Excerpt from Life in the John:
...Orange County is well known for the black dirt---which actually is black---farming region centered in Pine Island. The black dirt comes from the glacier retreat of 12,000 years ago, which left a lake. It slowly dried up and accumulated a great deal of organic life. The area was drained about 100 years ago. At a maximum depth of about 12 feet, I guess you could say it's reminiscent of loose peat bogs. The black dirt is a phenomenal growing medium. And with the glacial lake origin, it's easy to understand why the region was also known as the “Drowned Lands.”
With all that black dirt, Orange County became and was called the “Onion Capital of the World” for it's huge acreage of yellow, globe onions. With warm weather farmers picking up the pace in California and other environs now, the Pine Island area isn't as important as it once was. But, it's still one of North America's larger onion growing areas. I had always wondered why Orange County onions were so hard to come by until I learned that they were grown in Orange County, shipped to New York City and shipped back to Orange County for retail sale. Rather silly from my point of view, although I can now understand the commercial reasons.
When we were going to school, a number of students were involved with that onion farming around Pine Island, and we became familiar with the area, the successes, and the problems. Since black dirt burns well, the farmers were particularly sensitive about fire. I remember one burning for several weeks. Others have lasted for months. It's rather difficult to quench a fire burning six feet under the surface. [It's also rather difficult to determine how one sets a fire in dirt, six feet down.] And, of course, the weather was a big reason for plentiful or only mediocre results during a growing season.
My friends Richie and Danny and their compatriots exemplified the energetic children of the black dirt. They were always on the go and ready to work or party. And with them and others, we would occasionally go to the annual Onion Harvest Festival, especially to eat the great Polish food. There was a Miss Pine Island or Miss Onion Harvest or something like that, and live music of the polka variety. The festival was always alive. Our area is now home to Jimmy Sturr, the Polka King and many other bands, large and small. Jimmy draws great musicians like honey draws flies, and his wasn't the only big name in the area, though most of the others were local celebrities. Polka and fifties rock and roll! Life was wonderfully varied, that's for sure.
We danced a million polkas in our auditorium/dance hall, but never a tarantelle, despite the number of Italians in our school. I don't remember anybody doing an Irish Jig either. The polka was popular, and we always did several at our dances. Nobody knew how to do the tarantelle, so I guess that may have had something to do about it. [Perhaps those of the Polish persuasion just got to the juke box first.] The Irish jig is more of a show dance, and I had had plenty of it in grammar school---in an Italian parish. There was a dance of sorts done by Paul and Charlie, a pair of daring and energetic upperclassman. The dance had no name, but it consisted mainly of Russian-type dancing and throwing each other around the dance floor. It was clowning around to music. A hilarious break from the normal dance moves, but nothing to write home about...