Nichols, Iowa Centennial Book
Stories of Early Nichols
THE CABBAGE KING
Nichols, Iowa Centennial Book 1884-1984, pages 182-188
Article by Bill Witt of “The Iowan”
From the Spring 1979 issue of “The Iowan” – A doctor’s warning spurred a middle-aged undertaker-storekeeper to take up “outside” work – and subsequently to transform the quiet village of Nichols, Iowa, into an early twentieth-century American horticultural capital.
J. W. Rummells had worked for nearly 30 of his 42 years in the jack-of-all-trades business his father had founded in this Muscatine county community in the 1870s. Hotel keeper, merchant and mortician, the younger Rummells had learned that his determination, ingenuity and industry could never gain financial advantage in a town where three almost-identical establishments vied for the trade of just 350 people. Then, in the fall of 1911, Rummells developed a chronic cough. As it worsened during the winter, Rummells’ doctor advised him that “consumption” threatened unless he got more fresh air and exercise.
In later years, Rummells recalled the warning as being the excuse he needed to change his life. In the spring of 1912, Rummells rented five acres of land at the edge of Nichols. He had an idea of growing cabbages; it proved an inspiration. His fledgling venture turned a tidy profit that first year, and the following spring Rummells closed up his store for good. In 1913 he planted 80 acres of cabbage. In 1914, 140 acres. By 1916, his 770 acres were supplying all the major produce markets of the Midwest.
The town of Nichols owed its existence to the railroads. Major north-south and east-west lines intersected there, and 30 or more trains passed through daily. Oddly, until Rummells envisioned shipping cabbages to all points of the compass, no one had grasped the profitable implications of the town’s strategic location.
In 1917, almost 10,000 tons of cabbage left southeast Iowa’s moist, fertile fields at the direction of Rummells and his wife, Della. “Cabbage On Wheels” proclaimed ads. “Am shipping cabbage daily, July 1st to November 1st. . .can bill you out a car tonight or divert as many as you want.”
Buyers in Minneapolis, Chicago, St. Louis and Omaha created a wave of new prosperity along Nichols’ quiet streets. Rummells employed 60 workers in his fields and hothouses; the railroad built additional sidings and expanded yard facilities, enlarging the Nichols station crew in the process. An ice plant and crate factory further swelled the town’s payrolls.
Rummells also rented large tracts of land in addition to those he purchased. He frequently practiced crop rotation by simply “trading” fields with adjoining landowners on a seasonal basis. For a time, other farmers rode on Rummells’ “coat-tails,” raising carrots, onions, potatoes, watermelons and sweet potatoes in addition to their traditional corn and oats.
Unfortunately, a letter written by Rummells in the summer of 918 foretold a time of ebbing hopes for the town’s high-water economy. Addressed to a southern plant company, it began:
Dear Sirs – I have now answered your letters sooner for the reason [that] we are waiting for evidence. The plants you sent us are all dead – resulting from being lousy with fusarian wilt and phomo wilt. We have had Prof. C. L. Fitch from the State Agricultural College of Ames here to file a report. . .There are no other cabbages planted closer than two miles to this cabbage and the land has never had cabbage on it before. Now we are out the rent on ten acres of land, the labor too. . .In succeeding summers, fusarian wilt ravaged Rummells’ cabbage fields, literally shriveling his harvests by 50 and 60 percent or more. Rummells responded with characteristic energy and determination. Carloads of diseased plants and tons of contaminated soil were shipped to Ames for study and experimentation. Plants that survived the wilt were given special attention there and in Nichols at a field testing station established by the college.
By the early 1920s Rummells and the Ames team had succeeded in developing a firm-bodied, disease-resistant cabbage strain. Full scale plantings resumed at Nichols, and cabbages again went out by the train-load.
In 1921 Rummells was elected president of the Iowa Vegetable Growers’ Associatoin. Though honored by his election, he found lifelong satisfaction in the unofficial title conferred on him by his fellow horticulturists: “The Cabbage King.”
As the “Cabbage King,” Rummells reigned unchallenged for almost another decade, but in the end it might be said that he was dethroned by his own generosity. Through all his family’s cycles of leanness and prosperity, Rummells had kept his promise of providing each of his seven children a college education. For a time in the mid-1920s, it seemed he might also make good on a second vow, that of seeing every one of his sons and daughters the owner of a farm.
However, as the agricultural economy declined throughout the latter part of the decade, Rummells attempted a dangerous gamble, mortgaging previous purchases in order to finance later ones. As land values decreased, he was forced to risk increasingly larger acreages to acquire increasingly smaller ones. He was further squeezed by a continuing drop in cabbage prices and greater competition from other growers. In 1928 each of Rummells’ children held nominal title to a farm; by 1932 foreclosures had collapsed his holdings like a row of dominoes.
