Caught up in the patriotic fervor of the time, farmer Ed Renkiewiscz pulled up to the chamber’s collection site and deposited six large burlap bags of pods onto the ground. “Here is a donation to the USO and Red Cross Fund from my two sons Edward and Michael,” he said. “They picked them Monday afternoon after school.” When re-sacked into the standard onion bags, the contribution amounted to 28 bags—enough for 14 life jackets. “We shall have more by the end of the week,” Renkiewiscz promised.
In spite of a rainy season that threatened the first year’s quota, nearly every available milkweed pod was picked. More than 15,200 pounds of pods hung from the fences of the Emmet County fairgrounds as of October 6 and 20,000 pounds were expected by mid-month. Even in subsequent years, when pods were sent in from all around, Emmet County consistently harvested more than any other Michigan county or state. It is believed that northern Michigan citizens in general contributed over 60 percent of the overall crop.
Seeking to outdo their 1942 effort, the Petoskey Area Chamber of Commerce closed the city down at noon on September 29, 1943 so that merchants and community groups could participate in a regional bee. Not hampered by rain this time, the effort was deemed a great success. For example, Boyne Falls reported that its allotment of 3,000 bags was quickly exceeded and that 5,000 additional bags had to be sent to the field.
By the time the 1944 harvest was underway in early September, the milkweed processing operation was in full bloom. The 1944 quota was set at 3 million pounds of floss (to be extracted from 30 million pounds of pods). Emmet County had 13 buying stations. Charlevoix County boasted 10, including one administered by Sister Agnes Clare of Beaver Island. In Cross Village, the students and teachers at Holy Cross School collected nearly two tons of pods, ensuring that the local buying station would live up to its stated goal of “Much More in ’44.”
A campaign was undertaken in cooperation with the U.S. Office of Education to encourage children in rural schools to participate in pod collection. Every child in the field meant one more adult free to contribute to other wartime concerns. Public schools in 50 Michigan counties and four Ohio counties took part in the program, as did many private institutions. An informational brochure urged: “School children of America! Help save your fathers’, brothers’, and neighbors’ lives by collecting milkweed pods.”
Teachers, most heading one-room schoolhouses, were asked to direct the collecting activities of their students. Pods were dried at family farms and, after receiving notice from the local agricultural agent, the teacher would ask his or her students to bring them to the building for pick up.
There were countless stories about successful school drives. For example, members of Edna S. Galbraith’s 1944 class at the Red School near Gaylord picked 400 bags over the course of four days.
For these schoolchildren and others like them, the milkweed collection drive would be a passing memory in a full life. For Boris Berkman, the war years were a proving ground for his ideas and possibly the highlight of his career.
Berkman saw floss as only a small part of the milkweed miracle. He was looking forward to the post-war era, to a time when free milkweed seed would be distributed to farmers. Experiments were underway to develop cultivation methods as well as mechanical pod pickers, ranging from hand-held devices to tractor- and horse-drawn outfits. Milkweed held the promise of becoming a new industry, once the nation returned to normalcy. The citizens of Petoskey shared his enthusiasm and enjoyed the prospect of hosting this innovation.
But their collective dream was dashed when the war ended and access to kapok became unrestricted. What’s more, researchers in America were beginning to develop a synthetic replacement that was better at saving lives than any plant material.
Because of these developments, the 1945 crop of milkweed pods went unharvested. And that November, the processing plant was put up for sale. As advertised by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation’s Surplus Property Division, it consisted of “Concrete and Stucco; 47,500 sq. feet; Building, machinery, and equipment designed to process milkweed floss for use as filling in certain type preserver jackets.”
Still Considered a Success
Berkman continued to champion the milkweed cause, registering various patents including the use of the plant’s floss as an “ear defender” (ear plug) and clothing liner. But he was never able to raise interest in developing another processing facility.
Still, his achievements as the head of the Milkweed Floss Corporation of America did stand on their own. Under his leadership, it is estimated that enough material was collected and processed over the life of the Petoskey facility to fill 1.2 million life preservers.
Gerald Wykes is a historian, interpreter, and freelance illustrator living in Monroe.