<< Previous
1 of 5
<< Previous
1 of 5


IF YOU own a goldfish, the chances are two to one it came from Martinsville. This southern Indiana town is the goldfish center of the world. Seventy-five million fish have begun life in the 600 ponds of its famous Grassyfork Fisheries.

When I spent a week, not long ago, watching the work of caring for these miles of goldfish, 10,000.000 baby fish had just rolled from their round white eggs and were darting about ponds and hatchery tanks. For the older fish, men were cooking mush breakfasts in giant 7,000-pound boilers. Other employees were busy shooting weed-killing chemicals into ponds; stalking watersnakes, musk-rats, fish hawks; sorting, counting, packing goldfish and sending them racing across country in a giant truck that resembles a submarine and can carry 200,000 fish in a single load.

At Grassyfork, I discovered, goldfish raising is a highly specialized, mass-production, million-dollar-a-year business in which scientific research has played a key role. Incidentally, the work provides an absorbing show that attracts thousands of visitors a year.

To go back to the beginning. About the year 1900, Eugene C. Shireman fell heir to a swampy farm a mile or so north of Martinsville. This was just twenty-two years after Rear Admiral Daniel Ammen, of the U. S. Navy, had brought the first goldfish to America from the Orient. One day, a friend from Indianapolis drove down to see Shireman. He was selling washing powder for a chemical company which had hit upon the bright idea of offering a small bowl and a pair of goldfish as a premium with its product. The scheme clicked from the beginning. In fact, it worked so well they had run out of goldfish. Shireman decided to turn his swamp into a fish farm and sell his crop to the chemical company.

He began with 200 goldfish, the original breeders whose descendants are now nearing the hundred-million mark. By the time he was turning out enough fish to sell, the chemical company had gone out of business. But other concerns were giving goldfish as premiums and during the next half-dozen years, Shireman’s fish increased the sale of a score of products.

In fact, practically the. whole demand for goldfish in the early days was for use as premiums to aid selling campaigns.

The average output, during the thirty-four years since the farm was started, has been more than 2.000,000 goldfish a year with the annual harvest soaring in the past few years to 7,000.000. At present, the ponds hold a surplus that brings the total number on hand close to 50,000,000. Full-grown and nose to tail, they would form a solid line of goldfish stretching 3000 miles from coast to coast!

Nearly 100 people keep on the jump caring for these millions of fish and running associated factories. The board bill for the goldfish, alone, reaches $75,000 a year, more than the feeding costs of any other livestock producer in the state. Wheelbarrows and horse-drawn trucks run along the levees between ponds to transport the various foods. They include tons of egg yolk, carloads of flour and enough mush and hominy to feed an entire army of men.

For a bird’s-eye view of the vast-scale activity at this biggest hatchery on earth, let’s follow the goldfish of one hatching through their life at Grassyfork.

Lining the edges of the eighty breeding ponds, you see rectangular frames of wood anchored in place.

They contain curious nests of Spanish moss held in place by wire webbing. When the eggs are ejected by the female and fertilized by fluid shot into the water by the male, they adhere to the threads of moss like round, miniature pearls. Each is nearly transparent and about a sixteenth of an inch in diameter.

Some of the veteran breeders are more than a dozen years old, according to Capt. Harry Wood, manager of the plant. One female may lay as many as 75,000 eggs in a season. Spawning, which begins at sunrise, continues until about noon. When the eggs are firmly attached, the moss is transferred to one of the 216 concrete hatchery tanks. Unfertilized eggs rapidly become covered with fungus and soon have the appearance of tiny balls of cotton batting. The fertilized eggs, about sixty percent, hatch out into microscopic fry about the same color and hardly larger than mosquito larvae.

The first meal of these black wiggle-tails is powdered egg yolk. More than twenty tons of it, some coming from as far away as China, are used to satisfy the appetites of the baby fish each year. The equivalent of from fifteen to twenty dozen eggs may go into a single pond every twenty-four hours.

