This Thanksgiving essential is hiding a big secret — canned pumpkin is not pumpkin at all, it’s squash.
When Elijah Dickinson moved from Kentucky to Illinois in 1835, he didn’t know he was carrying with him the seeds of a billion-dollar pumpkin, one of the most valuable heirloom vegetable crops in history. Yet the pumpkin which finds its way into most pumpkin pies today is not really a pumpkin.
Dickinson was born in 1795 in Spotsylvania, Virginia, and at the age of 19 joined the cavalry in the fight against the British in the War of 1812. Shortly after the war he moved to Christian County, Kentucky, married Miss Mary Anne Burrus, and had six children. He was deeply religious, and with 19 other congregants of the Baptist Church, began a Christian Church for which he became an elder. In his younger years he labored as a carpenter and after marriage he became a farmer. The call of the rich lands of the Midwest beckoned, and in the fall of 1835 he headed north to Illinois, near present-day Eureka.
Being a farmer, amongst his prize possessions were surely his seeds, and the Dickinson family story is that the seeds of the Dickinson Pumpkin traveled with him. Other than this morsel of information, little is known about this squash’s origination or development. Farmer talk amongst Dickinson growers in Illinois is that this squash was derived from the Kentucky Field Pumpkin, otherwise known as Large Cheese, Kentucky Mammoth and Indiana Cheese. Maule’s 1902 catalog describes Kentucky Field as the same as large cheese, “a large round flattened pumpkin, with broad ribs, often obtains a diameter of two feet.” These were cultivated extensively in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Similar cheese pumpkins were present in Colonial times, and they were first offered commercially in a catalog by Bernard McMahon in 1807 and later by Thorburn. They were extensively cultivated in the mid-Atlantic States by the time of the American revolution, and returning soldiers spread them to the North. Cheese pumpkins tend to have stringy flesh and average taste.
Whether we can point to Kentucky Field as the progenitor of Dickinson may never be clearly established, and at some point in the 19th century, Elijah Dickinson or some of his relatives developed the large blocky, Dickinson Field Pumpkin. To add to the confusion, in the later 20th century, the name Dickinson was attached to the flattened Kentucky Field.
Dickinson Pumpkin belongs to the squash species known as Cucurbita moschata, characterized most notably by the butternut squash, as well as cheese pumpkins, Canada crookneck, long neck pumpkin, and others. These squashes typically have a fairly uniform, smooth, tan rind when ripe, which is a defining characteristic of most moschata squash, but not all of them. This species is relatively cold intolerant and will not thrive in our northern cool areas much beyond zone 5.
There is a group of “tropical” moschatas, even more cold intolerant which have yellow and green, gray-green, and black-green rind colors such as Brazil, Yokahama, and Chirimen. These have difficulty ripening in a zone 5 climate.
Dickinson is a medium to large tan squash, weighing from 10 to 30 pounds or more. It is more or less oblong, tapering somewhat at the blossom scar end. It is buff tan, with slight flattened ribbing, firm skin, and thick orange flesh which is relatively smooth and tasty. It is a long-season variety at 110 to 120 days, and thrives in areas with hot summers, warm nights, and good moisture. Like many other moschatas, it is an excellent keeper, lasting five months or longer in storage.
There are a number of squash varieties that bear some resemblance to Dickinson, some of which have roots in the southeast. These include Quaker Pie, introduced in 1888, pyriform in shape; Virginian Mammoth, similar though less pear shaped; Shakertown Field, a more uniformly rounded type; and Upper Ground Sweet Potato, more oblong although smaller in size.
All of the aforementioned have fibrous, poor-tasting flesh, making them more suitable for cattle feed. While any one of them could be a parent to Dickinson, it’s more likely they represent selections from a similar parent, conjectured to be the cheese pumpkins, although in my experience all of the cheese pumpkins are remarkably stable. This makes me think that the good taste of Dickinson may have come from a different parent altogether, such as the more flavorful butternut group. We may never know.
Equally perplexing is the origination of Cucurbita moschata, whose precise wild parentage remains unclear. There are 22 wild species of cucurbita, and five cultivated species. It appears to have originated in South America roughly 5,000 to 6,000 years ago with Colombia proposed as its center of origin. Yet similar-age archeological remains are found in northwestern Mexico where there is the greatest genetic diversity of moschatas. Evidence of more widespread cultivation occured in Mexico beginning around 3000 B.C. when it spread to the southwestern United States. Moschata squash was not adopted by northern European growers as early as the pepo squash species, possibly because of the longer season required to ripen moschata squashes. It appears to have been introduced to Europe via Asia in the 19th century.
