Historical Markers
Neshannock Potato Historical Marker
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Neshannock Potato

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
US 19 at SR 1004 (Shaw Rd.) just S of Mercer County line, New Wilmington

Dedication Date:
March 19, 1948

Behind the Marker

Dick Clark Showing Bobbie Rydell how to peel a potato
Dick Clark Showing Bobbie Rydell how to peel a potato
While writing his memoirs of the time he served as a Civil War soldier in the 16th Illinois Cavalry and as a prisoner of war in Andersonville, John McElroy recalled the many conversations he had had with his "pards" about food back home, up north in "God's country."

McElroy recounted one conversation in which a fellow prisoner talked about his mother's "bisquits" with butter and honey; another set an imaginary table for his friends with crispy, golden, fried chicken; and a third described a roast beef dinner with oven-browned potatoes. A young man named "Jim" then said that he didn't much care for potatoes roasted in the pan with meat, and that "mashed Neshannocks with butter on "em is plenty good enough for me."

Jim was not alone. During the Civil War the Neshannock was a favorite food of both Union and Confederate soldiers. By 1875 it had also become prized by Americans from Philadelphia to San Francisco.
Farmers picking potatoes and buyers in background
Farmers picking potatoes and buyers in background

The Neshannock potato was first cultivated by John Gilkey, an Irish immigrant who came to Pennsylvania in 1797. Settling on a farm in present-day Washington Township, Lawrence County, Gilkey planted three different varieties of potatoes - blue, red, and white. Within a few years of his arrival, these three varieties had cross-pollinated. When Gilkey planted the seed potatoes he collected they produced a new type of potato that he named "Neshannock," after a nearby creek. The Neshannock was a large and long potato, reddish purple in color, with streaks of the same color through the flesh that generally disappeared after the potato was cooked.

Gilkey and his brother gave seed potatoes to friends and neighbors. Soon farmers in nearby counties also were growing them, for they quickly found that the Neshannock was more productive than older varieties, and of good quality in flavor and size. Sometime before 1810, State Representative Bevan Pearson planted the new potato in a garden in Philadelphia and called it the "Mercer" after his home county, where he had obtained the seeds potatoes.

In the decades that followed, cultivation of the new potato spread quickly to farmers in the Middle Atlantic states, and then across the country. In the 1830s, a farmer named Titus Bronson introduced them to Michigan and claimed that he raised 700 bushels on a single acre of ground on his farm near present-day Kalamazoo. By the 1870s, farmers in Idaho and Utah also were raising them and shipping them by rail to California.
image of potatoes
W. Atlee Burpee and Co., 1904.

By then the Neshannock was being marketed as the Gilkey, Mercer, Neshannock, Shannock, or the Shenango. Multiple names might have been confusing to some, but farmers and consumers alike were able to recognize the Neshannock by its distinctive features. In 1843, the highly respected farmer's journal The Cultivator stated that this spud was "one of the most valuable of table potatoes, white, mealy and of good flavor." In the nineteenth century, the Neshannock became the standard commercial potato in the United States. A very productive and an excellent all-purpose potato, it was prized for its size, wonderful flavor, and ability to keep.

With the introduction of new, more productive varieties in the late nineteenth century, the Neshannock gradually fell out of favor. But for much of the 1800s, Pennsylvania's Neshannock potato helped to feed the nation.
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