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Northern Indiana farm's old mint still survives brush fire


HANNA, Ind. — Guy Salisbury is too young to remember his great-grandfather putting mint from his field into a still and capturing the oil used for chewing gum and candy.

The 55-year-old Salisbury owns the 200-acre Indiana farm now, along with the old still. The farm relic from days gone by survived a March 16 brush fire in Hanna Township – but just barely.

“It was before my time. The only thing we got is some pictures of them harvesting in it,” Salisbury noted.

The find came as a surprise to firefighters who at first thought it was just a structure fire they were responding to, judging by the large cloud of black smoke. As it turned out, there was a burn of asparagus left in the field from the previous season.

According to investigators, people doing a field burn left thinking the fire was out, but wind stirred up the flames. Hanna Township Fire Chief Tony Wallace said about three acres of the old crop in the field burned. The flames advanced 40-50 feet into a wooded area.

Tanker trucks were shuttling water in and out of the site 150 yards or so off the roadway before the flames were extinguished at the edge of the old still and two rusty holding tanks. Wallace said the still, with a brick exterior, was about 20 feet long and 15 feet wide. He estimated the tanks each have a 1,000-gallon capacity.

“It was kind of an unusual find; kind of unique for this area,” he said.

Salisbury believes his great-grandfather, William “Doc” Salisbury, operated the still from the 1930s to the 1950s. He said Doc, with help from others, harvested mint from the fields by hand. The crop was placed on wagons pulled by horses and loaded into the still with pitchforks.

The boiling water and steam created by the wood-burning still drew out the oil, which was sold for use in products like chewing gum and candy, Salisbury explained. He said mint hasn’t been raised there for more than a half-century and the still, from age and being idle for so long, is inoperable.

He thought about cleaning up the still and the cast-iron doors covering the burner this past winter, but ran out of time: “We had things on the to-do list, you know.”

He now uses the land for growing food-grade specialty corn taken to a wet mill 40 miles away in Hammond for processing and use in a variety of food products.

Gene Matzat, a Purdue University extension educator in nearby La Porte, said he grew up on a mint farm just to the south in Starke County, and only occasionally does he hear about an old mint still turning up in this neck of the woods. Over the past several decades, he said the number of growers in this part of the state has dwindled from a few hundred to about a dozen, and those remaining use more advanced steam technology to draw out the oil.

Matzat said producers here are much fewer now because of growth in mint production in the Pacific Northwest and overseas where labor costs are cheaper. There are also just a select number of customers now, like toothpaste maker Colgate and chewing gum magnate the Wrigley Co.

“Less than a dozen buyers across the United States means prices have to be negotiated so a farmer can be relatively assured he’s going to get a return on his capital investment, as well as the operating expenses it takes to grow the mint,” he explained.