The Mogul of Ginseng

It was an unlikely beginning for a mogul. Charles Maurice Goodspeed (1854-1927) was the son of a Baptist pastor, the Rev. William Lester Goodspeed, and Esther Goodspeed. After time in the local schools wherever his father served – Navarino, North Manlius, Thorn Hill – Charles was sent to study for the ministry at the Colgate Academy in Hamilton, N.Y. But trouble with his eyes, caused by “over use,” ended his college career and his ministerial aspirations.

Instead, he went to work as a farmer in Thorn Hill (the area around the intersection of today’s Church and Rose Hill Roads in the town of Spafford). Charles was drawn to more unusual crops and items that other farmers ignored, such as small fruit plants, clover, fancy poultry, and queen bees. In 1880, he had printed 5,000 copies of a small catalog, offering such items along with “a small list of periodicals at club prices,” i.e., magazines grouped together at a discount. Soon he was selling queen bees by mail to customers all over the world. In 1881, he issued his first catalog devoted to magazines, and that business mushroomed, with 100,000 catalogs going out and $50,000 a year coming in.

William Beauchamp, in his Past and Present of Onondaga County (1908), gave a hint as to why Goodspeed was so successful:

“In childhood he was timid in the extreme but this very quality perhaps enabled him, as a spectator, to put a more correct value upon the things of life than if he had been a more active participant therein. He gained a more impartial view and he learned early to set a high value on promptness in business matters.”

Magazines

Beauchamp also wrote that Goodspeed’s magazine business was so successful that the U.S. Post Office made him postmaster of his own post office. But that’s not exactly how it happened. Although the Thorn Hill post office was only a mile from his house, Goodspeed prevailed upon his Congressional Representative, James J. Belden, to have the U.S. Post Office establish a new post office, which Goodspeed named “Shamrock, N.Y.” The postal locale of Shamrock was, essentially, Goodspeed’s house. As a postmaster, Goodspeed received the face value of every stamp he sold – to himself, his only customer. In short, he mailed his advertising circulars and magazines for free.

Shamrock Seed

However, this gravy train could not roll forever. Goodspeed’s patron left office in March of 1899, and a few months later the post office of Shamrock, N.Y., was officially discontinued by Presidential decree. But Goodspeed still had the stationery.

And he had made enough money to branch out. In 1896, he bought 18 wild acres at Five Mile Point, where Factory Gulf meets Skaneateles Lake. He began building a summer home, cottages, a caretaker’s home and a pavilion. He bought the artist’s studio of Nelson Bowdish and moved it to East Lake Road, at the entrance to his new summer place. He called it Edgewater Park. He planted trees for shade and maple trees, which he began tapping 20 years later for maple syrup.

Goodspeed always had a lot going on, and in 1900, ginseng appeared. On a camping trip, his friend Elmer Van Benschoten pointed out some ginseng plants in the woods; Goodspeed brought about a dozen home, thinking he could cultivate them. He was right. Soon he was doing mail-order business in ginseng and goldenseal, two hot items in herbal remedies and tonics. He grew his own, and bought and resold the produce of others. In 1902, he began publishing his own magazine, Special Crops, filled with advice to growers, notes on medicinal roots and herbs, letters and advertisements. He soon had more than a thousand subscribers and was bringing in tens of thousands of dollars a year from the sale of ginseng alone.

In spreading the word about ginseng, he was not afraid that too many growers would glut the market. He later wrote:

“The following few facts insure that there will be no overproduction, at least for a long time to come: The time it takes to mature a crop is longer than the bulk of tillers of the soil will wait for returns. The cost of shade and other matters needed to make a good large start looks too large and that, coupled with the long wait for returns, is too much for Young America. The man of leisure and means hesitates because it needs too much of his personal time and attention.”

In 1903, Goodspeed bought a lot in the village of Skaneateles from Henry Tucker. Over the next two years, he sold off his Thorn Hill home, with its 13 acres of property, and two farms, and his magazine subscription business. He continued building at Edgewater and built a home in the village at the northeast corner of East Genesee and East Lake Streets (where it still stands).

In 1906, he wrote, “Through all this shifting and moving you can imagine that we have had our hands full. We have had not only the ordinary moving but have had to move our gardens twice.” The gardens in Skaneateles were on the land now occupied by Goodspeed Place, and were open to visitors every day but Sunday.

In 1908 and 1910, Goodspeed bought lots from Mrs. Margaret Benson and Mrs. C.J. Horsington to build more houses on East Genesee Street. In July of 1910 he wrote that he didn’t even have time to go fishing at Edgewater, and shortly thereafter he collapsed from overwork, to which you may fairly say, “Finally.” His doctor told him to take several months off.

