16 April 2020

Somerset Mushroom Farm (1951 - 1962)

Arnt Rikardsen was an adventurer, an explorer, a freedom fighter, and a serial entrepreneur, who somehow tamed his restless spirit enough to spend eleven years of his working life in a windowless bunker on New Amwell Road in Hillsborough - raising mushrooms.

Born in 1914 in Tromso, Norway, Rikardsen parlayed his experience as a seal hunter in arctic waters in the 1930s to obtain a spot as a crewmember in a mapping expedition to northern Greenland for the Norwegian government. Bad weather and ice floes turned the planned one year survey into an ordeal that lasted 27 months.

29 July 1962 Home News
There is no doubt Rikardsen's survival skills served him well in the Norwegian underground and in his escape - by cross country skiing - from Nazi-occupied Norway into Sweden at the start of World War II. In Sweden, he enrolled and graduated from the Swedish Maritime Institute and served out the rest of the war as a radio operator in the merchant marine - picking up two medals from the Norwegian government for his service.

He came to the US in 1949, and by 1950 had settled in Piscataway. Looking to start a business, he became intrigued by mushroom farming - spending his spare time in the Rutgers library reading up on the subject. Rebuffed by the town's zoning board, he and his wife purchased a 30-acre farm in Hillsborough on New Amwell Road, naming his business Somerset Mushroom Farm.

23 October 1957 Courier News
He constructed four windowless cinder block buildings on the property in which to grow the mushrooms. At that time his was just one of three mushroom farms in New Jersey. Rikardsen's first customer was the Raritan Valley Inn - but he sold to many other restaurants and wholesaled mushrooms to a market in New York.

Growing mushrooms is a complicated process involving "spawning", sterilized compost, and, particularly, adherence to strict temperature and humidity guidelines.

Much like the Clover Hill Silver Fox Farm, Somerset Mushroom Farm was a local curiosity as well as a profitable business. It was a class trip destination and a "must-add" itinerary item for visitors from the city.

When interviewed by the Courier News in 1962, Rikardsen was still high on the farm and its possibilities - but within a year he closed the business and moved to Jefferson Township. There he founded the Snow Bowl ski area, managed ski operations at Great Gorge (where he invented a snowmaking gun still in use three decades later), started the Lake Hopatcong Sailing school, and founded a construction company, retiring in 1980.

Arnt Rikardsen passed away in 1995.

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