From the Emerald Isle to the Borderland: How the Irish contributed to El Paso history

Irish Architecture 008.jpg

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, at 1118 N. Mesa. Photo by Jorge Salado

Originally published in El Paso Inc. B Section on March 12, 2018.

The Southwest may not be the first place you think of when you think of Irish immigrants, but the connection is closer than you might think. In fact, John Brendan Flannery writes in “The Irish Texans” that the Irish were some of the earliest settlers in the area, and today “the number of Texas descendants of Irish-born antecedents is probably incalculable.”

El Paso is no exception. The city has had its share of Irish politicians, businessmen and religious leaders, while a shared Catholic faith helped form relationships between Mexican and Irish communities.

In fact, at one point in the late 1800s, a prominent Irish El Paso resident named Dan Reckhart said, “There’d be nobody in El Paso but the Irish if it were not for the fact that Mexico was just on the other side of the Rio Grande.”

The mass immigration of Irish citizens to the U.S. was a result of the desperate times that characterized Ireland in the mid 1800s. A potato famine ravaged the country, killed 1 million people and was a tragedy compounded by centuries of sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants and oppression by the British crown. Between 1820 and 1860, about 2 million Irish citizens immigrated from the Emerald Isle to the U.S. That’s a third of all immigrants who arrived in the U.S. at the time.

Once here, the Irish found things weren’t perfect. Irish people were widely discriminated against and relegated to the lower rungs of society. The hostile climate and the availability of jobs prompted Irish communities to slowly move westward, where anti-Irish attitudes weren’t as pronounced.

Some of the first prominent Irish communities in Texas were in what would become San Antonio, Corpus Christi and Beaumont. Many came to El Paso from St. Louis because the city was then in French territory and Catholicism was France’s national religion, said Barbara Angus, curator of the El Paso Museum of History.

As the railroads stretched west across Texas, Irish workers went with it, and many Irish wound up working as miners, ranchers and laborers in the small boomtown.

Relatively free of the anti-Irish attitudes in the East, it wasn’t long before many Irish citizens came into positions of power. At one point, Irish men from the same family occupied the offices of El Paso mayor, sheriff and chief of police. Canada native Richard Caples, whose parents were Irish immigrants, ran for mayor of El Paso. He managed to get citizenship the day before the election, which he ultimately won.

One of the city’s most illustrious citizens has roots in Éire: Joseph Magoffin’s grandfather was born in Ireland. According to Machelle Wood, education and public programs coordinator at the Magoffin Home State Historic Site, Magoffin gave a nod to his Irish roots when he built the courthouse, picking March 17, 1899 to lay the cornerstone – St. Patrick’s Day. The parade celebrating the opening of the courthouse was combined with the boisterous St. Patrick’s Day parade, creating a mega-parade that boasted 32 floats, an Irish band and a masquerade ball.

But not all of the Irish necessarily felt beholden to the U.S. Before Texas was a state, many Irish settlers set up ranches in what was then northern Mexico at the invitation of the Mexican government. Land agents, or “empresarios,” from Ireland like James McGloin helped establish Irish colonies from overseas. According to an 1824 Mexican decree that determined the amount of land given to settlers, more land would be given to immigrants who married into Mexican families.

While this benefited many Mexicans and Irishmen, indigenous groups were forced out as a result.

“The newcomers proudly pointed out their leagues of land,” writes William H. Oberste in “Texas Irish Empresarios and Their Colonies,” “because over the centuries this right had been denied them, they could chortle with glee that now they were the proud owners of more land than even the Lords of England.” And so, when some American ranchers took up arms to break away from Mexico, many Irish ranchers chose to fight on Mexico’s side, content with the “peace and plenty” they enjoyed there.

A contingent of Irishmen from San Patricio, an Irish settlement in Mexico, fought under Mexican command, while another group defected from the U.S. to Mexico and were later captured by the U.S. and executed.

“To people in the U.S., they were considered deserters and traitors,” Angus said. “But to many in Mexico, they were heroes.”On the other hand, many Irish men also fought on the side of the U.S. Historian Flannery notes that Irish colonists in general supported the Texas cause, and even “demanded independence at a time when it was unpopular among other Texans.” This posture led to some Irish settlements being burned and looted by the Mexican army.

