Monday, October 11, 2010

Ypsilanti's Luther Burbank

One October day in 1888, 49-year-old Ypsilantian Edward Reese walked from his home towards his backyard potato bed--the special one. It was time to discover if his effort had worked. He reached the bed, poised his potato fork near one withered plant, and sunk it into the ground. Edward pushed down the handle and up came the tines--fat, ripe potatoes rolling off the fork. But were they the kind he'd imagined and bred for, or just another failure? He picked one up and pulled his jackknife from a pocket. He cut off one end. The potato was tinged with pink inside. It had worked. Edward Reese had invented a new potato.

Edward took some into town and dropped by the Ypsilanti Commercial's office to show them off. On October 5, the paper printed the above story describing his creation of two new varieties, "Maiden's Blush" and "Monarch of the West." The names sound like those of roses--Edward was proud of his potatoes.

The paper misprinted his name as John. Edward may have mentioned a John in the Commercial office and perhaps an editor garbled the names.

Edward did not patent his new potatoes. At the time, it was not possible to patent plant material. Nor was Edward selfish or stingy with his invention or afraid of competitors. He took out an ad in the October 12, 1888 Ypsilanti Commercial offering both varieties for sale.

Edward was not a rich man. He had a relatively tiny, by Ypsilanti Township standards, farm of only 6 acres. It lay south of Congress Street near Hewitt. Most of his neighbors' farms were worth far more than his.

Edward lived there with his 58-year-old wife Elizabeth. Edward and Elizabeth had emigrated from England years ago. They had brought their son John, an only child. Although Edward spent hours of his life in careful ministration to plants, in a cruel twist of irony it was the plant world that killed his son. At age 15, John fell from a tree and died.

John is buried in Highland Cemetery. His grave is large, elaborate, and expensive. It shows a hand descending from the clouds holding a broken chain, symbolizing the breakage of the family chain. Stately script gives his death date as November 12, 1882. It is likely that Elizabeth wrote down the words about her boy's death to give to the stonecutter: Edward couldn't write.

Edward's "Maiden's Blush" and "Monarch of the West" never caught on. They weren't shown at agricultural fairs, won no awards, and are not an available heirloom variety today. The names, unlike those on his son's beautiful tombstone, faded away.

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