May
 
22

EAT MORE CHIPS: The History of Potatoes in St. Johns County

Posted by: Rick Pariani in Community Involvement, Nature, News
 

Did you know that St. Johns County farmers are Florida’s most productive potato growers? In fact, St. Johns County is the #7 producer of potatoes in the nation. St. Johns County potatoes have anchored products by Frito-Lay, Cape Cod, Kettle, Snyder’s and others. Do you know how potatoes took root in the County?

Henry Morrison Flagler, with an eight grade public school education, founded Standard Oil. Along with his business partner, John D. Rockefeller, he built the company into the richest, biggest business in the world. At its height, the company controlled 90% of the world’s oil refining. The New York World paper reported that Standard Oil was “the most cruel, impudent, pitiless and grasping monopoly that ever fastened upon a country.” By 1911, the Supreme Court of the United States had successfully broken Standard Oil’s monopoly into 34 new companies.

At the peak of his business, Flagler brought his wife, Mary Harkness, to Jacksonville for convalescence. She died shortly afterwards in 1881 and Flagler married her caregiver, Ida Alice Shourds two years later (incidentally, Ida Alice was later declared insane in 1896, enabling Flagler to marry once again to Mary Lily Kenan). The newlyweds honeymooned in St. Augustine, sparking an entirely new business tack – one that made the name “Flagler” synonymous with old Florida.

Flagler had gained extensive experience hauling and transporting oil with railroads. To pursue his Florida dreams, Flagler leveraged his railroad experience to found and build what became Florida East Coast Railway (FEC). Flagler pushed his rails into Florida, through Jacksonville, to St. Augustine – then south to West Palm Beach and Miami – eventually overseas, ending in Key West.

Flagler turned his fortune into creating a world-class vacation experience, the likes of which had never been seen in America. He went on to become known as the Father of Palm Beach and the Father of Miami.

In St. Augustine, Flagler built the Ponce de Leon Hotel (today’s Flagler College) and opened it on January 10, 1888, 5 short years after his honeymoon with Ida Alice. Reflecting on his accomplishment, he stated, “I think it more likely I am spending an unnecessary amount of money in the foundation walls, but I comfort myself with the reflection that a hundred years hence it will be all the same to me and the building the better because of my extravagance”. To accommodate the Ponce’s overflow, later that year, Flagler built the equally extravagant Alcazar Hotel with the world’s largest indoor swimming pool (today’s Lightner Museum and City Hall building).

Flagler’s extravagance and prescient attention to his hotel guests extended to their cuisine. In 1890, he convinced his cousin, Thomas Horace Hastings, to essentially open up a brand new truck farming operation to provide his hotel guests with the freshest vegetables available. Farming in the area expanded and eventually focused on potatoes and cabbage. Today the namesake city of Hastings is known as the “Potato Capital of Florida”. Down the road from Hastings is the apply named village of “Spuds”.

Induced by a world-wide shift in snacking (as has been reported), some of the largest chip providers have cancelled their potato-purchase contracts in St. Johns County. Overall, it is documented that chip consumption is at its lowest. A change is well-underway through the ingenuity of the local growers and the hard working South Korean farmers in southwest St. Johns County. Although the County remains Florida’s best potato growing region, it is enjoying a new reputation for Asian vegetables, bok choy, Chinese cabbage, daikon radish, sweet corn, eggplant, spinach and broccoli.

The potato chip invention is disputed, but some attribute it to the head chef at the MoonLake Lodge in Saratoga Springs, New York. By some accounts, George Crum “invented” the chip in 1853 for the Lodge’s guest diner, Cornelius Vanderbilt. If the timing is correct, it could mean that guests of the Flagler Hotels in St. Augustine not only dined on Hastings grown vegetables but may have enjoyed their first taste of a potato chip.

You can celebrate St. Johns County’s role in the making of Florida by purchasing your favorite potato chip (I recommend Lay’s Original) and enjoying them at the beach, the river, the historic streets of St. Augustine and anywhere in your own neighborhood. An early morning or late afternoon drive through the farm hamlets of southwest St. Johns County would make for a great chip-eating event.

I think Mr. Flagler would be proud. In fact, you can visit him at his tomb at Memorial Presbyterian Church in old town St. Augustine to thank him for laying the ground work for our beautiful and inspiring place.

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