Either way, one of the reasons that Irish settlers may have felt at home in the area was the region’s Catholic faith. Many historians noted the Irish and Mexicans shared traditions and festive days of religious significance, as well as similar “sociability and fatalistic attitudes about life.” In some cases, the shared faith facilitated communication – literally. Angus said the church’s Latin would suffice when Spanish or English didn’t work.

In El Paso, the Irish influence can be seen most prominently in the St. Patrick Cathedral. The Diocese of El Paso was established in March 1914, and construction of the cathedral began in July of the same year. To raise money for the church, a friar offered the chance to pick the saint the cathedral would be named after to the first person to contribute $10,000 to its construction. A wealthy El Paso woman, Delia Lane, donated the money, but her “innate modesty” meant that she didn’t want to choose the name herself, and so she gave the rights to name the church to the Irish civic group the Daughters of Erin. The group named the cathedral after St. Patrick, the saint who introduced Christianity to Ireland in the 400s.

As it happens, St. Patrick is also the patron saint of engineers, which accounts for a UTEP engineering fraternity’s annual tradition of painting the campus green with shamrocks early in the morning of St. Patrick’s Day.

The Irish possessed a serious drive to make their own way in El Paso, Magoffin Home coordinator Wood said. The chance to make their own way, on their own terms, inspired a sense of belonging to an area vastly different from the place they called home.

“People from other countries might consider themselves ‘foreigners,’” writes historian Lenore Dil in “Molly MacGuires in the Southwest,” “But the Irish never considered themselves so.”




A €20,000 Monument to the Spanish Tortilla

Authentic Spanish tortilla - MAGDALENA BUJAK/ ALAMY

I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of years in Spain, and like most people who spend any amount of time there, I found the country very agreeable. This stemmed in part from the fact that that country likes to eat a lot. In fact, Spaniards are passionate their food, and it was often pointed out that their food was superior to all other world cuisine. But they have good reason to celebrate it, as some of the country’s simplest foods are truly incredible. This article linked below is about one of those dishes.

As a bonus to a much-appreciated visit to that country last fall, I ended up writing a story about a small town in southwestern Spain that is building a €20,000 monument to the tortilla de patatas, the country’s trademark dish and one said to foster among Spaniards “more cohesion than the constitution.” I spoke with representatives of the town of Villanueva de la Serena about the plans for the monument, as well as the artist who won the contest to design it. I also learned a lot of truly interesting things about the history of the potato and how people responded to seeing the tuber for the first time. I’m really happy with the way this article turned out because I got to include a bunch of this niche history.

I am still attempting to perfect my own version of the tortilla, which has gone from crumbling disappointingly out of the pan to something that bears more than a passing resemblance to the dish I’m trying to emulate.

This article was originally published on Gastro Obscura on February 13, 2018.


The Grisly Murder That Launched a Podcast Star

I have been listening to a true crime podcast called “True Murder” for years. Each week, host Dan Zupansky interviews true crime authors about the cases they’ve written about. The complex/troubling appeal of true crime is a discussion for another time, but Zupansky is one of the first true crime podcasters and is considered an OG expert in the genre.

Zupansky will sometimes make reference on the show to a case he himself was involved with in 2003. A man named Sydney Teerhuis viciously killed another man in a Winnipeg hotel, seemingly doing so for the grim celebrity it would bring him. Zupansky, who always wanted to be a journalist, saw an opportunity to write his first book. He got in touch with Teerhuis, who agreed to work with him on the book. Zupansky unwittingly became a major witness in Teerhuis’s trial, experiencing firsthand some of the world he had so often read about. This article is about the strange Zupansky-Teerhuis affair, and how Zupansky was able to launch his own career as a result.

This was especially interesting to work on because I got to speak with Zupansky directly. I was really familiar with his voice from having listened to so many episodes of his show, and talking to him almost felt like a personal podcast playing for me.

The article was published by Narratively in September, 2017, and can be found here.


He’s a Murderer With an Intergalactic Alibi. And She’s in Love With Him.

This article is about Jo Ann and Mark Richards, a couple with a backstory that is at first hard to comprehend. Their relationship stretches across the galaxy from a California prison, and is one that got its start with a senseless murder committed in 1984.

