Its name means “man root,” because the potent man-shaped roots were thought to be a powerful aphrodisiac or at least a stimulant. This snake-oil tonic and early Viagra was American ginseng (panax quinquefolius) that grew wild across the Big Woods of Minnesota and Wisconsin. American Indians used ginseng as medicine, and early European settlers thought that it might make them immune to mosquito bites. These early pioneers dubbed the plant “sang,” and “sangers” went foraging for the wild roots under the shade of deciduous trees in the lush forests of Minnesota.
After the economic panic of 1857, farmers in Minnesota needed new income fast. Edward and Joseph Chilton moved from Iowa to Wayzata to open a ginseng station to buy and dry the plants from foragers “sanging” in the woods. One branch of their business was across the lake in Excelsior where ginseng entrepreneur J. H. Clark bought up plants and shipped boatloads of roots over the waves and then out east.
The Chiltons kept their business relatively quiet to avoid a ginseng rush, but when this edible “gold” reaped $10,000 in 1858, the news was out. A distributor in Virginia tried to run a competing ginseng distributor in Pennsylvania out of business by paying top dollar, but the supply from Minnesota seemed endless.
Diggers could make $5 a day, a hefty sum at the time, and the Chiltons were rumored to have as much as $50,000 to pay out so the woods were filled with ginseng hunters. Immigrants moved from Wisconsin just to dig ginseng, and many pioneers set out on long excursions in search of this buried treasure. Practically every general merchandise store in the Big Woods dealt in ginseng on some level. Once the dirt was washed off, the roots were typically laid out to dry on wooden platforms, but the Chiltons in Wayzata used a special ginseng kiln for quicker results.
By the middle of 1859, the ginseng boom had gone bust. Demand for ginseng stayed alive, though, and the Minnesota state legislature passed the “Ginseng Law” of 1865 that protected the plants still in the wild and only allowed very limited harvesting after August 1 of any given year. To avoid long treks into the wild to dig clandestine plants, residents of Mound cultivated their own ginseng in their shady gardens as early as 1909. Still today, ginseng poachers try their luck to find some ancient roots filled with energy to stimulate the spirit.