We are so excited about the upcoming Mint Festival in St. Johns! We thought it would be a great time to learn more about how it came to be and how St. Johns became known as Mint City USA! How could it be better than learning it from 3rd and 4th generation Mint Farmers, Andy and Gene Livingston? They had one of the biggest mint farms in the area when it all began and are one of three active mint farms (Larry Kus Mint Farm, Stony Creek Essential Oils, Inc., Livingston Farms) still remaining in St. Johns.   

How did mint get its start in St. Johns, Michigan?

The town of St. Johns was founded on the railroad. There was a town here before the railroad, but that was what really made the town. At around that time there was a lot of Mint production happening in the state of New York and many of those people began migrating to Michigan. St. Johns just happened to contain a lot of the "muck ground" which was suited perfectly for mint. Since mint is a shallow rooted crop, it needs soil that is able to get to moisture easily. Muck ground (swamp) was a natural place to try to grow mint.

The basic start of the area mint production heyday started around 1913, this is the year stills were beginning to be built in this area. Wholesale buyers set up a station in St. Johns and with an abundance of muck ground in the area, it really took off. "Once you get something going in an area, it kind of mushrooms." It started to really jump in the late 1920s and into the 30s and 40s and 50s and Clinton County became the largest producer of native spearmint in the world. 
The Livingston's in the Mint

When did your family get its start in mint farming?

The Livingston family has been here since the start of the town (mid 1800's) and Gene's grandfather started farming mint in 1928. They built their still (where the oil is removed from the plant) in 1929. Through the 30s, 40's, 50s and even 60's it was a big item here in St. Johns. Anybody who had a little spot of muck, grew mint on it. Not everyone who grew mint had enough land or crop to build their own still, so many chose to use the services of those who did to harvest their oils.

There was a time that the price of mint oil got so high, making it extremely valuable. "There were a few instances, during the depression, where guys were so afraid of the amount of money they had tied up in their oil, a couple of them had it stored in a bank vault. One of the reasons mint is so honored here in St. Johns, is that the mint industry wasn't affected by the depression. It thrived in the area, and it made a lot of work for people who otherwise wouldn't have had jobs. "

Without chemical development to control weeds, a lot of the labor came from what was known as "hoe gangs'' who had to hoe the weeds out of the fields in the summer by hand. The Livingstons would have as many as 70 people working in the fields during these times. It was also very intense labor to lift the "long cut" plants into the wagons by pitchfork. Chopping up the plants didn't start until the 1940's. Gene estimates there could have been up to 50 mint farms in the area with mint stills in and around St. Johns during its heyday.
 Gene gave us a quick look at the distilling process:

  • The plant is mowed in the field (like hay)
  • Its then cured until it loses some of its moisture (wilt)
  • Then a machine chops it up and it's put into a wagon or truck
  • From there it's taken to the still and placed into tanks
  • The still develops steam (boiler) and steam goes into those tanks
  • The steam vaporizes the oil from the plant
  • Vapors are then carried through conduits to a condensing unit
  • It then comes through tubes that are cooled by water
  • From there it condenses into liquid form (water and oil)
  • Since oil is lighter than water, the oil drifts to the top in the separating cans
  • They stop the flow of the distill of water going off, which raises the level
  • It's draw it up to a container that catches it

Mint being hoisted into a wagon by hand
Agriculture machinery chops mint in a green field
The aroma makes it hard to be in a mint still at first. Once you're around it, you get used to it, but it's loud with all the steam. It can be up to 100 pounds of pressure which creates a loud hiss type of sound. When a steam line breaks, it can be extremely loud.

"Once I was talking to a group of people and a guy drove out on a wagon that was still attached to a steam hose and yanked it off. I was reminded of a flock of chickens when a hawk flies over, they all ducked down and started running in all directions." - Gene Livingston

The original Livingston Still
What happens to the refuse once the oil is distracted?
When the oil production is done the refuse leftover has many uses. For the Livingston's (who are also in the cattle industry) much of the refuse is spread back onto the fields. They also use it as bedding for their cattle. One day Gene accidentally discovered another use for it: Mint Compost (which happens to be great for gardens and wonderful crops!). Sometimes when the pastures for their cows were getting short, they would take some of the mint refuse and dump it in the fields for the cattle to eat. The following year, they planted corn in that same field. One day Gene happened to be driving by the field and wondered to himself; "why in the world is the corn so tall in that spot?" It was way above the other corn in the rest of the field. He pondered that for several days before realizing, "that's where I dumped that mint cheese!"