I first came across this story when researching micronations for a separate project. A seminal text on the subject called How to Start Your Own Country featured an index of experimental nation-states across the world. One cryptic listing was for something called Pendragon, which I shortly learned was a plot to take over Marin County, California and declare it a sovereign kingdom. The plot involved a tragic murder and gullible teens, and is in and of itself a fascinating story. I looked into writing a full story about it, and I learned that from there the story only got deeper. I learned that the man allegedly behind the Pendragon plot (who is serving a life sentence for the attendant murder) has published thousands of pages of texts detailing his family’s secret history as intergalactic diplomats working for shadowy branches of the US government. He believes he has been framed, and his wife has started a nonprofit to disseminate classified government information and advocate for her husband’s release. The story chronicles this tale, and shows how this unconventional couple continues to make it work.

This story originally appeared on Narratively, and was published in November, 2017.

A link to the full article can be found here.



Part III: “A Quarter-Inch of Chaos” – at the 2015 APWA Southwestern Ohio Snow and Ice Removal Conference

This is part III of my upcoming nonfiction novella chronicling the goings-on of a small Ohio township. The book is structured around the agenda of a township trustee meeting I attended, whose many topics gave me some insight into the complex world of local government and the even more complex world of the personalities behind it.

The book, aptly titled “Township Trustee Meeting,” will be available soon.

Snow and Ice - Plows

Section 4 on the Sept. 9 agenda was a partial list of the correspondence and email the trustees had received since the last meeting. Most items – like the Ohio Township News magazine – were glossed over, but Chris Mucher paused to note the email confirming the township’s registration for the 2015 APWA Southwestern Ohio Snow and Ice Removal conference. The conference is a biannual affair designed to help local governments manage the inevitable hazards of winter.

“Put on your best snow boots,” Mucher said.

The 2015 conference, hosted by the American Public Works Association and held in Sharonville, Ohio, 50 miles away, was to feature speakers from road departments from all around the state. The showroom would feature over a dozen shiny new plow trucks and pieces of equipment, as well as a number of other vendors plying relevant trades, such as custom municipal sign-making and pipe repair, offered by a company which applies a proprietary sealant to the inside of busted pipes. (“We only do what the pipe tells us it needs,” says the company’s slogan.) The keynote speaker of the conference was Diana Clonch, a thirty-year public works veteran who is now a successful freelance winterization consultant.

“Any questions, Mark?” Mucher asked.
“Nope,” Crockett said.

The other trustees quietly avoided comment when registration was confirmed, lest they be roped into going as well.

It was Mucher who typically made the trip to the conference, and Dan Gochenouer, the cemetery sexton and a road crewman, usually went with him. Neither Gochenouer nor Mucher were particularly excited about attending. It wasn’t that the conference was totally boring, Gochenouer said, but that it wasn’t especially helpful. Attendees usually have to sit through a few hours of presentations to get a few minutes’ worth of usable information, he said. The presentations usually consisted of guys from around the state talking about how they solved a problem or adapted equipment to the needs of their jurisdiction. While Gochenouer could appreciate their ingenuity from a professional standpoint, the lessons didn’t always apply to the needs of Miami Township. A speaker from Franklin County (which includes Ohio’s capital Columbus) discussed strategies needed to deal with its 770 miles of roads: around two million gallons of anti-winter liquids annually and the use of semi-trucks to spray. Miami Township, on the other hand, has less than fourteen miles of roads and three trucks, a fleet occasionally augmented by citizens who attach plows to their personal vehicles.
The first official road in Miami Township was laid out on March 3, 1822, though there were several “so-called roads” before then. Michael A. Broadstone writes that the roads improved year by year, and most were “at least graveled” when he penned his History of Greene County, Ohio in 1918. By 2015, the township had exactly 13.43 miles of roads, almost all of them paved.

Road maintenance is within the purview of the trustees, a duty that includes everything from filling potholes to maintaining culverts to full-scale winterization. Each spring the township develops a road budget based on the work anticipated for the year, prioritizing repairs on the worst roads and any new equipment that needs to be purchased. The township fleet was three trucks (two of which have dumping capabilities), one 26 year-old panel van, and a handful of tractors and lawnmowers.

Road maintenance is an ongoing project, and one that occasionally requires help. Trustee Chris Mucher said that sometimes neighboring Bath Township, which has a paving machine, will do a little work in Miami Township in trade for help with their needs in the future. Once in a while the county will determine that part of a road now lies in Miami Township, which may add to their mileage-based clout but also means that the township is responsible for maintaining that much more road.

