John Clement Howe went to the ghost town of Mentha and also dug up the fascinating story of Michigan’s now vanished mint industry. As the very detailed article about Mint in Michigan from Michigan History Magazine explains:
Peppermint (Mentha piperita, named for its pepper-like taste) and spearmint (Mentha spicata, named for its arrow-shaped flower spires) are related plants (Labiatae) that are rich in volatile oils called terpenes. These ethereal, complex organic compounds–mainly menthol and carvone–give mint the taste and aroma that make it a favorite for chewing gum, toothpaste, candy and medicine…
Following the Civil War, mint cultivation spread from St. Joseph, first west into Cass and Berrien, then north into Van Buren, Allegan and Kalamazoo Counties. By the turn of the century, 90 percent of the world’s supply of mint oil came from an area within a ninety-mile radius of Kalamazoo. Despite the productivity of Michigan’s mint fields, Michigan mint growers at first had difficulty selling their harvests because of unscrupulous farmers who adulterated the oil with turpentine, alcohol or fireweed.
A farmer by the name of Albert Todd developed scientific methods of testing and grading mint oil. He established two plantations, Mentha in northeastern Van Buren County and Campania in central Allegan County and by 1900 was the largest producer of peppermint oil in the world and owner of the world’s most extensive mint acreage.
Michigan remained a strong producer of mint through World War II, but by the 1970s, verticillium wilt had pretty much ended the commercial growth of peppermint in the state. Today most peppermint is grown in the Pacific Northwest but since some spearmint is resistant to verticillium wilt, Michigan still grows that and is ranked fifth among spearmint-growing states. Be sure to head over to Michigan History, Arts & Libraries for more on Michigan’s mint heritage and current efforts to develop resistant mint.