The Original

Published online: Jan 29, 2022 Articles H. De Jong, Fredericton Research & Development Centre, Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada
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This article appears in the January 2022 issue of Potato Grower

Until the 19th century, most potato varieties being grown in North America had been imported from Europe with little attention being paid to specific varieties. Around 1750, in New England potato varieties were commonly referred to by the color or character of the skin, as for example “rough coats,” “red coats,” and “flat whites.”  In 1770 are mentioned the “reddish,” the “bluish,” the “whites,” and the “French” potatoes, the latter of which were flattened in their shape.

This changed when the Neshannock variety came on the scene. It was developed by John Gilkey, who was born near Londonderry, Ireland, and his younger brother James (who was born in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania). Their parents immigrated to the U.S. in 1772. In 1798 John purchased a 200-acre farm in Mercer County, Pennsylvania, and the Gilkey brothers started growing potatoes. John had planted red, white, and blue tubers, collected fruits from the plants and planted the seeds in his garden bed in 1801. It is reported that the first-year seedling tubers were multi-colored and small (some of them “no larger than peas.”). In the next couple of years, John selected from among these seedlings and named his choice Neshannock after the nearby Neshannock Creek.

The tubers were large and long and reddish-purple in color, with streaks of the same color through the flesh that generally disappeared after cooking. It was considered “one of the most valuable of table potatoes, white, mealy, and of good flavor.” Gilkey also created several “subvarieties,” including Red Mercer and Black Mercer. These varieties in turn were viewed as models by which other varieties should be judged.

Sometime before 1810, state representative Bevan Pearson first cultivated Neshannock potatoes in the vicinity of Philadelphia from seed obtained in Mercer County and named it after the county where it was first produced. In the decades that followed, cultivation of the new variety spread quickly in the Mid-Atlantic states, and then across the country. In the 1830s, a farmer named Titus Bronson introduced them to Michigan and claimed that he raised 700 bushels on a single acre of ground near present-day Kalamazoo. By 1851, Neshannock (under the name Gilkey) was a leading prize-winner at fairs all over the U.S. During the Civil War, Neshannock was a favorite food of both Union and Confederate soldiers. By 1875, farmers in Idaho and Utah were shipping potatoes by rail to California. Although these potatoes were commonly known as “Brigham’s potatoes,” they were in fact of the Neshannock variety.

Neshannock tubers were considered so valuable that in 1824, William Rankin, a local politician and a neighbor of the Gilkeys, traded then-governor of Pennsylvania Andrew Shultz one-half bushel for the appointment to four separate offices (recorder of deeds, registrar of wills, prothonotary, and clerk of courts). Judge John “Over the Creek” Findley protested, which in turn led to the “1824 Findley-Rankin Tumult” in the county courthouse.

During the Irish famine of 1846-47, several thousand bushels of Neshannock were shipped to Ireland, where they were gratefully received under the name of “Gilkeys,” a very appropriate memorial for the boy who had left Londonderry 75 years earlier.

In the second half of the 19th century, there was an intense search in both Europe and North America for new varieties. This search was driven in part to develop resistance to late blight as well as freedom from viruses such as “curl” (often a combination of PLRV and PVY). All these diseases were poorly understood at the time, and in the absence of a seed potato certification system, varieties tended to gradually succumb (“run out”) to disease. However, it had been noted that potatoes raised from true seed were generally free from curl, whereas those which had been in cultivation for a long time tended to deteriorate with age. As a result there was a flurry of activity to raise new varieties.

The demand for access to new varieties was so high that tubers of new varieties were often sold at exorbitantly high prices. For example, in 1868, one tuber of King of the Earlies fetched $50. This led Henry Ward Beecher, in his essay on the Potato Mania, to muse that “Prospectors, with pick and pan, may do well in the Rocky Mountains, but the true way to dig for gold in New York State, is to let your potatoes do it for you.”

The combination of the lack of a seed potato certification system and a plethora of new varieties eventually caused the demise of Neshannock. George Best cited an article from the agricultural press of the day, predicting its fate: “The now-celebrated Early Rose promises to nearly or quite equal that prince of fine flavored potatoes, the justly esteemed Mercer.” Several other new varieties developed in the late 19th century, including Beauty of Hebron, Bliss Triumph, Early Ohio, Garnet Chili, Green Mountain, King of the Earlies, Rural New Yorker #2, and Russet Burbank also contributed to the dethroning of Neshannock.

It is not known whether Neshannock was used as a parent of any of the new varieties; it is not listed as a parent of the 320 entries in the North American Potato Variety Inventory. It is now extinct and probably has no descendants. Yet it served as a model for subsequent varieties and has left a glorious history that cannot be erased. 

 

This is an abridged version of an article published in American Journal of Potato Research (2021) 98: 344-346. References will be gladly provided by the author upon request to hielkede.jong@sympatico.ca.