The milkweed harvesters of Freeborn County

Published 8:01 am Friday, October 9, 2009

One of the oddest contributions I’ve received so far from historical researcher Kevin Savick is based on the Freeborn County milkweed harvest 65 years ago.

This particular topic is based on three Tribune news articles he found which are dated Oct. 4, Oct. 20, and Oct. 31, 1944. That year over 5,000 bags of milkweed floss were collected by the school children from all over the county. Each bag, incidentally, weighed about five pounds.

Now, what in heck was the reason for this organized collection of 25,000 pounds or so of pods or floss from a plant that’s considered to be a fairly worthless weed? Come to think of it, I never thought there were that many milkweed plants in the county. The answer was based on using the plant’s floss for making life preserver jackets to be used by member of the nation’s armed forces. This floss was light, moisture resistant, and a logical choice as filler for those jackets.

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Back in 1944 the nation was deeply involved in World War II. There was rationing of gasoline, some food products and other consumer items. As a part of what we now consider to be recycling, tin cans, worn-out rubber tires, scrap iron and other items were collected during various organized drives or campaigns to be converted into items to be used by the military units. And one of those drives 65 years ago was based on collecting milkweed floss.

For this particular harvest time campaign or drive, the students in the county’s schools from the third grade and up were recruited for this patriotic activity.

To make this endeavor really worthwhile for the students to go out into the weed patches., the federal government was paying 20 cents a bag for the dry milkweed pods or floss. This payment, by the way, was in war stamps and not cash.

One of the Tribune news articles form Kevin, dated Oct. 20, 1944, had this report regarding one phase of the milkweed collecting:

“Schoolchildren throughout the county have responded well to the drive for picking milkweed pods, the floss being used in the making of life jackets for the armed forces. Two Clausen brothers, Darwin, age 12, and Delmon, age 11, of School District 76, Twin Lakes, have turned in 133 bags of milkweed pods as their contribution to the patriotic effort.”.

It’s safe to say that material other than milkweed floss is now being used for the making of floatation devices and jackets.

However, there’s another aspect of the milkweed plant worth mentioning. In the life cycle of the monarch butterfly this particular plant has a vital role.

While we’re on the topic of growing things, I have information to pass along to the readers regarding the mystery tree with the huge leaves on Fairview Drive. This particular tree was featured on page 3 of the Oct. 1 issue.

Someone responded to the Tribune’s website and suggested I should check out the term of Paulownia tomentosa to find the answer to this tree mystery.

A check with Yahoo reveals that this is the fancy term for what’s called the empress tree, princess tree or foxglove tree. It’s a deciduous tree which loses its leaves each fall and originated in central and western China.

Then, as a bonus, for this inquiry, Diane Willaby brought in a copy of an ad published in the Feb. 23, 2003, issue of Parade Magazine. This ad resulted in her purchasing one of the trees pictured as having purple flowers from a firm in Michigan. Now there’s a taller tree than the one owned by the Villarreals with huge leaves in her backyard. And she’s also looking forward to hopefully seeing those lavender-blue or purple flowers on the tree sometime in the future.

This 2003 ad may have a few exaggerations. The most obvious says, “Super growing flowering shade tree grows roof-high in just one year.” That hasn’t yet happened with the two trees also known as “Royal Paulownia” now growing in Albert Lea.

Ed Shannon’s column has been appearing in the Tribune every Friday since December 1984.