Road repair requiring equipment the township doesn’t possess is contracted out to the county. Miami Township works with neighboring municipalities work together to make what is called a “collective bid” for their collective asphalting or resurfacing needs. Participating jurisdictions add up what needs to be done – a half-mile stretch here, a few hundred square yards there – and submit a report to the county, who contracts the work to a company as one job. Doing it this way allows municipalities to save money, as everyone getting work done at the same time splits the cost of mixing asphalt and dispatching trucks and police.

Miami Township also has the dubious distinction of hosting the first vehicular accident in Greene County. Lodrick Austin, a stagecoach driver, was killed when his coach overturned on Clifton Gorge Road in 1836. Austin is buried in Clifton Cemetery, and his tombstone features a horse and a coach, which honestly seems a little insulting.

Though vehicular accidents are of course a fact of life in Miami Township, the fact that none of the township’s roads permit speeds over 35 mph means the severity of an accident is usually pretty low. However, low speed limits or high, cars are no match for the wiles of nature. Like everywhere else in Ohio and across the United States, accidents occur in Miami Township with greater frequency in the winter. Snow and ice are indiscriminate perils, and all it takes is a small amount of snow, “a quarter inch of chaos,” according to a presenter at the AWPA conference, to throw a city into bedlam.

As little as a quarter inch of snow means erratic drivers, slick roads, and asphalt breaking apart as water freezes and expands. The prospect of this quarter inch of chaos also means a significant amount of preparation by the township. Salt has to be stockpiled, and later mixed with beet juice or turned into slurry to be more easily spread on roads. The township’s trucks, with their spreaders, sprayers, and dump buckets, almost certainly require maintenance. Potholes need to be filled, and bridges need to be inspected.

Regardless of season, road maintenance is a complex obligation. Though Mucher and Gochenouer were seasoned township veterans, there was always something to learn, couched as it may be in a day’s worth of presentations. It is because of this potential for helpful information that the two attended the 2015 AWPA Snow and Ice Removal Conference.
Gochenouer and Mucher met at the Township’s fleet garage to leave for the conference at 7am on September 29. They were both early.

They didn’t get into one of the township’s work pickups but into Mucher’s golden Chrysler minivan. “The Muchmobile,” as Gochenouer called it. Mucher said his van was frequently the de facto work vehicle as most of the township’s vehicles only have two seats. The Muchmobile crunched on the gravel and wound its way through the township to the highway.

Mucher didn’t have much experience winterizing cities when he became a trustee in 1996. He ran a video rental and film development business in Yellow Springs for over twenty years, before digital film and video streaming proved the “ultimate fatality” for his career. However, when he was still in business, he struck up a friendship with the guy who ran the hardware store across the street. The two would have coffee every morning, and they developed a mentor-mentee friendship. Mucher was interested in becoming more involved in the community, and the hardware store owner encouraged him to apply for a recently vacated trustee seat. Mucher submitted an application, had a few interviews, and was offered the position. It proved to be just what he was looking for, a “low impact political job” that carried a lot of responsibility but still left him time to run his own business and spend time with his wife and three kids. Once in office he read “every page of meeting minutes since 1934,” attended conventions and seminars, and read the Ohio Revised Code front to back. Mucher has been reelected every four years since then. Now he is able to talk about winterization both fluently yet dispassionately, the hallmark of an experienced professional.

Gochenouer has a perpetually sunburned neck, a moustache, and a Leatherman on his belt that he could readily employ in many different ways. He exuded hands-on experience of the kind that only a lifetime of fixing things can foster. Gochenouer’s tenure working for the township preceded Mucher’s. He was working part time until a long-time employee retired, allowing him to become the number two road crewman.

On the way to Sharonville, the two discussed other trade shows conferences they’d been to and whether or not free lunch was included. It wasn’t always. Registration for the 2015 Snow and Ice conference cost $35 per person but at least included lunch. The topic settled, the two lapsed into a short silence. The day was grey, chilly, with a steady rain. The heater hummed and the windshield wipers squeaked.

Conversation picked back up again a few minutes later.

