The arrival of Rosen rye in the United States dates back more than 100 years, when Joseph Rosen emigrated from Russia to study agriculture at Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University). The rise to greatness for this highly coveted grain is rich with passion, drama and intrigue, and has even been immortalized through a 1940s radio program reenactment. Explore more through our interactive timeline.
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1903: Exiled by the Czar, Joseph Rosen Emigrates to U.S.
Exiled from his country as a youth, Dr. Rosen studied the agricultural problems of America and Russia at Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University). Years after his graduation, he brought a rye back from Russia that begins to flourish in so many Western States, eventually bearing his name.
1906: MAC Hires Dr. Frank Spragg as Plant Breeder
Michigan Agricultural College, the first of the Land Grant colleges, was also the first institution in the U. S. to employ a full-time plant breeder when Dr. Frank Spragg was hired.
1909: Rosen Receives 2,000 Seeds from Father
Rosen requests seeds of a popular and hardy rye from his father back in Russia for Dr. Spragg to grow and research at MAC.
1912: MAC Sends First Bushel of Rosen Rye Seed to Michigan Farmers
One bushel distributed in 1912 was placed in the hands of a Jackson County farmer. Soon the whole area from Parma in western Jackson County to Albion in eastern Calhoun County grew Rosen rye as a winter crop, foregoing wheat.
1915: At One Million Acres of Rosen Rye, Quality Begins to Diminish
Within three years, Rosen rye is grown everywhere in the midwest, but cross-pollination decreases quality of grain and almost all of the desirable characteristics of the varietal are gone.
The Michigan Crop Improvement Association was incorporated in 1927 as a nonprofit education and service organization by Michigan seed growers. The purpose is to promote the use of improved seed stocks and serve as an official seed certification agency. Only 5% of Rosen seeds are certified pure.
1917: MAC Scouts Locations to Maintain Pure Rosen Rye
Joseph Cox, head of Michigan Agricultural College’s Farm Crops department, hunts for locations to grow absolutely pure Rosen rye, using those farms as seed stock for farms on the mainland. Ten miles out in Lake Michigan, off Sleeping Bear Point, he determines South Manitou Island to be ideal.
1918: Certified Rosen Rye Seed in High Demand
With the plentiful production of Rosen rye on South Manitou Island, and with the backing of the MCIA, farmers in 39 states order certified Rosen rye seed.
1918: Manitou Farmers Form Compact to Protect Rosen Rye
As South Manitou farmers harvest 20 bushels per acre of Rosen rye, versus 9-11 bushels of other native ryes, they form an agreement to “drown anybody who raised any rye but Rosen” on the island’s seven farms.
1919: Rosen Rye Wins First of Many Awards for Best Rye in the U.S. and Canada
Michigan’s showing in the rye class will go down in history as most remarkable and likely never equalled. Of the 30 prizes offered, Michigan won 27 total—the first 22 were all taken by Michigan farmers. This demonstrated the value of high-grade Rosen rye, foretelling an increase in the demand.
1920: Joseph Rosen Returns to Russia
President Truman selects Rosen to found agricultural communities in order to prevent pogroms and lead effort to resettle 250,000 Jews. Many of his associates were eventually executed during the Great Purge around 1937.
1920: Michigan Becomes Largest Rye Producer in U.S.
Because Rosen allows rye to become a commercially viable winter crop, rye production booms and leads Michigan to become the largest rye producer in the country.
1924: Dr. Spragg is Killed in a Car Accident
The industry laments a great loss, referring to Professor Spragg as the Burbank of American Agriculture. No other one person has ever achieved such valuable results in plant breeding for any state as he has for Michigan and her sister states.
1928: Rye Kings of Manitou Dominate Competition
For six of the previous seven years, the Hutzlers have gone to the Chicago show and returned having won the rye championship of the United States and Canada. They continue to supply the only registered Rosen rye seed that can be obtained in the United States.
1934: Rosen Rye Referenced in Whiskey Advertising
Schenley launches advertising campaign promoting their newly released Bottled in Bond Rye Whiskey in which they emphasize its being made from “Michigan Rosen Rye—the most flavorful kernel mother earth ever created.”
1940: Rosen Rye Story Dramatized for Radio
The US Department of Agriculture commissions a radio show based on the relationship between Michigan Agricultural College and the farmers of South Manitou Island, further solidifying the story of Rosen Rye.
1970: National Park Service Acquires Manitou
When the Coast Guard closed its station on the island in the early 1950s, most islanders simply locked their doors and left with little more than a few of their most treasured personal belongings. Vandals, looters and the ravages of nature contributed to the decline of the island’s infrastructure for the next twenty years until South Manitou Island became part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
1970: Michter's Ceases Distillation of Rosen Rye
Rosen was one of the dominant types of rye grown in Pennsylvania, owing in no small part to decades of marketing by Michter’s. As the last distiller in the U.S. using Rosen rye, the end of their preference for this distilling grain finally concluded this long story of the rise and fall of Rosen rye.
1991: Hutzler Farm Becomes an Historic Site
The National Park Service restored many of the historic buildings on South Manitou Island, preserving these important cultural resources for future generations. The Hutzler Farm is specifically identified as an official historic site, and recognized as the location where “George Conrad Hutzler, Jr. was the first on South Manitou Island to experiment with the development of hybrids. Rosen (Russian) rye was developed here on Hutzler’s farm.”
2015: Rosen Rye Begins a Comeback
Pennsylvania distillers Dad’s Hat and Stole & Wolfe partner with Valley Fields Foundation, Penn State’s agricultural extension, to once again begin cultivating Rosen rye in the state.
Through the USDA seed bank in Colorado, Mammoth Distilling obtains certified Rosen rye seed to serve as foundation seed for a newly planned Rosen rye seed farm on South Manitou Island.
2019: Rosen Rye Propagated at Michigan State University
Michigan State University’s Ag-Bio Research employs large walk-in coolers and isolated greenhouses to grow multiple cycles of Rosen rye in a single year, producing enough certified seed for Mammoth Distilling to begin a foundation crop.
2020: Mammoth Receives Special Use Permit from NPS
On October 8th, with help from Michigan State University, Empire Malt, and the National Park Service, Mammoth Distilling sows an initial foundation crop on Hutzler Farm—the first Rosen rye to be planted on S. Manitou Island since 1950. This foundation seed will be replanted on a larger plot in 2021 and those seeds will then be distributed to mainland farmers in 2022 to begin cultivation of distillation stock.