James Rada, Jr.
When Luther Powell and his brothers attended the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, they saw a presentation about raising goldfish. Upon returning home, they realized that their farm had a good water supply, so they dug ponds and began a new business venture.
The idea caught on with other farmers who saw it as a way to make money from their ponds, and within a few years, nearly all of the goldfish in America were coming from Frederick County.
“At one point, 83 percent of the goldfish in the country were from Frederick County,” said Bill Powell, Luther’s grandson.
Bred in China for their color, goldfish were the first non-indigenous fish brought into the United States. The historical record does not confirm an arrival date, but stories with references to goldfish put their arrival as early as 1826. They were being sold as pets by the 1850s, and interest in them spiked after P. T. Barnum opened the first public aquarium in 1856.
One suggestion for the popularity of goldfish in the county is that the German families that settled in the county enjoyed a fish-rich diet, which had led to a depletion of fish in the local streams. They purchased carp from the government to supplement the natural fish population. The carp were shipped in cans, and some goldfish, which are cousins to carp, also stowed away in the cans.
Ernest Tresselt wrote in his book Autobiography of a Goldfish Farmer, “That’s how goldfish found its way to the Maryland countryside, on the tails of edible carp. It is easy to speculate that one or more farms in Frederick County got goldfish along with their carp during the period when the carp culture in farm fish ponds was advocated as a supplementary food supply.”
Charles J. Ramsburg of Lewistown is believed to be the first goldfish farmer in Frederick County. By the early 1900s, Ramsberg was shipping about a million fish a year around the country, according to History of Frederick County.
Another pioneer in goldfish farming was Ernest R. Powell of Lewistown. In 1892, at the age of twelve, Powell began to breed goldfish. By 1910, when his biography appeared in History of Frederick County, Powell had become successful enough in his enterprise to be identified as “one of the largest dealers of goldfish in Frederick County.”
More farmers began entering the business, using existing farm ponds or new ponds dug by hand with shovels, wheelbarrows, and horse-drawn scoops. “In the early part of the century, I think people in the county, especially farmers, saw goldfish as a way of making extra money,” Tresselt said in a 2006 interview.
Tresselt believed that goldfish farming flourished in the county in part due to “the availability of water on many farms because of the mountain streams and springs. The temperate climate, with its distinct seasonal changes, is ideal for the propagation of goldfish.”
George Leicester Thomas, who founded Three Springs Fisheries in 1917 in Buckeystown, believed that the success of goldfish farming in Frederick County was largely due to the fact that the mineral content of the water was well-suited for goldfish. Thomas’ grandson, Charles, agreed, saying that the rich color of the goldfish resulted from good breeding stock and water rich in nutrients from truckloads of manure dumped in the ponds. “The manure has nutrients that fish thrive on and actually all they have to do is open their mouths in order to eat,” he told the Frederick Post in 1981. It was these nutrients in the water, according to Thomas, that gave Frederick County goldfish the reputation of being the best-colored goldfish in the country.
George Thomas started his business as a roadside stand in Buckeystown that sold the vegetables and goldfish that he grew on his farm. “He had a keen eye for finding some type of venture where he might be successful,” Charles Thomas said of his grandfather in a 2006 interview. While customers may have bought his vegetables, they tended to show more interest in the goldfish bred in his goldfish hatchery, Three Springs Fisheries. When the U.S. postal authorities agreed to establish a branch office near the fishery to assist in the shipping of the goldfish, they asked George Thomas to select a name; in 1932, the Lilypons post office branch was created. By the end of World War II, Thomas’ fish hatchery, now known as Lilypons, had become the world’s largest producer of goldfish.
Hunting Creek Fisheries near Thurmont was started by Frederick Tresselt, a graduate of Cornell University, who had worked at the state trout hatchery in Hackettstown, New Jersey. “In driving around the county with a friend in 1922, Dad was amazed to see all the goldfish ponds in the area,” his son, Ernest, said in 2006. “Every farm that could, had fish ponds. It was a cash crop for them [the farmers].” Hunting Creek Fisheries opened in 1923 and is still in operation today as a family-run business, raising ornamental fish and aquatic plants.
Tresselt believed that Frederick County might not have had the oldest goldfish farms in the country, but the county did have the most goldfish farmers. At the peak of goldfish farming in the county (1920s and 1930s), he estimates that as many as thirty or more farms were raising millions of goldfish. The 1925 News-Post Yearbook and Almanac listed the county’s production at three-and-a-half to four million goldfish on 400-500 acres.
The Powells eventually had 45 acres of ponds on their properties, and would ship out 120,000 goldfish a week from September through November.