During the first ten days, the minute fish, which have the same appearance as the fry of carp or bass, dart about their concrete tank, gobbling down microscopic bits of food. At the end of that time, they are transferred to one of the 350 ponds reserved for little fish and soon afterwards are shifted to stronger fare. This is a cheap grade of wheat flour. It is thrown by the bucketful over the surface of the water. In twenty-four hours, 40,000 of the little fish will consume as much as thirty pounds of flour.

The ponds range in size from fifty feet across for the smallest to an area of eighteen acres for the largest. Fed by natural springs, they drain downhill from one to the other, emptying into Grassy-fork Creek and Clear Creek which eventually reaches the Wabash River. The total area under water is more than 350 acres, consisting of 615 ponds.

Two ponds, with a combined area of almost an acre, contain no fish. They are given over to one of the queerest aquatic ranches in the world, producing billions and billions of water fleas, or daphniae, to feed the minnows.

On cool summer mornings, these ponds seem a solid mass of microscopic animal life as the water fleas, red, green, or brown, according to the color of the bottom, rise to the surface. At intervals, men collect them in cheesecloth nets and transfer them to the feeding ponds. Care must be taken in the amount of daphniae placed in a pool as too much may smother the tiny fish.

Ralph Van Hoy, one of the experts in charge of the delicate work of feeding, showed me an ingeniously simple device which helps him estimate the number of
fish in a pond. Because they are the same color as the water, the young fish are almost invisible, especially on cloudy days. Van Hoy’s device is a stick with a bright square of tin at the end. When he runs it through the water, he can see the fish swimming between him and the tin and judge the number in the pond and how much food they will require. Most of the flour is thrown near the edges where mud can be scraped up at frequent intervals to see if any of the food remains uneaten. Overfeeding is one of the quickest roads to trouble.

Thousands of dollars have been spent at Grassyfork in chemical research seeking a compound that will kill weeds without injuring fish. The successful formula is being kept a trade secret. One bizarre occurrence marked early experiments in this field. A weed-killer under test was sprayed over a pond. Afterwards the fish turned blood red!

Getting the right color and obtaining it as soon as possible are two problems of the goldfish raiser. For goldfish aren’t goldfish until they are several months old. They are olive black like their cousins, the carp. And, curiously enough, just before they turn reddish gold they reach their blackest hue. The coming shift in color seems to drive all the dark pigment to the surface.

Scientists from all over the middle west have spent time making researches in biology at the hatchery. Literally scores of attempts were made to speed up the shift in color so the fish could be placed earlier on the market. The average age of fish leaving Grassy-fork is now four months. Hatched in June, they are ready for sale in October.

IN THE experiments, fish were kept in covered tanks, in open tanks, in small tanks and large tanks, in pitch-dark tanks, in sun-rayed tanks; in tanks filled with warm water, with cool water, with water treated with various chemicals. They ate powdered liver and chemicals were introduced into their rations. Nothing did any good. The correct color appeared at Nature’s appointed time and not before.

By the end of a year, eighty per cent of the fish have changed color. The rest are usually put back and held for another year. Some never do become goldfish and are sold for bait. Hundreds of thousands are shipped from Martinsville each year. Because they live longer than other minnows, many anglers prefer them. The price runs from a dollar a hundred up.

Fish that can swim around in a thimble when several days old may grow to a length of eight inches in four months under the scientific diet and care at Grassyfork. The average growth is about an inch a month, the fish being three or four inches long when ready for sale.

At the end of the second month, the flour diet is stopped, and the young fish start in on the growing rations, cooked hominy hearts which have been compressed to squeeze out all the oil and then ground to powder. Practically all the feeding is done in the morning. The breeding fish get corn-meal mush, thrown into the water in great chunks. This mush cooks in a boiler that holds three and a half tons and, at some seasons of the year, three boilerfuls a day—21,000 pounds of mush—are needed to supply the breeding ponds. As much as 5,000 pounds have been thrown into a single seven-acre pond at one time.

