When he was boy, former Secaucus Mayor Paul Amico worked on a farm for 10 cents an hour.
“I didn’t last long,” he said laughing. “I only stayed there a few days. But I remember it was hard work. That farm was owned by the Zirk family. Most of the farms in those days actually grew vegetables, you know, celery and lettuce. I think we had a couple dozen [vegetable] farms in the North End alone. And that’s just an estimate.”
According to regional lore, Secaucus and its storied pig farms are forever wedded, like bacon and grease. But the town’s history as a pig farming community overshadows the many other types of farms that existed in Secaucus in the early 1900s. The area was once known as much for its vegetable farms and greenhouses as it was for its pig farms.
Among the most successful farmers in town at that time was German immigrant Sebastian Meisch, who would eventually become known nationally as the Celery King.
“He had a huge farm over on County Ave., where Public Service (PSE&G) is now,” Amico recalled.
The right chemistry
Born in Germany in 1862, Meisch immigrated to the United States in 1880, originally settling in Greenville before moving to Secaucus in 1892.
Meisch earned his nickname after he developed a hybrid variety of celery that many people considered more appealing than other older varieties.
“The celery that we are all familiar with today is basically the hybrid Meisch developed right here in Secaucus,” said town historian Dan McDonough. “Before he developed this hybrid,” he added, “celery was considered unattractive and unappetizing.”
At least two books on agriculture published in the 1800s include drawings of celery that appear to show a softer, much shorter stalk than the variety on supermarket shelves. The drawings also include full bushy leaves at the end of the stalks.
McDonough, who has conducted videotaped oral history interviews with one of Meisch’s grandsons, said that prior to the Meisch hybrids, celery “wasn’t terribly popular.”
Meisch’s hybrid celery became known as both Meisch’s Wonderful Celery and Meisch’s Special Celery, according to agriculture records published in the 1900s.
In addition to being a more attractive vegetable, evidence indicates the Meisch hybrids may have also been prized for their natural ability to fight off certain blights that plagues common to other varieties of celery. According to the book “Vegetable Diseases and their Control” by Arden Sherf and Alan MacNab, Meisch’s hybrids were particularly resistant to blackheart, a blight caused by water and calcium imbalances in the celery plant.
The disease has been known to wipe out entire celery crops in both Florida and California.
“Of course, most of Meisch’s income and wealth actually came from selling his hybrid celery seed to other farmers across the country who hoped to duplicate his success growing this variety of celery,” McDonough stated.
The enterprising New Jersey farmer also helped two relatives set up large farms in Seminole County, Florida, where celery can be grown year-round, giving him a stake in their success as well.
Influence in Secaucus
Meisch’s success as a farmer eventually lead to great wealth and influence in Secaucus. He became a board member of the town’s first financial institution, First National Bank, which Amico remembers as being located where Capital One Bank is located now.
“The farmers were very influential throughout the town, and Meisch’s name was quite prominent,” Amico said.
He ascended to the highest elected post in Secaucus in 1911 when he was elected mayor. He served two years in that post (A number of mayors of the period served shorter terms that is common today.)
A Democrat, Meisch was also active in party politics, and was a member of the executive committee of the Hudson County Democratic Committee.
Meisch and his wife Elizabeth Bender Meisch had three children, Lulu, John, and Adolph.
The family continued to farm in Secaucus until plans were drawn up in the 1920s to build an airport on County Ave. In an effort to get the airport project off the ground, a developer named Curtis Wright bought up property from County Ave. to the Hackensack River, including Meisch’s old celery farm. The family eventually moved to Lyndhurst and the airport plan was aborted. Amico and McDonough believe there are no Meisch descendents in Secaucus today.
“When I was mayor, I tried to emphasize and reclaim some of that history, but unfortunately it never caught on,” Amico said, who served from 1964 to 1992. “I thought we should be recognized for that history. I thought we would never lose the reputation of the pigs and the smell. The public didn’t know that there were an awful lot of greenhouses and flower growers in town. But I pigs are funnier than vegetables and flowers, at least, I think they are, which is probably why our image as a place that had nothing but pig farms stuck.”
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