Lettuce is one item that my mother never bought a head of in her 94 years. She did not eat it, either.
I was a teenager before I finally began eating it, and then it was on a hamburger. I found that it really had no taste to me and was just something crunchy if it was fresh. Over time, I have learned to enjoy lettuce salad, and the kind I like best is the “iceberg lettuce.” I have been reading about the production of lettuce on the Henry Ford Plantation in Bryan County and on Butler Island in McIntosh County that took place many years ago around 1927-53.
There are many interesting facts about lettuce that I never knew. I want to share some of the history with you, and you can think about it the next time you buy or eat some of the “rabbit food.”
Lettuce is a member of the sunflower or aster family. It was first cultivated in ancient Greece for the production of oil from its seeds. The Egyptians selectively bred it into a plant grown for its edible leaves as early as 2680 B.C. Lettuce appears in many medieval writings as a medicinal help. The ancient Greeks believed lettuce induced sleep, so it was served at the end of a meal. Emperor Domitian (81-
96 A.D.) served it at the beginning so he could torture his guests by forcing them to stay awake. This is when the tradition of serving a salad at the start of a meal began.
Pictures of lettuce are engraved in the tomb paintings in Egypt. Christopher Columbus first brought lettuce to the United States from Europe in the late 15th century. Thomas Jefferson grew 19 varieties of lettuce in his Monticello garden. (The above information came from FoodReference.com.)
According to taproduce.com, iceberg lettuce was introduced by the Burpee Seed Company in 1894, with the description that there was no handsomer or more-solid cabbage lettuce in cultivation. New varieties of durable “shippable crisp head lettuce” began emerging in the 1920s. In 1923, Eijiro Tanimura moved his family to California, where he heard iceberg lettuce could be grown in the summer because of the rich soil and cool weather. In 1930, Lester Antle moved his family to the Salinas Valley in California to get involved in the iceberg-lettuce industry. In World War II, the lettuce industry exploded as salads were seen as morale boosters. After the soldiers came home, they wanted the same assortment of fresh produce they became accustomed to in the Army.
The name “iceberg” emerged because the heads of lettuce had to be packed in crates with a lot of ice to keep them fresh during shipping across the country. When the people saw the train pulling in with the lettuce shipment, they would holler that the icebergs were coming. Records show that the first carload of lettuce in 1919 from California to New York took 21 days. Bud Antle was instrumental in introducing the vacuum-cooling process in the iceberg-lettuce industry, causing the changeover from the ice-packed crates to corrugated carton-field packing. Tanimura and Antle have grown iceberg lettuce for three generations.
According to Cherie King of the website Get Healthy Clean and Lean, iceberg lettuce has only 14 calories per 100 grams. It has zero grams of fat, is cholesterol free, low in sodium, is high in water content (96 percent), is a great way to increase your water intake and is slightly sweet, cool and refreshing with a crispness to it with which others can’t compare. It has little nutritious value: fiber, 4 percent of daily value; Vitamin A, 9 percent; Vitamin C, 4 percent; calcium, 2 percent; and protein, 1 percent.
According to a report from the Fertilizer Research and Education Program on the state of California’s website, California produces 73 percent of the lettuce in the United States.
Across the Darien Bridge, one cannot help but notice the 75-foot brick chimney towering near Highway 17. This was part of a steam-powered rice mill that was built in 1833. This is located on Butler Island, named for the Butler that first purchased the island and made it into a rice plantation. Pierce Butler’s son-in-law was Owen Wister, who wrote “The Virginian” and several more novels.
As the years went by, the island was foreclosed on and Col. T.L. Huston, half owner of the New York Yankees, purchased the island at a sheriff’s sale. He built the large white house in 1927 that one can see in the background. The three-story house is Colonial style with 11 rooms, six bedrooms and 3½ baths. Babe Ruth often visited there. Huston had a Guernsey dairy farm and ice-cream factory. The old Butler Plantation milk bottles are valuable today. He also grew iceberg lettuce in the restored rice fields. He had the largest iceberg-lettuce crop east of the Mississippi. Richard J. Reynolds Jr. bought this property after World War II; in the spring of 1953, he produced 25,000 crates of premium iceberg lettuce. This information came from historian Buddy Sullivan. (My husband lived on Butler Island and in the Colonial home for several years.)
One of the most fascinating books that I have ever read is “The Henry Ford Era at Richmond Hill, Georgia,” written by Franklin Leslie Long and his wife Lucy Bunce Long. I could hardly put it down. Ford began buying land in the Richmond Hill area in 1925; by 1935, he had more than 70,000 acres. Some of the old rice fields were reclaimed and made suitable for growing lettuce. The brackish marsh soils were ideal. He grew from 125 to 140 acres of iceberg lettuce annually. If it rained too much, the fields had to be drained using a windmill with a connected pump. He also had two Ford V-8 motors powered to a large auger-type water pump that could pump 20,000 gallons of water per minute from the fields over the dikes and into the river. One inch of rain could put more than 8 million gallons of water on the 300-acre field. The iceberg lettuce was planted on bedded rows, and women thinned the plants with hoes so one plant was every 10 inches.
Lettuce-growing was a very labor-intensive operation. A knife was used to cut off the head of lettuce, and it was placed on carts and carried to the packing sheds. There, it was cleaned, trimmed, packed in crates according to size, iced down in the crate and sent to cold storage to wait for packing on the refrigerated trucks for markets up and down the East Coast. Lettuce was harvested over several weeks. Henry Ford mechanized a lot of the labor operation. The packing label on the produce crates read, “Richmond Hill Brand Iceberg Lettuce grown and packed by Richmond Hill Plantation Inc. Product of USA.” A large plantation house was on the picture. Ice was a great necessity when the lettuce was harvested. Ford bought all of his ice from the ice plants in Savannah until Camp Stewart came along and most of the ice was needed for soldiers. So Ford, not to be dependent on others, built his own ice plant. He had so much that he was able to sell ice to other ice plants.
They said their lettuce tasted so good, many of their employees took a jar of mayonnaise with them to work and ate a head of lettuce with it at lunch.