“In the early days, we would get the fish out of the ponds and ship them around the country to five and dime stores,” Powell said.
These goldfish were sold for $10 to $50 per thousand, and the value of the yearly production was approximately $75,000. By 1932, production increased to seven million goldfish on 500-600 acres, with goldfish selling for $35 to $70 per thousand (retail price five-ten cents each). Reports estimated Frederick County goldfish farmers had brought $1.5 million into the county.
In 1920, county farmers organized the Gold Fish Breeders Association of Frederick County, in part to fight against the high cost of shipping, property assessments on goldfish ponds, and other issues of importance to Frederick County goldfish farmers. The organization ended once many of the county goldfish farmers left the business.
Early goldfish farming was relatively simple. In the spring, farmers stocked their ponds with breeder goldfish. The goldfish reproduced, and the young grew through the summer. Feeding the fish was kept at a minimum. Generally, some form of ground grain, like wheat middlings or ground corn, was the food of choice. The breeders were kept in the deepest ponds since these ponds provided a good water supply over the winter.
Powell said that his family looked for fish with long fins and thick bodies. They would spread Spanish moss in the ponds where the goldfish could lay their eggs. The moss was then moved to empty ponds so that the goldfish wouldn’t eat the newly hatched fish.
In the fall, the goldfish were harvested and sorted by size. Buyers would come driving trucks full of fish cans in which to carry the fish, or farmers would ship the fish to the buyers. A single farmer might ship thousands of fish each day during the harvest.
“At first, we were shipping dark fish to bait shops for fishermen, but later they began to say that the colored fish caught more fish, and they wanted them,” Powell said.
Goldfish production in Frederick County soared. By 1920, eighty percent of goldfish produced in the United States originated in Frederick County. By 1931, the U.S. Commerce Department reported that the goldfish industry was a $945,000 business in the United States. Throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, the publications of the News- Post Year Book and Almanac note that Frederick County had “more goldfish produced than in any part of the United States.” Interestingly, the yearbooks list goldfish as “selected crops harvested” rather than “livestock on farms.”
Competition was inevitable, however, and by the late 1930s, the appearance of larger, more diversified, growers across the country reduced the demand from Frederick County farms.
Modern technology also worked against county goldfish farmers. Advances in shipping techniques, and the increased variety and quality of goldfish available from growers around the world, gradually changed the goldfish market. By the 1950s, fish could be shipped in plastic bags by air freight. The plastic reduced shipping costs and the planes extended the distance the goldfish could be shipped. This further increased the competition in the market. Air transportation allowed areas that had not previously engaged in goldfish farming—such as Arkansas—to become competitive or even better locations than Frederick. “By going south, you had a longer growing season,” said Charles Thomas. “In a place like Arkansas, instead of having only one crop each season, you could have two.”
The result was that farms producing only common goldfish seasonally, such as those in Frederick County, could not compete. By the 1940s, only a few farms in Frederick County were still cultivating goldfish. “Everything changed,” Tresselt said. “We have to supply fish year round. The competition made it unprofitable for most farmers, and they went out of business.”
Powell’s family got out of the goldfish business in the 1960s. “People didn’t want them. They were starting to ban them from being in lakes. The county had a severe drought that made it hard to keep the ponds full. Fishermen were using spinning lures more than live bait, and kids didn’t want goldfish as pets. They wanted tropical fish that were harder to care for,” Powell said.
By 1980, Lilypons, once the world’s largest producer of goldfish, had diversified so that it now specialized in water garden supplies and plants more than in fish. Hunting Creek Fisheries and Eaton Fisheries also survived by diversifying their offerings into plants, game fish, and/or other types of ornamental fish, such as koi.
Today, there are still fish ponds in Frederick County. Lilypons devotes some of its nearly 500 ponds to goldfish. Hunting Creek Fisheries still has ponds in Thurmont and Lewistown, as does Eaton Fisheries in Lewistown.
Other goldfish ponds have disappeared, however. The Claybaugh fish ponds in Thurmont are now covered over by Mountain Gate Restaurant, Exxon, and McDonald’s. Fish ponds belonging to Ernest Powell and Maurice Albaugh, along Moser Road, no longer exist. The area east of the Maple Run Golf Course used to have Ross Firor’s ponds, but does no more. The ponds on William Powell’s Arrowhead Farms on Apples Church Road north of Thurmont and Frank Rice’s goldfish ponds alongside Route 15 south of Thurmont have been filled in and turned back to pasture.
Frederick County no longer is the biggest producer of goldfish in the country, but there was a time when the county led the country in growing the fish of emperors and kings.