Many types of squash are called pumpkin but according to botanists there is only one species of “true” pumpkin, the Cucurbita pepo, the classic fall pumpkin typically characterized by medium-orange color with ribbing, such as Connecticut Field or Howden Pumpkin. The pepo species also includes many types of summer squash such as zucchini and patty pan, as well as winter squash such as Delicata, acorn and spaghetti. The squash fruit is botanically a berry, and to make matters more confusing it’s a berry known as a “pepo.” So for those who are purists, squash are not true pumpkins. If that’s the case then most people who have eaten pumpkin pie have not in fact eaten a pumpkin pie, but rather a squash pie since most people eat canned pumpkin from Libby’s.
Of course Cucurbita pepo pumpkins, in addition to being true pumpkins, are a kind of squash. Confused yet? So depending on your viewpoint, Cinderella pumpkins, cheese pumpkins, neck pumpkins, and Atlantic giant pumpkins are not pumpkins at all, but rather squash. Most orange pumpkins do not make a great pie though there are some exceptions such as the New England Sugar Pie Pumpkin and the unusually netted Winter Luxury Pie
In 1895 the first canning factory was built in Eureka, Illinois, and three years later was acquired by several Dickinson brothers. In 1899 it was torn down and rebuilt. This became the first of three Dickinson plants additionally located in Washington and Morton, Illinois.
Corn, peas, and squash were the staple canning crops grown in the nearby radius of each of the plants. The Morton plant was not built until 1925 and remains the only operating canning plant. In the late 1920s, the brothers saw the depression coming and decided to sell out to Libby, McNeill and Libby. While all three crops became important products with the advent of better transportation systems and frozen products, the demand for canned peas and corn declined, and squash remained the single significant commodity crop produced here.
All three of the original Dickinson canning operations were consolidated to the Morton plant and the other plants were shuttered in the 1950s. In 1971, the Libby canned fruit and vegetable business was sold to Nestlé, which was then spun off to Seneca Foods in the 1980s with the exception of the canned pumpkin business.
Dickinson pumpkin became the primary, if not exclusive, pumpkin grown for canning, and by the 1920s it appears to have been the only cultivated variety for Libby’s. Richard L. Dickinson, now 86, remembers seeing row after row of only Dickinson pumpkins in the early 1930s around Eureka. His grandfather, Richard, was one of the founders of the original Eureka plant.
Getting the ripe squash to the plant became a major fall activity for the town. Dickinson recalls men pitching them with forks one by one into wooden horse- or tractor-drawn corn wagons, a distinctive thud echoing as the pile grew. “The first ones hitting the floor cracked pretty good,” he says, “but they didn’t let any of it go to waste.”
As a teenager, Dickinson worked in the canning factory, mostly packing boxes of cans for shipping. “Back then every once in a while a foreman or somebody would pick a particularly good squash off the line to save it for seeds. There was a circle room filled with big cookers, the cans would get filled by someone who’d pull the lever, then they’d cool the cans under water.” The seeds would get hauled away by a couple of farmers for animal feed. During the intervals between harvests of the different crops, the cooling tank at the Washington plant was used as a swimming pool for kids.
“It’s kind of unique and I’m proud of the fact that there’s a squash that carries our family heritage,” says Dickinson. “And I’m glad to hear its still got our name on it.”
Legend in the Dickinson family is that the pie recipe on the back of the Libby Pumpkin can came from his grandmother. One day his grandfather Richard, who had remained a manager of the plant after its purchase by Libby’s, came home from work and said to his wife Hazel, “We need a pie recipe for Libby’s.” As the story goes, she baked lots and lots of different recipes, some better than others, which the entire family had to eat. At some point perfection was reached and the recipe became part of canned pumpkin history.
Who knows how many pumpkin pie bakers started out with their first pie recipe from the label of the Libby’s can? I know I did, although I soon decided that using whole cream was much better than Carnation Evaporated Milk. However, representatives from Libby’s don’t agree with me and insist that I try it again with evaporated milk. (By the way Nestlé owns Carnation.) The Libby or Dickinson pie recipe has been on the Libby’s label continuously since 1950.
The pie tradition carries on at Libby’s, not just via promotions on the can label or on their website. During the packing season which lasts about 13 weeks, every day they test their pumpkin for flavor. The primary method for testing is the daily baking and consumption of pumpkin pies by employees.
Morton is now dubbed the “Pumpkin Capital of the World,” and the region is well suited to squash cultivation. Four-plus months of frost-free weather, hot days, cool nights and rich soils are ideal for squash cultivation. Libby’s grows about 85 percent of the country’s supply of canned squash mostly in an 80-mile radius of Morton, Illinois.
