Clinton County, NY is noted for its extensive and influential military history – we helped save the United States from invasion in the first naval battle of the Revolutionary War just off Lake Champlain’s Valcour Island, and we help end the War of 1812 with Macdonough’s victory off the lake’s Cumberland Head. But there is more. Clinton County is also noted for its agricultural history – apples, maple syrup, milk production, and potatoes.
Potatoes may have escaped your notice, but it did not escape the notice of author Larry Gooley and reporters Roy Southworth and Mary Steenberge whose books and articles respectively share the factual and inspirational history of the largest certified seed potato farm in New York State located in Churubusco.
This Clinton County story starts with, as you may have expected, an immigrant family from Canada, Albert and Clarinda Gagnier, their 14 children and Albert’s four brothers. In 1850, the family settled on forested land just over the Canadian border in what is now the Town of Clinton. Legend has it the Gagniers set a cross in the ground forming the intersection of four 50-acre farms which are today known as Gagnier Corners.
Clearing land was their challenge and it was what this family did. Because of their vision and labor, their descendants were written into our agricultural history books. Albert and his family unearthed acres of rich farmland and when he passed it on to sons Edgar and James, the land was ready to produce, and would eventually produce the largest bushel per acre crop of seed potatoes in New York State recorded history. Albert also built the local schoolhouse where it was later noted that of the 40 students that attended, almost all were Gagniers. School was sometimes shut down for potato harvests.
In the later 1800s, potatoes were a common crop in Clinton County. Farmers sold their potatoes to the starch factories located in every town. Our local newspapers regularly either promoted the thousands of bushels of potatoes the factories were processing or, and this seems very often, reported a starch factory fire. While almost every county farmer planted potatoes, to make a good living from this crop, they needed welcoming land and the proper type of seed.
Albert’s sons Edgar and James recognized this and early on experimented with fertilizers and crop rotation and concluded that this, along with good seed potatoes, was the key to the production of viable potato crops. A seed potato is specifically grown to be replanted and is certified free of blight and disease, unlike simply replanting last year’s potatoes which bring with them last year’s problems. The Gagnier crops were certified as seed by New York State and became internationally famous and sought for plantings.
Writing the production of potatoes into County history books was a family story. Albert, Edgar I, Edgar II and Edgar III are credited with this history. Edgar I, discovering potatoes as his crop going forward, developed his farm to grow seed potatoes and went on to form the New York State Seed Growers Co-op. The Gagnier Brothers farm was recognized by the New York State Agricultural Society as a New York Century Farm Nominee for continual family ownership and operation since 1858 with 630 acres under their management by Edgar II.
In 1936, the farm hosted a Potato Rally attended by 1,300 potato growers from all over the state and the first ever held in the north country, with guest speakers and equipment exhibits showing how farms had moved from digging potatoes by hand to machine digging. Modernizing the certified seed potato business led to large temperature controlled barns, constant monitoring and year round management.
While the Gagnier farm is no longer, its history remains a reminder of how Clinton County was formed and the footprints left by farms and farmers of the past.
Thanks to Mary Steenberge, Larry Gooley and Jerry Gagnier for sharing their stories. Copies of Mary Steenberg’s article and Larry Gooley’s book on The History of Churubusco are available from the Clinton County Historical Association. Roy Southworth’s article is in the Press Republican archives.
Photos, from above: Gagnier Brothers Farm recognized by the New York Agricultural Society for demonstrating principles which are foundations of New York’s agricultural greatness; a horse drawn potato digger; and Edgar G.S. Gagnier II in his environmentally controlled potato storage house in 1986.
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