Stories: Mushrooms

There were a couple of brothers by the name of Knaust who had settled on the banks of the Hudson just north of Saugerties and who were cultivating mushrooms in abandoned Hudson River icehouses. The Hudson River was, at one time, pollution-free and ice-harvesting was a big business. But when the Hudson became polluted and mechanical/electrical refrigeration came on the market, the ice-harvesting business went bankrupt. So here stood these huge icehouses on the banks of the Hudson, empty and idle until the Knaust brothers came along and started raising mushrooms in them. Well, Andrew Snyder went up to the Knaust brothers and said, “I’ve got a thirty-acre cave with a flat floor. Come on down and take a look at it; maybe it’ll be good for your mushroom industry.” They came down and liked what they saw. And that was the birth of the Rosendale mushroom industry.

It became a huge business — beyond the wildest dreams of its founders, the Knaust brothers — to the point where they would harvest five tons of mushrooms every day, day after day. Five tons of mushrooms! They had a mixing plant in Coxsackie, sixty miles north of here, halfway between Rosendale and the racetrack in Saratoga Springs. They had to gather horse manure, topsoil, and straw in a central location and mix it into a compost. They figured that Coxsackie was halfway between the racetrack and Rosendale and there was good farmland up there where they could get topsoil. But the mushroom industry soon became so big that it really wouldn’t have made any difference where they had their mixing plant because, before long, they were buying horse manure from all the race tracks in the country. From Bowie in Maryland, from Santa Anita in California, from the racetracks in New York City and Massachusetts; they brought it in by the carload. They would mix this compost and then load it onto flat wooden trays, about three feet square and eight inches deep, and seed these trays with mushroom spores. These trays would then be loaded on a flatbed trailer, brought sixty miles to Rosendale, and driven right into the cave, just down the road from here. There the trays would be stacked in tiers with an eight-inch brick under each corner so there would be enough space for a picker to reach in and pick the mushrooms out and put them into two-quart baskets. When the baskets were full they dumped the mushrooms into a bushel apple box and when the box was full they’d load it onto a truck, and when the truck was full they’d send it to Hudson, thirty miles from here, where they had a cannery. There, they canned the mushrooms into soup and sold it to the various packers, such as Heinz and Campbells. And if you bought a can of mushroom soup, anytime between 1935 and 1960, you could bet your bottom dollar it came from Rosendale.

They had a rotating crop system: a crop of mushrooms would last about six months and then the fertility of the mushroom spore would be exhausted. They’d have to then dump the exhausted compost onto a waste heap, send the trays back up to Coxsackie to get re-filled, bring back a fresh back of compost and set up for another crop. The rotating crop system meant that in one part of the cave they would be setting up for a new crop, in another part of the cave they’d be picking, and in yet another part of the cave they’d be dumping out the exhausted compost. This went on for a number of years, from 1935 to 1960. In the meantime they were paying good rent to Andrew Snyder for the use of the cave and he was still trying to figure out what to do with his “pet”, the Rosendale cement industry.