“You working on that dandelion quote?” Mucher asked.
The abundance of dandelions in the township had to be dealt with.
“Some people eat them,” Gochenouer said.
True, Mucher said. And some people make wine out of them too. Then both admitted they weren’t sure which part of the dandelion was used for the winemaking process.

A little while later, Mucher indicated a passing belonging to Jurgenson Asphalt Co.
“There are your friends,” he said.
Gochenouer nodded.
“They’re the best,” he said, nodding with sincerity.

He would know. Gochenouer said he came from an asphalt background. For one, he has spent a lot of time driving on it, he joked. But more seriously, he said, he started working on an asphalt crew right after high school, one of the many labor and construction jobs he’s had from an early age. His dad always made sure he was working on different projects and was comfortable around all kinds of machines. The idea was that his skills and experience would ensure he was always employable. “If you’re not working, it’s because you don’t want to,” Gochenouer said.

A truck driving erratically on the highway prompted the mention that he’d also been a truck driver. He’d driven for twelve years, five of which were long-haul and required him to spend up to seven weeks on the road at a time. He lived in his truck, thousands of miles away from his family and home.

“You’d sit in a waiting room and they’d call your number when a shower was ready,” he said, recalling old truck stops. “The shower was free but you’d have to rent the towel.”

But it wasn’t all bad, he said. Sometimes he’d be on a layover for a few days before linking up with a series of deliveries that would take him back towards home. On these furloughs he and his fellow truckers would go out and explore whatever city they were waiting in. Gochenouer recalled the beauty of California in particular, and the fun of sitting behind the Hollywood sign drinking beer. He’d been run out of Beverly Hills once, he said, for not looking the part. A cop came up to him and asked him what he was doing. “I said I was just looking,” Gochenouer recalled, “and the cop said, ‘Well, you looked yet?’”

Snow and Ice - trucks
Forty minutes later, the Muchmobile pulled into the conference center parking lot. It was the lone minivan among rows of work trucks with maintenance department insignias. Inside the conference center were the trucks’ drivers, approximately three hundred men with closely cropped hair and goatees. Cellphones were universally clipped to belts, and neon t-shirts were worn in numbers rivaled only by those at an actual construction site. Sixty-five municipalities were represented at the conference, making it “pretty sizable for a local AWPA conference,” according to one organizer.

The conference was only one day long. The morning was divided into four 45-minute sessions. One of the sessions was earmarked for attendees to check out the showroom, but the other three sessions were presentations. Attendees were divided into four groups and rotated through the sessions. Mucher and Gochenouer were in Group 2, meaning that they went to the showroom first.

The conference organizers set out donuts and coffee. Both men took a donut and looked at the trucks. They were shiny and gigantic, but ultimately outside the needs of Miami Township. The township’s road budget for 2015 was approximately $50,000, and one of the middle-grade trucks cost at least twice that.

One company offered their services quantifying idle time. A rep said she did a study of one muncipality and found the time its vehicles spent idling cost the city around $50,000 each year. Plow-route optimization would lead to less idle time, and she could figure out how to optimize plow routes.

Mucher and Gochenouer made their rounds. Despite the entreaties of the sales reps, they left empty-handed.

The next two hours and fifteen minutes were dedicated to presentations. Mucher and Gochenouer sat in these sessions, polite but expressionless, casually listening for those few minutes of valuable information. Though a cell phone would occasionally go off (one ringtone was a very loud duck-quack) and at least one sleeping attendee could be spotted during each discussion, attendees were privy to much information, as a county’s snow and ice removal concerns are many:

Plows tend to throw snow onto the front of trucks, obscuring visibility and blocking air intakes, which can lead to overheating. Excess salt can cause to ‘salt burn,’ which damages agriculture and kills trees and leads to a ‘brown out’ when spring comes. Plow routes are based on continuous right hand turns, which is why a representative from Centerville maligned the town’s many cul-de-sacs. Plow teams are often on call for grueling twelve-hour shifts, though this is better than working for sixteen hours at a stretch, a schedule that employees “can’t really plan their lives around.” Sometimes, the ground will be so cold that even after the air temperature rises, rain will freeze shortly after impact. What is the proper mix of chemicals, salt, and water for slurry? Is salt brine or beet juice more effective? When and where are belly plows most useful? Is chloride-treated sand the best deicer for gravel roads? Are the township’s trucks calibrated properly, and are they actually putting out what their gauges say? “One thing we’ve been wrestling with for years are standard truck plugs,” said a guy from the Ohio Department of Transportation. Everyone in the audience laughed and nodded. “How many of you have replaced mailboxes?” another speaker asked. Almost everyone raised their hands.

