By Jim Buchanan
Research in the modern age is far easier than in the days gone by. A few keystrokes can take you to historical archives far and near. Barring that, a couple of Google keywords can lead one to a treasure trove of information on a given topic.
But it’s a two-edged sword. Do a search on “Hamburg” and “Cabbage” and you’ll get a million recipes.
The real Hamburg cabbage story is a bit more interesting than a casserole.
Back in the 1920s farmers in the southern part of Jackson County began growing and marketing the Hamburg cabbage, also called the Glenville cabbage. It took off like wildfire, and soon gained national and even worldwide fame for its reliably delicious taste. Other mountain areas, like Watauga County, took advantage of their mountain soil to grow cabbage crops. Watauga chopped kraut was a mainstay into the 1970s.
References to the success of the crop can be found sprinkled through past editions of the Jackson County Journal and Sylva Herald. We’ll focus on the Journal, which referred to the rise of the crop over the years.
From Sept. 7, 1933:
HAMBURG CABBAGE MOVING
The Hamburg cabbage crop is beginning to move to market and County Agent Lackey is authority for the statement that prices are ranging from $1 to $1.25 a hundred pounds. The big money crop of some of the Southern townships of the county, cabbage, has held up well all through the Depression. Twenty tons and more have been raised on an acre of ground, which would mean that, at $1.25 a hundred pounds, it is possible for a grower to receive around $500 an acre for his crop. Hamburg cabbages, no better grown anywhere, are always in demand in the markets, and dealers send trucks from many Southern cities into the region, each year, seeking the crop to place on the market. We defy any section, to show a better return from the soil than is received by the Hamburg cabbage growers. It is predicted that the trucking industry in Hamburg, and Mountain townships, which can easily be duplicated in Canada, parts of Caney Fork, and some other townships in this county, is just in its infancy, and can be developed to proportions that have not been dreamed of as yet. After all is said and done, the soil of Jackson County, coupled with its climate, constitutes our greatest resource, and the sooner we reach that conclusion, and more of us follow the example of Hamburg and begin to seriously develop the resources we have at hand, the better off all of us will be.
Later that same month, as the harvest picked up; Sept. 21, 1933:
The cabbage rush is in full sway, up Hamburg way. Trucks from South Carolina towns, from Atlanta, Athens, Augusta, Jacksonville, Miami, Chattanooga, Nashville, Birmingham and other cities of the South are making their annual pilgrimage, in increasing numbers, to the Hamburg section to buy the huge cabbage crop and transport it to market. The cabbage, by the hundreds of tons, are leaving an amazing total of dollars in Hamburg and Mountain in the pockets of cabbage growers. What was a few years ago a minor affair has now become one of the really big industries in this county. The trucking industry has grown to greater proportions than anyone would have imagined. The fame of Hamburg vegetables, especially cabbage, has spread throughout the South, and the numerous trucks, loaded to capacity, are going out of Hamburg daily. The growers are receiving from 60 to 90 cents a hundred pounds at the patch. $200 up to $500 an acre is not unusual …
Nowhere do vegetables grow better than in that part of the county. It is a conservative estimate that $100,000 will be left in the hands of the cabbage growers of Hamburg this year.
The next year, the boom continued. July 26, 1934:
HAMBURG’S CROP WILL TOP QUARTER MILLION
With buyers coming into the Hamburg region seeking to buy cabbage in the fields, and with a large part of the bean crop already marketed, it is conservatively estimated that the cash return from cabbage, beans, and potatoes in Hamburg, Mountain and Cashiers Valley townships will exceed a quarter of a million dollars this year. The estimate is that the cabbage crop will be in excess of 83,500 tons, in Hamburg alone … Annual rentals for lands in Hamburg has gone as $100 an acre, it is stated; with the bumper crop of all time now in the fields, the Hamburg folks are feeling that there is no Depression.
It’s hard to overstate how important the cabbage industry was years back, and how lucrative it was. It truly did soften the blow of the Great Depression for many folks in Jackson County. To put the Journal’s report of “$200 to $500 an acre” for 1933 in some contest, bear in mind that even as late as 1939 the average annual income was $1,368.
There was a lot of green coming from those leafy green heads.
Over the years the challenges of farming and shifting economics saw the Hamburg star dim, and the mountain cabbage economy diminish. A fungal disease led to the shuttering of Watauga’s kraut operation in the early 1980s. Here in Jackson farming in the southern section turned to Christmas trees. And of course the value of the land itself made it tempting for many to sell off and enjoy a less demanding life.
But the tradition still echoes down the ages. The hairpin turn on N.C. 107 climbing the mountain toward Glenville still is known as Cabbage Curve for one of the trucks that never made it to market.