Edgerton man growing tobacco at city gardens

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Tuesday, May 31, 2011
— Head past Edgerton’s community gardens in the coming weeks, and you’ll see more than carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers.

Now, the gardens have tobacco.

In a new twist on community gardening, Edgerton resident Mark Wellnitz has decided to grow a small crop of the leafy green stuff that made his city famous. He’s doing it in a 30-by-60-foot plot along Lyons Street, right next to the city-owned community gardens.

Wellnitz doesn’t plan to sell the tobacco. He’s growing it for the sake of community pride and education.

Wellnitz, a construction worker and an Edgerton alderman, says his tobacco patch will be part of a living history showcase organized by the Edgerton Chamber of Commerce. The showcase is Saturday, July 16, during the 2011 Edgerton Tobacco Heritage Days.

Wellnitz said his idea for the tobacco crop came from a question he hears visitors ask every year at Tobacco Heritage Days: What does a tobacco field look like?

“You try to send these visitors five, 10 miles out in the country so they can see some of the tobacco farms, and they just say forget about it,” Wellnitz said.

Wellnitz’s plan will bring a miniature, working tobacco field to the city—just a few blocks away from the tobacco festival.

The Edgerton History Museum plans to use a horse-drawn wagon to truck visitors from Tobacco Heritage Days downtown to his tobacco plot, where they can take in a living history exhibit showing how tobacco was grown and harvested by local settlers.

The history museum plans other living history exhibits at the festival, including wool spinning, quilting, buck skinning and iron works.

Wellnitz said he also plans to hunt for tobacco worms—big green moth larvae that feed on tobacco and other native plants—and put them in insect carriers to distribute to youths at Tobacco Heritage Days.

“The thing will be finding enough of them. People spray to kill them now, so they’re not that easy to come across,” he said.

Wellnitz said he’s growing his tobacco using Old World methods: no chemical fertilizers, no pesticides, just his own sweat, some vintage tobacco tools and knowledge he’s borrowing from his father, tobacco farmer George Wellnitz.

Age-old methods call for growing tobacco plants from seed in growing frames, and Wellnitz is doing that. He admits he’s cheating a little; he’s also transplanting more mature plants grown in a hothouse. He’s doing that because it’s been a cold spring and he wants to make sure his crop is nice and hearty for the festival.

Meanwhile, there’s another local tobacco grow linked to Tobacco Heritage Days. This summer, local greenhouse Clark Companies is donating potted tobacco plants to Edgerton businesses to ramp up interest in the festival.

All July, the plants will be on display outside businesses in downtown Edgerton, Chamber of Commerce Administrator Kathy Citta said. The city this summer plans to add tobacco plants to the landscaping outside City Hall, she added.

In the past, controversy has surrounded Tobacco Heritage Days, as in 2007 when organizers dropped the word “tobacco” from the festival’s name amid concerns that controversy over tobacco alienated potential visitors.

Organizers have since changed the name back, partly because some locals were insulted by the change and boycotted the festival, causing a nosedive in attendance.

So far, Citta has heard no complaints about Wellnitz’s tobacco crop or the plan to display tobacco plants all over downtown.

“Maybe down the line when the plants start popping up around town, that’d be when we’d hear if there are problems with it,” Citta said.

Wellnitz said he knows people may try to inject controversy into his plan to grow tobacco at the city-owned gardens, but he said there’s too much excitement to turn back.

“I can’t hide from it. People are fired up about it, and I want to see it happen,” he said.

Wellnitz said he believes his tobacco patch merely celebrates the city’s heritage—and its ongoing history.

“Tobacco is what built this city,” Wellnitz said. “The city’s still here, and so is tobacco.”

Edgerton Living History Event

What: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, July 16, living history event, part of 2011 Edgerton Tobacco Heritage Days. Includes educational events at the Edgerton train depot; a miniature, working tobacco field at the Lyons Street community gardens; folk art demonstrations at Heritage Pond Park, plus folk music, wagon rides and tobacco warehouse tours. Hosted by the Edgerton Area Chamber of Commerce and the Edgerton History Museum.

Where: Downtown Edgerton, various locations.

Details: Edgerton Tobacco Heritage Days is a three-day festival that runs Friday, July 15 – Sunday, July 17. Visit tobaccoheritagedays.com and edgertonchamber.com.

Last updated: 5:05 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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