Still, he had not lost all his land, and through his seventh decade, Rummells continued to raise and market cabbage, though on a much more modest scale. Piles of prize ribbons from the 1930s attest to his undiminished cultivating skill. However, his marketing genius found insufficient opportunity, and his crown was claimed by the truck-gardening barons of California and the East Coast.
Rummells was nearing seventy when he embarked on his last venture. In about 1937 he purchased a “semi” tractor and a refrigerated trailer, hired a driver, and headed south to buy fruits and vegetables for the early markets in the North. He reveled in the risky business of rushing highly perishable commodities long distances to uncertain markets, succeeding ofen enough to double his “fleet” to two vehicles.
In the end, however, J. W. Rummells’ physical stamina failed him where his business acumen and spirit had not. He made his final “run” in 1950, at the age of 81. Cabbaged decorated the last remnant of his “kingdom” of 40 years before – his vegetable garden at Nichols – until infirmity forced him, at the very last to surrender it, too. He died, aged 87, in 1956.
CABBAGE LAND BEST IN COUNTRY
Nichols Cabbage Land is Recognized
By Agricultural Colleges Of the Country
Nichols, Iowa Centennial Book 1884-1984, page 189
From “The Nichols Courier, “ 17 June 1915
Experiments now being carried out on the J. W. Rummells farms at this place will, if successful, bring Nichols farm lands into the limelight from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.
The Agricultural colleges at Ames and at Madison, Wisconsin, are working in conjunction with Mr. Rummells for the production of a strain of cabbage that will resist the fusarium wilt infection. Dr. C. W. Jones of the Wisconsin experimental station at Madison, developed seed from fusarium wilt infected cabbage grown on sick soil. This seed was given to Mr. Rummells and he has raised ten different varieties from this seed, which it is claimed has cost more than their weight in gold to produce.
Prof. Fitch, of the Extension Department Truck Gardening, of Ames, spent the entire day Wednesday here with Mr. Rummells transplanting these plants on one of Mr. Rummells’ farms. It is the hopes that the species grown here may develop a fusarium wilt resisting strain, as thousands of dollars are lost annually through fusarium wilt in Muscatine County. Several thousand acres of sick cabbage land has appeared in one part of the county, while a very small per cent has appeared here.
The experimental work is being done here in hopes of guarding against this disease and produce a strain of cabbage that can be grown on sick land. If the experiment here proves a success, the cabbage grown this season will be sent to Long Island on the Atlantic coast seed districts and the Puget Sound seed districts on the Pacific coast, to produce seed for future experiments in more unfortunate sections.
Nichols bottom lands are considered to contain the proper elements to produce the best strains of cabbage to be found in the United States, and every precaution is being taken to keep this district free from cabbage diseases. It is the opinion of experts in this line, that when the landowners of this valuable Nichols land realize its cabbage producing qualities, Nichols will become one of the greatest cabbage districts in the United States. This will have a tendency to boost farm values in this vicinity, give work for the laboring classes, and make this one of the best towns in Iowa.
CABBAGE DEMONSTRATION SUCCESS
Country’s Biggest Authorities
Visits Muscatine County’s Cabbage Center
Nichols, Iowa Centennial Book 1884-1984, pages 189
From “The Nichols Courier,” 2 September 1915
Muscatine County was visited yesterday by some of the greatest authorities on cabbage growing and disease that the country has. The greater part of their visit was made in Nichols. They were Dr. H. H. Harter of Washington, D. C., authority on cabbage and sweet potato disease for the U. S. Department of Agriculture; Dr. L. R. Jones of the University of Wisconsin, also sent here by the Department of Agriculture, and Prof. Fitch of the Agricultural college at Ames.
Unknown to the people of Nichols, or if they knew it was little appreciated, there has been one of the greatest demonstrations in growing cabbage made here this summer – one that will have the most far reaching effects, commercially, that has ever been made. This demonstration was made by Dr. Jones of the Wisconsin University, Prof. Fitch of the Ames college and Mr. Rummells.
Last night the Courier editor accompanied Prof. Fitch and Mr. Rummells to the experiment station on Mr. Rummells farm and saw for ourself the result of the work done here. When the object of this demonstration and its effects were explained to us we were not surprised that the United States government should send men here to observe what has been done for cabbage raisers here. The men have made trips to all important cabbage growing regions from Iowa, north and east, and as far south as Virginia. They came to Muscatine County to see the cabbage disease work carried out by Prof. Fitch and Mr. Rummells, and on the H. J. Heinz Company farm, with the cooperation of the County Crop Agent, J. W. Merrill, and Mr. Neptune, technical man for the Heinz people.
The government has come to the conclusion that all cabbage disease in the parts of the country covered, can be controlled. “Yellows” can be controlled by growing seed from heads set on sick land, and the “blackleg” and “black rot” can be prevented to all practical extents by disinfecting seed as farmers do their seed grain and by having seed …
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