Every year in Wethersfield, Conn., the local historical society pays rent on an 18th-century warehouse not with money, but with Wethersfield red onions.
In the past, you could pay for just about anything in Wethersfield with the famous flat, red onions. Onions were even used as medicine. In the beloved children’s book The Witch of Blackbird Pond, set in Wethersfield, a poultice made from onions saves the heroine’s life.
Wethersfield Red Onion
Onions built Wethersfield, and for many years the Connecticut Valley town was called ‘Oniontown.’ The valley’s deep, rich soil was ideal for agriculture, and early on farmers developed the Wethersfield Red Onion. At the height of the onion trade, Wethersfielders exported a million to a million-and-a-half five-pound onion ropes, called skeins, annually to the South and the West Indies. They were said to be popular from New York to Bermuda.
The onion business during the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries created a thriving commercial town. It’s still visible in the 1,200 historic buildings that comprise Wethersfield’s historic district. Trade expanded to include dried meat, tobacco, seeds, cattle, horses, and hides in exchange for sugar, salt, rum, tea, coffee, and spices. Merchant ships that carried that cargo were built by Wethersfield shipbuilders, often in partnership with residents of nearby towns.
Red Onion Maidens
From early on, young women were largely responsible for growing and harvesting the onions. The onion maidens ‘’who weeded and wept” were said to be the best cooks in the region. They were also said to be frivolous things who dirtied their fingers for silk dresses. That bit of slander was later discounted as a vengeful rumor spread by a Loyalist who was driven out of town. Not only was there little, if any, silk in pre-Revolutionary Wethersfield, the onion maidens actually bought tobacco and snuff with their earnings.
Wethersfield was always a little different than its Puritan neighbors. Perhaps that has to do with it founder, John Oldham. Plymouth kicked him out for pulling a knife on Miles Standish. A bit of a wild man, he nearly drowned and promised God he’d mend his ways if he survived. By 1633, he settled down enough to found Wethersfield, the first town along the Connecticut River.
The Wethersfield settlers were more interested in commercial opportunity than religion. “They were more playful than polite,” wrote A. K. Roche in The Onion Maidens, speaking of the Wethersfielders, “and more robust than religious, which was most unusual at that time. As a result, their customs were quite different from those of the people in other towns.”
An Excellent Root
An 1819 gazetteer of Rhode Island and Connecticut noted Wethersfield was the only town in the state that made a business of ‘the cultivation of this excellent root.’ It also noted the town smelled like onions.
“It is peculiarly novel and interesting, on passing through the town in the month of June, to behold in every direction the extensive fields of onions,” the gazetteer reported. “Whilst in a luxuriant state of vegetation, the growing vegetable exhales its strong savour. The atmosphere becomes impregnated, and the luscious qualities of the onion are wafted far and wide, upon every passing breeze.”
Onion Trade in Decline
By the 1830s, the decline in the West Indies plantation system caused the onion trade to fall off. Shipbuilding all but disappeared. And then a Civil War-era blight known as pinkroot struck the Wethersfield Red Onion. Local growers began to diversify.
The seed business grew up to replace shipbuilding and onion exports in Wethersfield. It transformed the inner village, as large commercial seed gardens were cultivated behind houses and barns on the main roads.
Two 19th century seed companies — Comstock, Ferre & Co., and Hart Seed – are still doing business in Wethersfield. Comstock’s 1856 catalog explained what made the Wethersfield Red Onion so popular: “It grows to large size, deep red, thick, approaching to round shape, fine-grained, pleasant flavored, and very productive. It ripens in September, and keeps well.”
Today, the Town of Wethersfield proudly celebrates its eponymous vegetable. The town mascot is a goggle-eyed onion who makes appearances in parades and festivals. The Wethersfield Red Onion appears on the town’s “Welcome to Wethersfield” sign. And the Wethersfield Historical Society sells red onion notecards and red onion Christmas ornaments – when it isn’t paying its rent in a skein of red onions.
Wethersfield Red Onion Shortcake
Description: This is a traditional recipe for a rich, savory shortcake that became popular in Wethersfield in the 19th century.
2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons butter
1/2-3/4 cup buttermilk
8 -10 medium onions
6 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
2 eggs, slightly beaten
Preheat oven to 450°F.
For the crust: mix flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Work in the butter until the mixture looks like coarse meal. Slowly add the buttermilk, mixing until the mixture forms a somewhat sticky dough. Turn onto a floured board and knead briefly until smooth. Line a 9- inch springform pan with the dough and chill until ready to use.
For the filling: Saute onions in butter until transparent. Spread them over the dough. Mix the sour cream and seasonings with beaten eggs, blending thoroughly. Pour the mixture over the onions. Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the oven to 350°F and bake 45 minutes more.
Slice in wedges. Serves 4 as a main dish or 6-8 as a vegetable dish.
This story was updated in 2020.