It was the pride of Wethersfield, Connecticut.
Thomas Jefferson grew the Wethersfield Red Onion, also known as Red Beauty, in his gardens at Monticello.
This plump, flattened onion with the vivid purple-red skin made Wethersfield the center of the New England onion trade for more than a century. Outsiders dubbed it “Oniontown,” and it was said that you could smell the town long before you could see it.
Wethersfield founders were drawn to the rich alluvial soil of the Connecticut River valley, ideal for agriculture. Alongside it, a robust shipbuilding and maritime economy soon developed, given Wethersfield’s prime location on a wide bend in the river.
Through Wethersfield’s busy port, farmers had access to faraway markets in places like Europe and the West Indies, exporting as many as 1 and a half million five-pound skeins of onions each year. The onions — which were developed especially for market — were particularly popular in the West Indies and the American South.
Tending the onion fields was largely women’s work — young women made up about a third of the 500 people employed in the town’s onion business. In a fanciful 18th century account, the Rev. Samuel Peters described the “Onion Maidens” as girls who “wept and weeded” and used their earnings to buy silk dresses. In the 1960s, the story was turned into a children’s book.
Onions dominated the agricultural economy of Wethersfield until the 1830s, when a fungus called pink root decimated crops and farmers were forced to diversify.
As the onion business faded, a new agricultural business took off in Wethersfield — seed houses. In 1811, Joseph Belden printed his first seed list in the Hartford Courant. A few years later, his brother James Lockwood Belden established Wethersfield Seed Gardens. In 1838, William Comstock and his father acquired the company, and it was eventually renamed Comstock, Ferre & Co.
Comstock was a savvy marketer and garden guru. His book, “Order Of Spring Work,” was an indispensable gardening guide, chock full of advice on storing and planting seeds. He also brought a new approach to packing and marketing seeds in beautifully illustrated packs, and shipping them all over the country. Comstock Ferre still operates in Wethersfield today, in the town’s historic district. It’s just down Main Street from the Charles C. Hart Seed Company, which was founded in 1892.
The onion fields around Wethersfield might have fizzled out, but the onion that bore its name gained a wide distribution through the seed catalogs of the day.
Boston seed house Hovey & Co. first listed it for commercial sale in 1834, calling it Large Red. But by 1850, seed houses including Comstock Ferre were marketing it as Wethersfield Red.
The 1901 Maules’s Seed Catalog called the flesh “of a good, strong character,” and boasted of prodigious yields, including the story of one patron who grew nearly 67,000 pounds of the onion on a single acre!
In 1921, Mills Seed Book, from Rose Hill, New York, boasted of bulbs that would produce “very large crops of these onions, maturing early in the fall and two-pound specimens the first year. 600 to 800 bushels of my Wethersfield per acre are not uncommon.”
While they may be among America’s most storied heirloom onions, Wethersfield Reds aren’t easy to find. But they’re hardy, easy to grow and in the right conditions, they keep beautifully!
Find Wethersfield Red onion seeds here.