Libby is fairly tight-lipped about their yield and production statistics, though they acknowledge growing several thousand acres of squash annually (estimates range to 5,000 acres or more) — all of it in Dickinson squash. At a typical yield of 20 tons per acre, Libby’s harvest is in the range of 60,000 to 100,000 tons per year, or 120 to 200 million pounds per year. That’s around 10 to 15 million squash, or approximately 100,000 squash processed a day. They state that 90 million pies are made from their product every year.
While moschata squash are fairly disease resistant, as with any crop, weather, insects and disease wreak havoc. In 2009 and 2010 there was a significant reduction in the Dickinson squash harvest due to rain and the inability to get the harvest off the fields. The price of canned pumpkin soared due to the shortages. The strategy of growing one variety in a single geographic region is questionable. What would happen to Thanksgiving with a massive crop failure? Responding to the reduced harvests of 2009 and 2010, Libby’s has expanded some of its cultivation to nearby Michigan.
One canner that did well during these shortage years was the Farmer’s Market label, an organic family farm and processor, who uses both Dickinson and Golden Delicious varieties in their canned pumpkin. Their label is a bit misleading as it pictures a big orange pumpkin — none of which is in the can.
Libby’s staggers the planting of the fields to accommodate a long harvest and processing season, and the variability of different soil types and field locations. It now utilizes several related varieties which have somewhat different maturation rates. It is planted densely at the rate of 4500 seeds per acre, a little less than one pound of seed per acre. The density allows for more uniformity and reduced fruit size, around 10 to 14 pounds per squash — much less than the maximum weight possible.
Approximately half of the crop is planted from Libby’s Select, a refined selection of Dickinson made over the years and does not differ substantially from ordinary Dickinson seed. Two hybrid varieties, Libby Early and Libby Late were more recently developed by crossing different sizes and shapes of Libby Select. These are sister lines and while a Libby spokesman insists you could not utilize the saved seed from one of their hybrid squash, I suspect you’d get good results. Another variety — Libby 409 — has been utilized in the past, although it may be synonymous with the Early or Late.
Libby maintains a large degree of control over their crop, yet contract farmers are free to take few squash for their own use. Jim Ackerman, a grower for Libby for more than 20 years in Morton says “I still like them, I like the pie you get from them.” Every year he bakes some pies with his daughter for Thanksgiving. When asked how many squash he processes he replies, “Oh no, I don’t cook them! I run down to the store and get a can.”
While the squash is farmer grown, Libby rigorously controls the harvest process in order to accommodate the plant’s canning schedule. Squash are field tested for their sugar content and when ready the harvest crew is called in. First the squash are mechanically cut from their vines and swept into rows. Then, a large combine-like harvester gathers the squash and simultaneously loads them into padded tractor trailers via a conveyor belt for delivery to the plant.
Once the squash are unloaded, they’re washed and processed on an automated line, get cooked in great steam kettles where 90% of their moisture is reduced, and 90 minutes later end up packed in cans as pure Dickinson squash ready to be baked into pies. Unfortunately, Libby’s doesn’t state the name of the squash on their cans, although they do mention on their website that Dickinson is the variety they use. While Libby will not reveal the value of their pumpkin crop which graces America’s table, clearly it’s worth more than $100 million annually, making it a highly valuable heirloom crop.
While not commonly available in seed catalogs, it is available through some of them. If you’d like to see this squash up close, it’s well worth growing and it’s fairly attractive. Be prepared to make a lot of pies, or divide it amongst your neighbors. If you’re in an area with a long growing season you’ll have no problem getting ripe fruit, but for those in Zones 4 and 5, growing on plastic from seedlings is recommended.
Though many heirloom varieties have disappeared or nearly disappeared in the last century, the Dickinson squash is in no danger of extinction at the moment. Unbeknownst to most Americans we’ve been eating heirloom squash for generations, and it’s particularly fitting this takes place at Thanksgiving, a meal celebrating the bounty of our heritage.
Towards the end of World War II, Libby’s contracted with the United States Government for the use of German POWs to assist at the canning plants in Washington and Eureka. In addition to vegetables, the plants canned some rations such as fruitcakes and pork and beans for the soldiers. Prisoners received a wage of 10 cents per hour. In Washington they were housed in a heavily guarded warehouse surrounded by barbed wire. The POWs worked alongside the American employees.
On one occasion a prisoner escaped from Eureka and eventually made his way to Chicago. There he got a social security number and thus a variety of jobs. He managed to save $450, opened an old book store, and got married. He eluded the authorities for nearly eight years until he was apprehended by the FBI.
Lawrence Davis-Hollander is an ethnobotanist, founder and former director of the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, and long-time heirloom gardener.
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