Quick fact: Mint cheese refers to the mint refuse when it's finished. The first stills contained big round vats (6 or 7 feet across and 7 feet deep) When it came out of these vats, it was in this round cake form, like you see with old cheese factories. So, everybody started calling it mint cheese.

Current Mint Production
Mint is still grown in the Midwest, but it has really taken off in the Pacific Northwest (it has a good climate with heat, mint loves heat if it has water). It's really become smaller across all of the US in general with the production of synthetic and artificial products. Worldwide, other countries have started to grow it as well. So, while there is still a market for it, it's not what it once used to be.

Dairy, corn and soybeans have also become more stable commodities, which make it harder for the next generation to want to keep it going. It's a labor-intensive crop as well. With instability in the mint market, sometimes it's harder to sell, you may have to sit on it for years.

The Livingstons sell a fair amount retail, but also sell large amounts to wholesalers who in turn sell it to larger companies for numerous products. Currently their farm includes 30 acres of mint; two acres of peppermint and roughly 28 acres of spearmint. They used 300 acres back in the heyday.

Growing tips
Mint is a perennial, so you don't have to plant it every year. It's planted from a stolon, which looks like a cut up piece of root. The planting machine for farms looks like a backwards manure spreader. It goes up through a beader and is then put in rows.

"You should rotate peppermint around every 3rd year and spearmint every fifth year. It's best to rotate, but if everything goes right you can keep a field going." The Livingston's once had a field that was twenty years old, their best field for mint! One year, there was just nothing there, "we had pushed it too far."

"You want it to be hot when you're harvesting, that brings the oil out of the plant. The hotter it is, the more oil you get."

Typically, native spearmint should be harvested the last week in June or the first week in July. Peppermint comes along a little later, by a week or so. The harvest will carry over, because you can't harvest it all at once. It even goes over into August sometimes. If you harvest early enough, it's possible to get a second harvest in the same year.

Quick fact: Mint sends off a scent no matter what time of year it is, but the closer you get to harvest, the more intense it is.  
The Livingstons gave us a few examples of the things mint can be used for:

Mint Julep cocktail

Pain relief medicine - ben gay, etc.
Migraine relief
Poison oak/ivy itch relief
To treat colds - boil it on the stove
Use the oils to raise alertness

Repelling insects and pests
Growing mint around the house can be a repellent
Mint oils are good repellents as well

Mint Oil in a little bottle
Mint Queen and her court
The St. Johns Mint festival (August 12-14, 2023)

In 1935 the first Mint Festival was held in St. Johns. Mint was the reason the city was doing so well and it was a reason to celebrate. The festival has not been continual, but in 1985 it was brought back and has been going strong ever since.

Make sure you make plans to celebrate with all of us local Mint City residents this year. In addition to the mint chocolate chip ice cream, we celebrate our farming heritage with shows and pageants, tournaments and events with parades, live music, beer tents, kids' events and so much more! Visit the Mint Festival website for all the reasons to make the annual trip to St. Johns, you'll be glad you did. Of course, you'll want to stay at the Nordic Pineapple, so book your reservations early. Don't forget to check out the Livingston Farms website, where you can find out more about their grass-fed beef, maple syrup and of course, their mint oils and mint compost!  
Gene Livingston drawing off mint oil from the receiving can

Andy and Gene give us one last look at the history

"During the heyday of mint production in St. Johns, there was a very romantic aspect to distilling. Being in a still is mesmerizing with all the steam and all the activity going on. Almost every still in the area had a steam whistle. The whistle was used partially for communication between the people in the field and the people in the still. If you wanted to get up there with that load, you needed it right now, you blew the whistle. If it was breaktime, you blew the whistle.

But there was also kind of a contest between mint farmers in the area, a test of strength if you will. You could hear the whistles all around the area. Maybe not in the city, but certainly out in the country. In those days the steam was created by burning coal, so it was a contest to see who could get steam up first in the morning, a contest to see who could blow their whistle first."