Back in the 1950s an idea took root with local farmers and gave sudden rise to a thriving business employing many Islanders. And almost as quickly it was gone.
Thanks to the late Patricia Moser Shillingburg, who produced an account of the lima bean business for the Island’s 350th Anniversary Journal in the summer of 2002, there remains a full account of the development, growth and eventual demise of the agricultural enterprise.
This was no garden-variety project, but a true industry that provided produce for heavyweight food companies such as Libby, McNeil & Libby, Seabrook Farms, Archley, and Snowcrop.
And thanks to the town’s Community Preservation Fund Advisory Board (CPFAB) and Suffolk County, a stewardship plan is in place for 21.8 acres of a former lima bean farm on Cobbetts Lane purchased by the town and Suffolk County in 2004. Through the years, the land has become tangled with vines and invasive plants.
Work will include the clearing and marking of the sites that are a small part of the 7,013 acres of Shelter Island land where the lima been industry thrived.
Ms. Shillingburg traced the beginning of lima bean growing on the Island to one man, Dick Moser. He became the catalyst for what would come to be known as the Shelter Island Farmer’s Cooperative.
When Mr. Moser, a Wall Street lawyer, married Alice House, whose family summered on the Island during her childhood. When Mr. Moser purchased a house here with 20 acres of farmland, he hired Alfred Polywoda and Herb Sherman to plant lima beans.
Other Island farmers, who were already taking lima beans to the auction block in Southold in the 1950s, liked what they saw and suggested joining forces. Ten farmers — brothers Albert, Elliott and Dan Dickerson, Everett Tuthill, Frank Mysilborski, John Carr, Anton Blados, Sylvester Prime, Evans Griffing and Mr. Moser — formed the cooperative with each putting up $3,500.
Mr. Moser had been harvesting lima beans and taking them to a plant in Mattituck run by the Long Island Duck Packing Corporation. The other farmers joined the effort and hired Richard Halsey to cart the beans to the Moriches where they were cleaned and frozen.
A New York broker suggested the farmers go into the freezing business themselves and they did, securing a loan from the Federal Farm Loan Association estimated to be about $275,000.
The farmers credited Ernie Shepherd with keeping their equipment in working order and Frank “Tiny” Silvani came on board to work the machinery and keep the plant clean.
By 1952, the cooperative was operating an ammonia freezing plant here, providing many jobs and promising a profitable future. But Mother Nature came along with other ideas.
It started with Hurricane Carol in 1954 to be followed by two more tropical storms.
“Beans were blown over, the fields were muddy and electricity failed on several occasions,” Ms. Shillingburg wrote. “It was a disaster.”
That was the beginning of the end as some cooperative workers began opting for other jobs.
When Hurricane Connie arrived in August 1955, followed by mildew and a crop plague called the Mexican bean beetle, the farms were devastated.
Most of the farmers involved with the cooperative had never experienced such a loss.
“The Federal Farm Loan Association came down and padlocked the door,” according to Ms. Shillingburg’s account. The building and equipment were auctioned off; the town bought the plant and turned it over to the Highway Department.
A thriving network of 31 Shelter Island farms growing lima beans on more than 1,500 acres of land came to a screeching halt in 1955.
REMEMBERING AND PRESERVING
Plans call for an expenditure of $1,000 of Community Preservation Fund (CPF) money to be used for an initial cleanup and then an allocation of $800 per year to maintain the acreage to be known as “Old Lima Bean Fields,” according to the town’s CPF Chairman Gordon Gooding.
Money for the fund comes from a 2 percent tax that buyers pay when purchasing East End properties and is used in turn to purchase open space for preservation.
“The properties will be left in their natural state with trails for public use to enjoy,” Mr. Gooding said in a presentation to the Town Board at its February 6 meeting. Public access to the site will be marked along Cobbetts Lane and Manhanset Road with parking on grassy aprons, according to the plan.
A large stone with a bronze plaque is to be placed at the corner of Cobbetts Lane and Manhanset Road in front of old pumping equipment once used to irrigate the bean fields.
It will include information about the history of lima farming on Shelter Island. A second stone with a bronze plaque is to be placed at the entrance to a walking path and trail and will contain the name of the preserve along with an engraved map, acreage and use of the properties.
Mr. Gooding credited the all-volunteer Shelter Island Group for Trail Preservation for clearing trails to provide access to the Mildred Flower Hird Preserve, which is adjacent to the Old Lima Bean Fields.