Benton County Pioneer Life

US GenWeb Image
Washington State GenWeb logo of spiderweb and state

Pioneer life in the Benton Co. WA area

Man Who Came Here for Health Introduced Mint

Tri-City Pioneer
Tri-City Herald, Sunday, November 20, 1960, page 8.

In the early 1890’s, a tall, thin, haggard faced man stepped off the northern Pacific passenger train at Kennewick’s whistle stop station. His large trunk was taken from the baggage car and placed on the platform. He carried a small leather satchel in one hand and walked with a cane. He gazed at the few scattered buildings of the village. On the largest, he saw a sign The Beach Hotel. It was 2 p.m. and the afternoon sun was boiling hot. Clearing his throat, he proceeded to walk toward the hotel. He stopped often to rest. He was met at the hotel by the proprietor, Charles Jayson Beach. A fleshy man whose smiling face was quite well covered by a thick, black beard, trimmed in the popular style of General Grant, the stranger registered: William Showlwalter, Jackson, Michigan, USA. He told Mr. Beach that he was in poor health; that his doctor had advised him to go to a dry climate for a while; take plenty of sleep and rest, eat good wholesome food and exercise by walking. Taking short walks at the start and increasing the distance of each day’s walk gradually. His physician had also warned him that he might be tuburcular, or in the language of the time, “he had consumption.”

Showlwalter was a very friendly man. He and Jayson Beach, who was from Illinois, became quite good pals. They would play cribbage in Beach’s spare time. Beach always had, on his hotel menu, foods that would be helpful to Showlwalter.

Showlwalter began to gain weight and strength. He took his walks each day. He had gradually increased the distance to beyond three miles. Beach suggested that horseback riding was good exercise. Showlwalter purchased an Indian pony. He enjoyed the riding.

As he gained his physical strength, his mind became more active. He liked the locality and its people so decided to settle down and make his home here. He purchased a ten acre tract situated two and one half miles southeast of Kennewick. He planted five acres of it in peppermint.

Why peppermint? Because he had been a very succesful grower of peppermint and a distiller of peppermint oil in Michigan. Michigan at this time was credited with producing about 80 percent of all the peppermint produced in the entire US.

Showlwalter was confident that his locality with its soil and climate would produce good yields of peppermint of high oil content.

Regaining his health, Showlwalter improved his farm. The mint, under his expert care, grew lush and full of leaves. He then sent to Michigan for a mint still. When it arrived, he hauled it out to this farm.

He began its erection with much care. The large vats arrived knocked down. They had to be set up again. The hand pump had to be installed in the well. The entire plant was properly erected. In these early days there were no electric motors, no gasoline or diesel engine. Everything had to be done the hard way, by hand.

The mint was cut by hand scythes; raked by long handled wooded hand rakes. The mint was carefully put on the horse drawn sleds with hand pitchforks. Canvas covers were placed on the tops of the sleds to catch all the leaves. It was the leaves of the mint that contained the source of the peppermint oil. All those that worked in the harvest wore clothes that protected them from the hot peppermint. Rubber boots on their feet, gloves on their hands, kerchiefs around their necks and caps on their heads.

The still was entirely hand operated. It was hand fired with wood. The worm was cooled by hand pumped water. The skimming of the oil was done by hand. The mash was re-run until most of the oil would be extracted. The oil was placed in special metal containers for handling and sale. Peppermint oil was too valuable to be bottled in glass for fear of breakage and loss. Showlwalter had the peppermint oil tested and the Kennewick grown and distilled product took a very high rating.

While the production of peppermint oil in Kennewick was a huge success from the standpoint of manufacture, the sale price had fallen to an all time low. The case of the low price was the fact that cheap coal-tar products had been developed and were being substituted for real peppermint in many instance. This was about fifteen year prior to the passage of the Pure Food act wherein thse substitutions were prohibited. Showlwalter disposed of his still, plowed up his peppermint, planted his entire ten acre tract into a prune orchard.

He was a well man now. Thanks to the healthy climate of the Tri-City region. The Tri-City region had again successfully grown and pioneered another crop, only to fail in the marketing.

Return to Index of Burton Lum Articles