Albert May Todd was born on June 3, 1850 in Joseph County, Michigan, near Nottawa. He was the youngest of ten children born to Alfred and Mary Ann Hovey Todd, who were farmers of Scotch ancestry. The name Todd is derived from the Scottih word tod, meaning fox. This is represented by historic Todd famly crest which bears three fox heads and a fox running away with a goose and the motto “Oportet Vivere”, meaning “one must live (even if he has to steal for it)”.
Later family members chose not to display this somewhat questionable motto and modified it to show in addition to the three fox heads, simply a fox sitting rather than stealing a goose.
Albert’s father Alfred, was born in Marcellius, New York in 1799, and had moved his family to Michigan in 1835 when he purchased an 80 acre farm near the village of Nottawa. At that time, the land was still thick, primeval forest which had to be cleared, and only about about 45 acres were suitable for growing crops. However, the Todds were staunch Presbyterians and industrious farmers and supported their large family entirely with the produce of this little farm, which had to be drawn by horse and wagon sixty miles to the nearest railroad.
During his first few years of school, Albert walked a mile and a half every day to the little red schoolhouse near Nottawa. Later a school was built on the Todd farm and he attended classes there in between the many chores and farm work that needed to be done. He attended and graduated from high school in the little town of Sturgis, seven miles from his home.
After this, he joined with his next older brother Oliver, in cultivating and distilling peppermint oil. Peppermint had first been introduced to St. Joseph County, Michigan by a Mr. Sawyer, who brought roots from Ohio in 1835. He planted them on the White Pigeon Prairie, selling his operation to Glover & Earle the next year. They continued for a time but the soil in this area proved not to be well suited for the peppermint crops.
Another pair of brothers, Marshall and Orrin Craw, obtained peppermint roots about 1840 and introduced them to the oak openings in the northern part of the Florence township, where they grew quite well. The peppermint business was then taken to a commercial level by John Smith and Harrison Ranney, two farmers who had gained experience in peppermint growing and distilling in Wayne County, New York. H.G. Hotchkiss of Lyons, in Wayne County, New York had taken steps in 1844 to establish a monopoly by paying farmers in New York and Michigan to limit their crops for several years. After about three years, he had gained such a large fortune, he ceased to enforce it, and bought only from New York farmers. This encouraged the Michigan farmers to expand production to the extent that by 1850, 100,000 to 150,000 pounds of peppermint were being produced win St. Joseph County alone, which more than all the rest of the crops in the world combined. Mr. Henry Hall of Three Rivers was the largest dealer at that time, with a 900 acre farm and four distilleries.
Young Albert Todd was fascinated by all of this and felt sure he could make a prosperous living. He borrowed $100, and rented five acres from his father, in partnership with his brother and established the A.M. Todd Company in 1869 when he was just 19 years old. The Todd brothers made enough money that by 1873, Albert was able to attend Northwestern University in Illinois for a time, where he studied chemistry. However, due to illness he was obliged to discontinue his studies and traveled to Europe to recuperate.
Evidently, the trip served Albert well, and he took advantage of the time to study Eureopean methods of peppermint cultivation and distillation. Meanwhile, Oliver decided he did not wish to continue in the peppermint business and asked his brother to take it over, so Albert bought him out. With the knowledge of chemistry he had learned while studying at college, and his observations while traveling in Europe, he set about planning to improve upon these crude methods and develop superior methods for cultivating and distilling the crop. Albert went heavily in debt, and many laughed as he purchased 1400 acres of black, mucky swamp land for $25,000 to develop his new peppermint enterprise. Extensive work had to be done clearing the land of tangled wood-growth, stumps and roots, and miles of deep drainage ditches had to be dug. And after all that, the land was still so boggy that the horses had to be fitted with strange, cumbersome, “bog shoes” in order to avoid sinking deeply into the mire. These round, wooden contraptions about a foot in diameter, resembled snowshoes and were held on with straps.