During the fall and winter, when the fish are semi-dormant, the Grassyfork food bill drops to almost nothing. Occasionally men walk out on the ice and peer down into the ponds. If the fish are moving about, they chop holes in the ice and throw in food; if they are quiet, they leave them alone.

IN 1916, during a heavy freeze, one of the ponds turned to solid ice. A muskrat had burrowed through a levee and pulled down the water level of the pond so it froze to the bottom. More than 100,000 fish were killed. While an occasional goldfish will live after being frozen in solid ice, most specimens are affected if the water nears the freezing point or rises above ninety degrees Fahrenheit. The ideal temperature of water for goldfish is about sixty degrees Fahrenheit.

Harvesting the goldfish is always an exciting time at the hatchery. Men, wading up to their waists in water, drag huge seines through the ponds. They are followed by crews with long scoops who work across the mud of the bottom when the water has been drained away, filling pails with the fish that remain. Hooked to shoulder yokes, these buckets are carried to waiting trucks and hauled to the five ponds that surround the shipping depot. Here, the fish are dumped into screen cages where water, driven by an electric pump, sprays over them to harden them for shipping.

Inside the red-brick shipping depot, men sort the fish, sliding them rapidly over oilcloth-covered tables into different containers. Later they count them and pack them in special metal cans with compartments overhead for cakes of ice. Only in recent years, have shipments in summer heat been possible. The containers and methods worked out at Grassyfork enable fish to stay alive for eighty hours and arrive in good condition. As many as 283,000 goldfish leave the depot by express on a single working day.

SUPPLEMENTING the express containers is a recent innovation, a “submarine” tank truck, a ten-tired giant that hauls between 60,000 and 110,000 goldfish on every trip to the eastern depot of the hatchery at Saddle River, N. J. Other depots of the company are located at Chicago, Ill., and Hamilton, Ont.

As many as 200,000 fish can ride in the porous metal baskets which are packed in the tank row on row as it is filled with water. When the level inside has risen into the “conning tower” dome, which prevents splashing, there are 1,400 gallons of water within the huge container. At the rear, a three-horsepower gasoline engine drives a compressor, forcing a constant stream of fresh air through the water. Three times, once every fourteen hours, during the trip to Saddle River, the water is changed. The construction of the truck—the only one of its kind in existence—insulates the fish from external heat and cold. Two layers of metal, with a two-inch cork lining between, form the shell of the tank.

Once, last winter, the machine rolled into Saddle River with the thermometer standing at forty degrees below zero. Yet the construction of the tank protected the fish and not one was lost. Over the auxiliary engine, and warmed by its heat, a coil of tubing carries the air into the water during winter months, thus raising its temperature.

The average number of trips for this road giant is forty a year. Oneway runs to the eastern seaboard take from fifty to fifty-four hours and the round trip approximately 120 hours. It can maintain a steady pace of forty miles an hour along concrete roads without jarring or injuring the fish packed inside.

Riding in the tank are eight types of goldfish, the kinds specialized in by the hatchery. They are: common goldfish, long-tailed comets, stubby-bodied Japanese nymphs, red fantails, spotted calico fantails, varicolored shubunkins—no two of which ever have the same pattern of red, black and blue patches on their sides—red telescopes, with their protruding eyes, and black Moor telescopes.

FREAKS—silver goldfish, specimens with fins in odd, abnormal positions, partial albinos—are segregated during the sorting. In all the millions of fish which have crossed the sorting tables at Grassyfork, Capt. Wood told be, no perfect albino has ever appeared. The greatest freak in goldfish history, and also the most valuable specimen ever seen in America, was the famous Liberty Bond fish exhibited during the World War. Red, white and blue, it was used to attract crowds during the Liberty Loan drives of 1917 and 1918. Its owner valued it at $10,000. The price of the fish raised in Martinsville runs from a nickel apiece, for small common goldfish, to $25.00 apiece, for the relatively rare Moor telescopes.

