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The "Goldfish Capital of the World" might be closer than you think

Historic Grassyfork Fisheries sign

From the 1930s to the '50s, Grassyfork Fisheries' booming business turned Martinsville into "The Goldfish Capital of the World." (Courtesy Ozark Fisheries)

Not far off of I-69, just north of Martinsville, sits a unique bit of Indiana history.

Nondescript sheds sit adjacent to rows of slate-blue ponds. It doesn’t look like much from your car, but it’s actually the oldest commercial goldfish hatchery in the United States – the Grassyfork Farm.

92-year-old Art Brill remembers his first time getting in the ponds back in the spring of 1950. He had moved to Indiana to continue his education and early mornings at Grassyfork helped pay the way.

“You would dip out the goldfish with large dippers,” Brill said. “Hundreds of these goldfish. And you can imagine the cranes swooping in.”

He still lives in Martinsville, not far Fish Hatchery Lake. As each year passes, he’s disappointed to see fewer and fewer “old-timers” who remember Grassyfork at its peak. When Martinsville was “The Goldfish Capital of the World.”

“People wonder what those ponds are when they drive by there, they have no idea,” Brill said.

FROM “WHITE ELEPHANT” TO GOLDMINE

Grassyfork Fisheries was founded in 1899, after Eugene C. Shireman inherited farmland that wasn’t very good for farming. It was too wet and swampy for crops, according to former Morgan County Historian Joanne Stuttgen.

“I'm sure he thought, ‘Oh, great deal – I’ve just inherited a white elephant,’” Stuttgen said. “But Eugene had been to the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. That was the first real opportunity for Americans to encounter the goldfish.”

The land in Martinsville already had some ponds for game fish, so Shireman decided to give goldfish a try. He started with around 200, many of which didn’t survive. But through trial and error, Shireman was able to cultivate a thriving goldfish population.

Legend has it that Grassyfork’s big break came when an Indianapolis businessman wanted to increase his soap powder sales. So he suggested including a pet goldfish with any purchase.

“By World War II, (Grassyfork) had expanded overseas (to England),” Stuttgen said. “They had a shipping operation in Saddlebrook, New Jersey.”

By the late 1930s, Grassyfork was producing an estimated 75 percent of all commercial goldfish. Clients included major department stores such as Woolworth’s and Kresge’s, with one New York store ordering $250,000 of fish a year. 

LEAVING A LEGACY

When Art Brill arrived in 1950, Martinsville had established itself the “Goldfish Capital of the World.”

The Grassyfork showroom had become a tourist destination, and complementary businesses popped up around Martinsville, offering pet supplies, accessories or aquariums.

“It was the largest employer in 1950, in the county,” said Brill. “Every day, there were trucks coming in here hauling fish out. ’53, it was still going gangbusters.”

By the 1960s, Grassyfork was on the downturn. Eugene Shireman had died and changes to state highways diverted traffic away from the showroom.

Missouri-based Ozark Fisheries purchased the farm in 1970, and Joe Cleveland is now the fourth generation of his family to oversee operations.

“Ozark actually bought some of its first brood stock from Grassyfork (in the 1920s),” Cleveland said. “So we got our beginnings partly because of Grassyfork.”

The Grassyfork Farm spans 255 ponds, where eight varieties of fish are raised. They’ve added koi as an option and can produce up to 150 million fish in a year, though not all end up getting sold.

Those that are get shipped across the U.S. and in Canada to be used as pets, ornamental fishes or bait. Koi are the most popular fish right now.

Ozark Fisheries employees
Ozark employees at Grassyfork sort fish for shipment. (Devan Ridgway, WTIU/WFIU News)

New competitors have entered the market and demand for the fish isn’t what it once was – Ozark’s Martinsville location has 10 employees these days. But Grassyfork’s impact on the American goldfish industry continues.

“We aren't the only goldfish producers in the United States,” Cleveland said. “But there’s a good chance that if you grew up in the Midwest, your goldfish came from Grassyfork or Ozark.”

The Grassyfork showroom was placed on the National Register of Historic Places a decade ago, in no small part to Stuttgen’s efforts researching Shireman and his farm. But Brill would like Grassyfork’s legacy to be commemorated in a more visible way – through a sign or historical marker of sorts.

“I hate to see it passing,” Brill said. “How long are people going to want to have little bowls in her house?”

For him, it’s a fish story worth remembering.

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