Monday, September 26, 2011

Farm Bulletin: 80 Mad Ave.

I love it when contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm gets on a tear (no pun intended considering the subject material).

New York's Fashion Week is finishing up, giving us all a glimpse of the autumn collections, notable for their dour mood and studied awkwardness. Fashion is in a dreary rut. Now the well-attired will have to scramble down to the stores on Madison Avenue for bags to match the new collections' mood. Our autumn collection will soon be on display as well, and, like the well-attired, last week we made our annual shopping trip to buy bags on Madison Avenue. Our bags will bear the fine labels of Borlotto, Black Turtle, Zolfino, Jet Barley and Amish Butter. Our collection's mood is cautiously optimistic; things look good in the field this autumn.

Our destination was the McDowell Bag Company, 80 SE Madison Avenue, directly underneath the Hawthorne Bridge ramp. McDowell Bag started business as one of many companies operating in the bag cleaning and repair business. Salvagers retrieved cloth and burlap bags from the alleys behind stores, restaurants and other businesses and received a nickel each from the bag company. McDowell Bag had two turbine blowers that it used to clean the bags. The good ones were graded and bundled to sell, and damaged bags went to the seamstresses who patched any holes. McDowell had twenty zigzag sowing machines operating. Cleaned and repaired, the bag was sold for 20¢ or so. The trade in used bags was international in scope.

Although cotton and hemp were used for bags, by far the most common material was burlap, or Hessian cloth, woven from jute. The burlap industry goes back to the mid 19th century when the British learned to spin and weave the long stem (bast) fibers of various species of the tropical plant Chonchorus. Prior to that, barrels (dry cooperage) were the standard shipping container for flour, onions, grains, pulses and other bulk dry goods. Endemic to India, Chonchorus was used as a minor vegetable, not as a fiber source. The Indians have an ancient tradition of spinning and weaving going back millennia. The entombed Pharaohs of Egypt are wrapped in fine muslin imported from India. However, the fabric industry of India was village-based, and it made no economic sense to produce such a low quality coarse fabric until the mechanization of fabric production from the field to the loom. For a little over a century, the burlap bag reigned as the standard reusable and repairable shipping container. The density and tightness of the weave varied by the commodity the bag would carry.

As fruit growers we must note, on the subject of fiber, that all fruits are an excellent source of dietary fiber. Too often, however, we forget that the fiber of certain fruits also provides raiment, and not just the bananas of Carmen Miranda or the grapes of Bacchus. The fibers from the fruits of several Gossypium species are spun and woven to make cotton. The plant, along with its cultivation and use as a fiber, has two centers of origin that developed about the same time roughly 5,000 years ago: the Indus Valley of the Pakistan and Oaxaca in southern Mexico. Coconut is another fruit which produces a fiber, a coarse material resistant to rot called coir. Before we had those nasty plastic peanuts, the fruits of the kapok tree yielded a light, buoyant fiber used for packing material, as well as life jackets.

In the second half of the 20th century, paper and plastics started to supplant the burlap and other plant fiber bags, and today the primary commodity still shipped in burlap is coffee. In most cases, those heavy 50-kg bags are slashed open at the coffee roaster and cannot be reused. In  the mid 1950s, the Peyton bag company closed and the owners went on to own and manage the Crater Lake Lodge. A daughter and a son currently own and manage the Sylvia Beach Hotel. The Calbag company stayed in the salvage business, and now operates as Calbag Metals, another one of our destinations when we accumulate a pile of broken and bent aluminum pipe. McDowell still sells used bags, but the repair and cleaning part of its business disappeared, and new bags were added to the mix. The woven plastic sacks we bought last week cannot be easily repaired because, unlike plant fibers which are rough and stick to one another, the individual strands of plastic are smooth and quickly unravel when broken.  

Last year on our trip to 80 SE Madison, we noticed fewer men in shop coats and steel toe boots, fewer delivery trucks and forklifts. In their place were young people of the thumb tribe anxiously staring into the tiny screens of "smart" phones, and scooters, Scions and Subarus occupied the parking spaces. Now on a month-to-month lease, this bit of Portland history, and a reminder of the city's origin as a gritty agricultural port, will depart at some point in the future, opening a bit more thumbster habitat.

All photos by Anthony Boutard.

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