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Title: Peat Moss Boom
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Earth mine of spongy peat, centuries forming, is being sold to gardeners.

Take one old cranberry bog, remove a layer of topsoil, dig a drainage ditch, and pick up several pieces of unusual machinery, and you’re in business as a peat moss producer.

That’s what the Milburn Peat company, Inc., operating out of Chicago, has done in a remote part of Medina township, Warren county, near Otterbein. The company expects to parlay its investment in the old cranberry bog into part of a $700,000 business it plans to do this year.

Site of the peat bog is a 160-acre plot of land, most of which was acquired from James Gregory, of Indianapolis, formerly of. Located about three and a half miles south and west of Otterbein, the land is an “earth mine” of spongy peat, which the Milburn firm is processing and selling as a “soil conditioner” to landscapers, gardeners and homeowners who use it for rose bushes, flower beds and as a lawn dressing.

The modern peat mining operations take advantage of the natural formation, over thousands of years, of sphagnum peat moss, “organic matter formed by the accumulation and decomposition of remains of various plants, primarily sphagnum moss. It took roughly 1,000 years for each foot in depth of the peat moss to form,” says John W. Terrell, vice president in charge of sales for the company.

Visitors to the site are fascinated by clouds of steam from the dryer through which the spongy peat is sent for drying and sterilizing. The dryer reduces moisture in the soil, which contains up to 90 per cent water when it’s dug from the peat bog.

“We expect to get better than one million cubic yards of top material” from the Warren county bog, says Terrell. ”Top quality” peat is hard to find, and the bog near Otterbein is “one of the richest and largest” in the state and in the Midwest, he says.

The company’s first bog was opened in 1953 near Waukegan, Ill, “by accident,” Terrell says, when Glenn H. Traer of Lake Villa, Ill. was developing a tract of land as a hunting and fishing area. While attempting to deepen one end of the bog near Waukegan to form an artificial lake, workers “went down 30 feet and came up with nothing but pure sphagnum peat moss,” Terrell explains.

Traer brought mining engineers into the area and discovered that the site contained between three and five million cubic yards of peat. Finding that it was good material for agricultural and gardening purposes, Traer formed the company, which now operates as a corporation under Henry Frenzer, president of Northbrook, Ill.

The soft, crumbly peat was processed and put on the market, Terrell says, and “its acceptance was more than we anticipated, with distribution in Chicago, St. Louis and Louisville areas.” It was especially popular, because it holds such a great amount of moisture, in areas where the ground was parched by droughts.

“It got to the point where we were moving more material than we expected to,” Terrell says, and the supply, originally estimated to last 20 years, dwindled to an eight to 10 year backlog.

Thus the firm started looking for another supply, “large enough,” but located advantageously from a shipping standpoint. After drilling some 100 test holes in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio peat areas, engineers for the firm decided that the Otterbein bog was best in terms of quality, quantity and location.

Preparation of the Warren county bog started last October and full-scale operations began this May. After the removal of a foot-deep layer of topsoil and the digging of a drainage ditch to carry off excess moisture from the soggy bog, special equipment was brought in and a warehouse and bagging plant was built in Otterbein.

The peat is chewed out of the rich brown bog by a specially designed earth mover. It features tubeless tires which measure four and a half feet across. The huge tractor and trailer “float” over the bog, Terrell says, because the tire construction “cuts the weight of the machinery to three pounds per square inch, where it normally is 30 times greater with regular tires.”

Even a dejected stroller on the now leveled off bog would have a spring in his step. The bog is so spongy that if the peat bog walker jumps enthusiastically, he “can see the earth vibrate for 30 to 40 feet around him,” Terrell says.

The flat bog area is disked, partially drying the peat before it is removed for processing. After some of the moisture is removed by the sun, the bulldozer is taken onto the bog to bite off huge buckets full of the moist, springy soil, which is tossed into a trailer and carried to a pile near the dryer.

The peat is taken from the stockpile via a power shovel to a conveyor which carries it into the 50-foot long monster dryer, where it is heated up to 900*F. Steam pouring from the cylindrical dryer makes it look like a streamlined locomotive without tracks.

Weighing 1,600 pounds per cubic yard when it goes into the dryer, the peat goes through a rapid “reducing plan,” coming out weighing 50 pounds per cubic yard. “True sphagnum peat moss can hold up to 20 times its own weight in water,” Terrell says. The dryer takes much of the water from the peat and sterilizes it under the intense heat, removing the fungi.

After the drying process, the soft and fluffy peat is sent by conveyor to another pile, from which it’s taken by truck to the Otterbein warehouse and sent through a machine which “pressure-packs” it in plastic-sealed five, 25, 50 and 80 pound bags. At peak production, Terrell says, one man operating the machine can package 350 bags an hour.

“True sphagnum peat moss has moisture holding, and soil conditioning qualities” far superior to ordinary peats formed from decomposed marsh grasses, Terrell explains. It’s mixed with clay and sandy soils to make them hold more moisture for rose, evergreen, tree, shrub and other plant roots. It also has a large percentage of nitrogen, Terrell says.

“We probably won’t dig deeper than nine feet” on the Otterbein bog, he predicts, “although deposits of good peat may run from 25 to 30 feet deep here.”

The Milburn company now employs six men in the Otterbein operations. Future production will probably require a total of from 15 to 18 employes “mining” in the rich peat bog -- an “earth mine” which has put Warren county on the big business map.

Date: 7/6/1957
Origin: Journal and Courier, Lafayette, IN
Author: Joan Bunke
Record ID: 00000071
Type: Periodical
Source Archive: Warren County Historical Society
Date Entered: 8/20/2002
Collection: Medina Township File
Entered By: Louise Jewell

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