Growing up in the mushroom capital

By Christian Cordova-Pedroza
Landenberg, Pa.

Like most great inventions, Kennett Square was an accidental success. In the late 19th century, European entrepreneur William Swayne traveled to Kennett Square, a small farming region west of Philadelphia, with the intention of cultivating carnations on raised platforms in his greenhouse. In the vacant space below the flowers, he decided to grow mushrooms. Swayne’s initial efforts were successful, so he built the first mushroom house in Kennett Square. As mushroom consumption increased and more markets opened near major ports and cities, the mushroom industry in Kennett boomed—and the town became the mushroom capital of the world. 

When I came to the Princeton Summer Journalism Program, not many people knew of Kennett Square, much less its role in the mushroom business. When my counselors at camp joked about it, I realized that I wasn’t in Kennett Square anymore.

In the past hundred years, Kennett’s mushroom production has grown exponentially. Swayne’s original mushroom house multiplied and Kennett’s small trade grew into a multi-million dollar industry.

For the past 100 years, Kennett Square has held an annual mushroom festival  with mushroom exhibitions, farm tours, and growers’ demonstrations to celebrate the town’s unique history.

Each year, when I visit the mushroom festival, I like to walk down Kennett’s main street and take note of all the intricate exhibits. Local bands and artists come together on this day to bring the community closer. And then, of course, there is the cuisine.

While all of Kennett’s mushroom dishes are great—you can try soups and burgers and quiches, among others—the best of all is Kennett’s homemade mushroom ice cream. I recommend it to all who visit. Its savory taste is one that you’ll only find in the mushroom capital in the world, but it’s distinctive: You’ll have to try it for yourself and form your own opinion.

Some of the revenue generated from the mushroom festival is distributed to 41 local non-profit organizations dedicated to making Kennett Square a more lively and better place. Last year, a total of about $65,000 was awarded.

But more than just a vehicle for financial success, the mushroom business is also something that links the community together. A large part of the community is directly tied with the mushroom business; our shared culture unites us because the citizens feel that they are part of something greater.

My own father is a mushroom cultivator who has taught me much about the how the mushroom business actually works. As a teenager, he came a long way from his small rural town in Touluca, Mexico. He traveled to Kennett Square in search of his dream to give his children the life he never had. My father had a friend who worked in the mushroom industry and helped him find a job. Once he had established himself financially, he brought along my mother, who gave birth to me a few months later. As a child, I found his work fascinating because it was so different from the typical jobs I heard about in school.

The mushroom festival might seem like a simple, small town American tradition, but the connection to the mushroom culture in my hometown helped us bridge larger cultural divides.

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