The application of liquid deicers vs. solid salt is an ongoing debate. Liquids are better at getting roads bare but solid salt is more effective in warmer temperatures. (Both methods are said to have problematic environmental impacts.) A guy attending from Michigan related how he came back from his first conference with all of these crazy ideas about liquid spray. “My coworkers thought I was stoned or high,” he said. “They wanted to send me to get a drug test!” Rob Crimm from Morgan Township said his department “was just now getting into liquids.” They realized that mixing liquids or sometimes even sand with salt will help stretch their resources.

As Gochenouer predicted, the discussions didn’t offer universal solutions for these problems but presented the clever ways in which winter emergencies were addressed. Auglaise County faced the problem of equipment not mixing rock salt – “grit,” as the presenter called it – well enough into brine. There would still be large patches of ice on the road after it was dispersed, so he and his team retrofitted an asphalt hopper to mix it. The upgrade cost Auglaise County about $31,000 but now they mix 40,000 tons of salt brine per year and even rent out their salt mixing services, charging neighboring counties and agencies $13 per ton. (A fairly standard amount, he said.) The speaker also showed pictures of the custom beet juice tanks his department built for $600 each.

Diana Clonch’s roundtable was one of the four sessions, and she’d spent the morning spitballing with employees. She applauded the imagination she’d seen at the conference. “The more we learn, the more we know how to step outside the box,” she said. “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

Clonch was tall and broad-shouldered, and her long black hair was draped over her shoulder in a thick plait, like a military sash. (She was the past president of the OPWA Board.) She spoke simply but animatedly, like someone used to public speaking. She seemed friendly and successful, the likely demeanor of someone with degrees in civil engineering and business.

“Do not be ashamed to steal your neighbor’s ideas,” Clonch advised. “We’re all working together in the snow and ice community.”

Sometimes friendly rivalry between neighboring counties was a good thing, she said. Plowing a road cleanly all the way to the county line awards bragging rights when you can see the neighboring county hadn’t gotten to it yet. But more seriously, she said, working with other jurisdictions can be very beneficial because collaboration increases efficiency and saves money. After all, at the heart of it, it’s all for the benefit of the people that live there.

Snow and Ice - lunch

Clonch’s session was the last of the four for Group 2. The attendees walked straight into the two long lines of the lunch buffet. Hamburgers, baked beans, chicken, and macaroni and cheese. Plates full, they filed back into the showroom and sat around large folding tables. The tables were in turn surrounded by the trucks on display. It was like eating in a garage on the job.

Mucher and Gochenouer sat with a half-dozen guys, exchanging small talk. Not much more could be said. Anything they could say to each other on the topic of snow removal had likely already been covered in one of the earlier sessions, or had been part of the pitch rattled off by a sales rep. At this point, the conference was about as exciting as eating lunch in a garage that looked like the garage they spent time in every day. The Miami Township contingent decided to cut out after lunch, skipping Clonch’s keynote speech (“Doing the right thing at the right time”) and the recognition of the 2015 Excellence in Snow and Ice Control Award winner. They’d seen enough throughout the years in Miami Township to have a handle on what they had to do in the coming months.

They walked back to the Muchmobile silently, Gochenouer carrying a can of soda. They knew that, should some surprise crisis pop up, each could be counted on to address it with the professionalism that is an evident part of their bearing. Gochenouer was scrappy and smart; Mucher was thorough and direct. They’d been through two meetings’ worth of irate neighbors – what was a quarter inch of snow?

Update, Spring 2016: the winter of 2015-16 proved not to be that bad. Mucher said the township used about 25% the amount of salt normally used, they didn’t have to pay for outside plow help, and there were no significant vehicle repairs.