Nevertheless, up to that time, the reputation of Michigan peppermint was not the best, so Albert had his work cut out for him, despite the large production. Many farmers were not careful about weeding their crops which reduced the quality of the oil. Adulteration was often practiced by diluting the peppermint oil with one third rectified spirits. Turpentine or pennyroyal was also sometimes used by unscrupulous dealers to extend the oils and increase their profits. The Hotchkiss brand continued to be the gold standard of purity in peppermint oil, and Albert set out to compete with this.
Over the next several years, Albert continued to add to his holdings. He called his farm Campania, building it to 1640 acres, and keeping about half of it planted in peppermint. He added huge barns, comfortable houses for himself and his employees with libraries and reading rooms, distilleries, warehouses, ice houses, windmills, and more, turning it into a small village. Albert treated his employees kindly and fairly, feeling they would do better service, and this practice served him well. He then added a second farm, which he called Mentha, consisting of 2000 acres, and finally a 7000 acre farm farther north which was called the Sylvania Range. Being thrifty, he made the land work for him, and raised a herd of 500 shorthorn cattle, letting them graze in summer, and feeding them mint hay during the winter months, a diet which they thrived upon.
Altogether, these farms totalled 10,640 acres, making the peppermint farms of A.M. Todd the largest in the world. Like H.G. Hotchkiss had done, Albert obtained Black Mitcham peppermint root stock from England in 1883, and developed the black peppermint variety which yielded more oil. Albert also developed refining and redistilling techniques. His brand of Crystal White double distilled peppermint, which he patented in 1875, became well known and won many prizes. These included a Gold Medals and diplomas at the United States Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, 1876; the Chicago World’s Fair Exposition, 1893; the Paris World’s Fair Exposition, 1900; the Pan American World’s Fair Exposition in Buffalo, New York, 1901; and the St. Louis World’s Fair Exposition, 1904.
Albert was among the first to develop tests and standards to maintain the quality of his oils. He also tested and exposed fraudulent oils, including some who attempted to forge his Crystal White peppermint oil. His Mentha farm developed into an entire small community of its own with school, store, and post office. This rare video from the Kalamazoo Public Library shows actual footage of the Mentha farm, and the planting, harvesting, and distilling of peppermint oil there.
Meanwhile, Albert ran for Governor of Michigan in 1894 under the Prohibition Party, but was unsuccessful. He tried in 1895 to fill a vacant seat in Congress during a special election, which was also unsuccessful, but finally won a Congressional seat on the Democratic ticket in 1896, serving until 1898, but failing to win reelection. Over the years, he made several trips to Europe, and in addition to carrying out details of his peppermint business, he also collected fine art, rare books, and other artifacts, collecting more than 10,000 pieces of memorabilia.
By the time H.G. Hotchkiss died in 1897, Albert was poised to take the lead in the peppermint industry, and he came to be known as “The Peppermint King of Kalamazoo”. The Hotchkiss brand maintained its stellar reputation and many of the European buyers, as well as pharmaceutical companies and other longstanding customers, chose to stay with it. However, new markets for peppermint oil in the flavor industry were expanding rapidly. William Wrigley Jr. began marketing his famous DoubleMint gum, flavored with peppermint oil, and soon BeechNut, American Chicle, and other companies began selling widely popular gums and candies flavored with peppermint oil.
In 1924, verticillium wilt, a soil-borne fungus was discovered in Michigan crops. This was followed by a severe frost in late May of 1925 which decimated the peppermint crops. As production of peppermint oil suffered, prices rose, and by 1925 the price of peppermint oil had gone up from $4.50 to $32 a pound. The A. M. Todd company went to work developing disease resistant strains. Albert died in 1931 at the age of 81, but the A.M. Todd company continued to thrive, passing down through generations of his family until it was sold in 2011 to the Swiss Company, Wild Flavors. The company continues to operate as a subsidiary of Wild Flavors at its location in Kalamazoo, Michigan, although it no longer grows any peppermint. Most peppermint production has moved west to Oregon and Washington, with Oregon currently the leading producer of peppermint oil, representing 34% of the nation’s crop.