Where do they sell all their millions of fish? Who buys them? Those are questions almost every visitor wants to know. Nickel and dime stores, pet shops, department stores, carnivals, chain stores, drug stores, florists— these all are regular customers. In addition, unusual sales add to the total.

FOR INSTANCE, not long ago, a wood-treating plant in the middle west sent in a hurry call for a thousand goldfish to eat up mosquito larvae in the standing water of the treating tanks. New Jersey and other states also buy fish as part of a program of mosquito control. Indiana purchases thousands of uncolored fingerlings to feed growing bass in state hatcheries.

Most goldfish that fail to live in captivity are killed by pampering. Their needs are few and simple. Let me pass on a dozen tips offered by the men at Grassyfork for keeping your pets in good condition.

1. Don’t overcrowd them. In the aquarium allow a gallon of water for every inch of fish, not counting the tails.

2. Don’t change water too often. Once every six months is sufficient. Occasionally dip out a gallon or so and replace it with fresh water of the same temperature. Such water should be allowed to “ripen” in the room for twenty-four hours before being poured into the aquarium. If this is not possible, sprinkle a pinch of salt in it.

3. Never shift fish to water that is hotter or colder than that in the aquarium. Violent changes in temperature injure them. The correct thermometer reading for a goldfish bowl is between sixty and seventy degrees Fahrenheit.

4. Don’t overfeed. This is the commonest cause of trouble. Never place more food in the bowl than can be consumed in twenty minutes.

5. During the winter, cut the amount of food in half. Fish are much less active then and three feedings a week are plenty.

6. When your fish “cluck” at the top of the water, it is a sign they need more oxygen. Hot, thundery days and dark winter ones are the times when the goldfish most need extra oxygen. Plants such as sagittaria, eelgrass and ditchmoss add oxygen to the water and should always be growing in the aquarium. Oxygen-forming chemicals are available for aquarium use and an electric-driven aerator, which washes and warms the air before pumping it into the water, is on the market for large aquariums.

7. If you use city water, check up on the chemicals being put in it. Chlorine is deadly to goldfish. It breaks down the gill tissue just as lye would do. A fish injured by chlorine can never be restored to health.

8. Never fertilize waterplants in a pool with manure. It adds toxic acids to the water and injures the fish.

9. At spawning time, remove all snails from the aquarium. They eat the eggs. You never have little fish without waterplants in the pool. The older fish eat the eggs unless they have vegetation to protect them.

10. Once a month add a pinch of Epsom salts to the water in the aquarium. It acts as a laxative and helps keep the fish in good condition.

11. Keep your aquarium in a light part of the house. Fish need sunshine; they do not do well in dark corners.

12. Watch the fin on a fish’s back. It is his health barometer. When it begins to droop, the fish is ailing; when it is erect, the fish is well. Oftentimes, placing a sick fish in a mild salt bath for several days, or feeding it finely chopped bits of earthworm, will restore it to health.

  1. Raising goldfish | Teenfashionsite says: May 28, 201111:39 am

    […] RAISING GOLDFISH BY THE MILLIONfrom Popular Science – Sep, 1934 … At Grassyfork, I discovered, goldfish raising is a highly specialized, mass-production, million-dollar-a-year business in which scientific research has played a key role. Incidentally, the work provides an absorbing show that attracts thousands of visitors a year. […]

  2. […] A bit of goldfish history Some of the rearing prsctices are a bit outdated, like the water change recommendation, but an interesting read. RAISING GOLDFISH BY THE MILLION […]

  3. Fishery History | Ozark Fisheries Blog says: March 7, 20139:07 pm

    […] A 1934 Popular Science article featured our Ozark Indiana division, then called Grassyfork Fisheries. This article published in 1934 describes the labor intensive process to raise goldfish. While technology has changed, the science it takes to raise our fish is still an ever present challenge. To read this Popular Science article, click here. […]

Submit comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.