimed from the swamp, the Muck covered 9,000 acres. By 2006, it had been reduced to 6,000 acres as some parts became too shallow for muck farming. With less tillable soil and fewer growers to maintain the expensive canal draining and maintenance, the Muck will someday no longer be profitable and will have to be abandoned. When will that day come? No one really knows, but its future is limited. Eventually, it will be revert to swampland for the wild plants and animals that inhabited it long ago.
Scott D. Benz, Village Historian, Town of Elba, 175th Anniversary Committee, located in the Richmond Memorial Library, Batavia, NY.
The Story of the Muck, Research by Ann Marie Starowitz, Written by William F. Brown, Jr., 2004
Various newspaper articles located at Genesee County Historical Society in Batavia, NY.
Fourth Annual Report of the New York State Board of Health of New York,
February 21, 1884. Available online at