Perhaps as a sign that he was cutting back, in 1911 he hired Albert “Bert” Dudden, a recently arrived English gardener, to help out at Edgewater. (In 1918, Bert Dudden accepted a position at the new Skaneateles Country Club where he served as the groundskeeper for 40 years.)

Goodspeed added to his workload with service to the community. At various times he served as a village trustee, as the supervisor of schools, as the Town of Skaneateles Supervisor and as chairman of the Onondaga County Board of Supervisors. He was on the board of the Syracuse State Home for Mental Defectives. He was a member of the Masonic Lodge, Commodore of the Skaneateles Yacht Club (which had no yachts), and active in the Skaneateles Baptist church.

In that regard, a Skaneateles Press clipping from December 9, 1910 is worth sharing:

“The banquet of the Pastor’s Bible Class, held in the home of Bro. Charles M. Goodspeed last Wednesday evening was a success. The house and the tables were decorated with beautiful carnations and chrysanthemums and everyone received a cordial reception at the door by Miss Nellie Goodspeed [Charles’ sister]. At 7:30, forty-two found themselves seated at the tables to a chicken-pie supper served a la Krebs, after which an elaborate program began. Mr. Surdam sang in fine voice, ‘Sailor, Beware.’ Dr. Milton Gregg, president of the class, acted as toastmaster and called on Lawrence Whiting and the pastor, who responded, ‘The Class and Teacher –The Need of the Sunday School for the Present Day.’ It was a blessed time of fellowship.”

Goodspeed’s business was also in the news. In December of 1911, Goodspeed sold $15,000 worth of goldenseal roots to a buyer in Los Angeles, and planned to go south in May and June to supervise the gathering and shipment of the order. In November of 1913, the Skaneateles Free Press reported that Goodspeed had just sent 1,000 pounds of ginseng to Manila.

In the village, his building continued. In 1912, he had a cellar excavated for a fifth house to be built on his property, and in July of that year, Edward S. Dent, who was building the house, tumbled from the roof, breaking both wrists. In 1917, Goodspeed acquired a permit to build yet another house on East Genesee.

On August 8, 1922, the Syracuse Post-Standard ran an article that tells us as much about the era as about Charles Goodspeed:

“Superstitious Chinese Buy Ginseng from Skaneateles – C. M. Goodspeed Carries on Commerce with Far East – Sells for Others, Too – Supervisor Grows Root to Ward Off Evils for Celestials.

“Your superstitious ‘Rastus’ totes about in his left hip pocket the left hind foot of a rabbit, killed in a cemetery at midnight. Whites, just as superstitious, carry other ‘luck’ pieces. Some pack a lucky coin, others have hidden about their persons other charms to ward off trouble. But the superstitious Chinese carries about in his blouse a strip of ginseng and believes himself safe from the powers of evil that have swarmed about his ancestors and now have turned their attention to him. What the rabbit’s foot is to ‘Rastus,’ the ginseng root is to Jack Chinaman.

“The tentacles of this strange superstition reach right into Onondaga county, for the county boasts the only white man who makes a business of selling this charm root to the superstitious in far-off China. He is Charles M. Goodspeed, supervisor of the Town of Skaneateles. Mr. Goodspeed not only grows this root himself but he buys relatively large quantities from other growers, shipping his batch each six weeks to China, where the root is used not only as a luck charm but where every medicinal prescription contains some trace of ginseng and it is even used in religious ceremonies.”

Charles Goodspeed continued in the “strange” ginseng business, although by the mid-1920s its value was down to about $4,000 a year.

Special Crops

On another note, in the May 1926 issue of Special Crops, Goodspeed wrote about the maple and locust trees he had planted at Edgewater 20 years before, now mature and beautiful. “My friends laughed at me,” he wrote, “saying I would never live to get any benefit from either planting. The lesson is: just because you are along in years don’t hesitate, because if you should not happen to live long enough to reap the benefit, someone else will be benefited.”

In April of 1927, Charles M. Goodspeed died at home of heart disease. He was 73 years old, and survived by his wife, Elizabeth A. (Harris) Goodspeed. He left an estate of $43,000, most of it in real estate. Elizabeth died in 1939.

In 1945, Charles and Elizabeth’s daughter, Mrs. Raymond V. (Minnie) Surdam, tried to sell Edgewater to Onondaga County for a park, but the Mayor of Syracuse nixed the idea, saying it would endanger the city’s water supply. Minnie said her father would have liked it to become a park, but she wasn’t going to fight City Hall.

* * *

Views of Charles Goodspeed’s Edgewater Park at Five Mile Point, from covers of Special Crops:

Edgewater 1

Edgewater 2

Edgewater 3

Edgewater 4

Edgewater 5

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