S. Routt's lettuce, spinach era recalled

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One might never suspect that -- along with cattle -- the golden meadows near Yampa and Toponas once teemed with lettuce and spinach.

For almost 30 years, the crops were a main driver of South Routt's economy, providing jobs in the fields and icehouses and giving farmers and ranchers a lucrative income boost.

Wanda Redmond grew up thinning and harvesting the greens with her family and taking Teletype orders for the produce from Chicago, New York and other faraway cities.

On Friday, she will speak about the lettuce and spinach era and its important place in the region's boom and bust history, as part of the Tread of Pioneers Museum's Brown Bag Lunch Lecture series.

"So often there is a story in any place," she said. "This is part of the history of South Routt."

Based on Redmond's res--earch, South Routt farmers began growing commercial iceberg lettuce and spinach in 1921. The industry gradually gained momentum, hitting a high point between 1940 and 1950.

In 1949, Toponas was the biggest shipping point for spinach in the United States, filling 600 to 700 railroad cars each summer, Redmond said.

She isn't sure where all that spinach went, though most of it ended up creamed, canned or cooked.

"In that era, people wouldn't think of eating it raw," Redmond said.

Redmond attributes the crops' success to good soil and good varieties of hearty seeds.

The crops were an economic boon for many families, which supplemented their ranch operations with several or more acres of lettuce and spinach. Just 5 acres to 10 acres could pay off some families' debt, said Redmond, who was able to attend college with money her family saved from the sale of the crops.

"People cannot visualize or appreciate what an economic benefit it was to farmers and ranchers in the area," Redmond said.

The industries also were an important source of jobs for residents and migrant workers, who worked in the fields and in the ice and packing sheds.

With all those people bustling in the fields and towns, the area was unrecognizable from the quieter, subdued streets of Yampa and Toponas today.

"The jobs were here, the money was here," Redmond said. "People came to work."

Like any kind of farming, the benefits of lettuce and spinach didn't come without help from Mother Nature.

"If a hailstorm came in and pecked those leaves, that was it," she said.

Spinach was particularly fragile, but if everything went well, farmers could get two crops in one summer.

The lettuce and spinach industries in South Routt petered out in the early 1950s when areas with longer growing seasons, such as California, began reaping most of the business.

Government regulations prohibiting the use of natural or nonmanufactured ice for packing also contributed to the decline, Redmond said.

The end of lettuce and spinach came slowly, and it was not necessarily devastating to farmers, some of whom still had money saved from the crops to invest in equipment for haying and livestock operations, she said.

Redmond will speak from noon to 1 p.m. Friday at the museum.

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