I produce 9,000 pounds of bean sprouts each week


In 1982 I was just getting out of the Peace Corps. My dad had bought a farm wanted to do something with property. So we decided to go into business together. He bought the farm originally to grow grapes but that didn’t pan out. At the time, we thought that to really promote your wines you had to have a festival, and that would mean you had to bring thousands of people here for a wine tasting. It was a major thing that we didn’t want to do. So we built a greenhouse and started growing herbs, tomatoes, watercress, European cucumbers. There was an emerging market for hydroponic lettuce so we started growing lettuce hydroponically. Every year we added a greenhouse and pretty soon we had 20,000 square feet of produce.

We sold produce wholesale. There’s a big produce market around, especially in Cincinnati because of the river. There’s an established warehouse district there. We knocked on doors and did cold calls. We were supplying the Meijer chain for a while. And then one of our alfalfa sprout growers lost their supplier and wanted a replacement and asked if we knew how to grow alfalfa sprouts. We didn’t but of course we said yes anyway. (Laughs)

We tried to build our own equipment and grow sprouts in the greenhouse, but it just didn’t work out. Months later we bought the right equipment and did it the way it really needs to be done. The alfalfa sprouts are grown in a large rotating drum. You add water and light, and they green up after a few hours. You load in about 80 pounds per drum, and you get about a 10- 15:1 ratio after about five days. They were used primarily for salad bars, sandwich shops.

The green sprouts (alfalfa) business declined. A lot of the chain grocery stores dropped green sprouts – the green alfalfa sprout has an inherent problem with salmonella and E.coli. The structure of the seed has more crevices for bacteria to hide. We got out of alfalfa ten years ago but alfalfa sprouts led to us see the market for bean sprouts. The bean sprout market is pretty good – a lot of Asian markets and grocery stores.

Bean sprouts are a highly perishable product so there aren’t a lot of growers around. They can’t bring a decent bean sprout in from another state without paying huge shipping costs, so it favors the local grower. You want to get them sold within two days of harvest, and they need to be consumed within 10 to 14 days. I think the distributors we use ship in some sprouts from Chicago and I know there’s a grower in Columbus, but he only has a few sales in Dayton.

The process we use is unique to bean sprouts. The equipment we have is specifically for growing them. We’ll load up 110 pounds of seeds in a 3’ x 4’ x 4’ bin. The bean seeds themselves come from China. I don’t know why – maybe they grow the best beans? The bins are in a dark room and we spray them with water every two hours. We do a test and send it to a lab in Cincinnati twice a week to test for E.coli and salmonella to make sure the product is safe. We have a recycling system that cleans 80 percent of the water we use. The beans sprout on the bottom and push successive layers to the top. Kind of like they’re in dirt. On the sixth day of the process, we process them, package them, and put them in a cooler. We ship them on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. We sell about 9000 pounds per week. It’s an amazingly big market. (Laughs) And that’s just the Dayton and Cincinnati area.


(Let me interject and say that a bin full of fully sprouted sprouts is totally surreal – the bins are four feet tall and are completely, completely packed with sprouts. You can reach your hand in and it’s this weird tangle of dense but loose sprouts with seemingly no end. They are so dense that you could probably walk on them. The bins are in a dark, damp room, and standing on a bucket and peering over the top into a bin and seeing an ocean of yellow-green fibers makes for a really odd sight. Not to mention that if you opened the vertical door on one of the bins, a few hundred pounds of sprouts would avalanche out and cover you in their watery, earthy essence. Maybe I’m just used to seeing them in small cartons in grocery stores, so the sheer amount of sprouts in one place is hard to process, not to mention that this is just one of seven bins.)

It’s been a nice business. It’s profitable, the market’s consistent, and it grows. But it takes a lot of commitment. Someone has to be here every day to check on them. We have alarms for malfunctioning pumps In fact, the most catastrophic event we experienced was when the computer that controls the watering cycle broke down last winter. I had to come in every two hours for a whole week and push the watering server bar over the bins by hand. I had help doing it during the day but I had to stay overnight every night and get up every two hours to do it. That’s the thing about small businesses – you make enough to survive, but a lot of times you don’t make enough to pay a manager to take responsibility for things. (Laughs) The responsibility comes back to me.

I graduated from college with a degree in Zoology. I had never even tasted sprouts before we started. In the Peace Corps I was raising fish – it was a kind of farming, but I really had no experience with growing. I learned my business sense along the way. Raising sprouts isn’t something I ever saw myself doing, but isn’t that how most people end up in life – not really doing what they thought they were going to do?