In 1856, while trading coffee from Brazil and fruit from the West Indies to Elizabeth City, North Carolina, Captain Dan Hayman purchased a supply of sweet potatoes at one of the West Indian Islands. A Methodist clergyman visiting the ship in Elizabeth City was attracted by the fine appearance of the potato, and so he obtained a few and propagated them. Subsequently, they spread through the networks of Methodist ministers and laymen along the Atlantic coast. By the time of the American Civil War (1861-1865) it had taken particular hold on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, as a general field crop used for both home consumption and feeding livestock in the winter.
A white-skinned, greenish-yellow-fleshed sweet potato, the Hayman has rounded, spade-like pale green foliage with purple stems. The tubers are regularly oblong, smooth, large and white and blunt at the ends, or spindle shaped. The variety bears prolifically, one reason for its quick adoption by commercial seed salesmen. Throughout the 19th century it was the earliest sweet potato grown and the easiest one to keep in winter, according to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. Its yield was normally around 650 bushels per acre on well-prepared soil; but it could grow on clay soils or in sandy loam equally well.
When baked, the flesh of the Hayman sweet potato turns dull yellow or grayish-green – not the most alluring of colors. The flavor is delicate and sweet, with a minty note that was particularly savored by people who ate sweet potatoes frequently. Yet, those who ate sweet potatoes less frequently (or just during holidays) historically opted for the more obviously sugary sweet potatoes. Northerners with a penchant for mealy, boiling sweet potatoes had a particular problem with the Hayman, judging it not of first-rank quality, while Southern markets preferred the Hayman. One feature of the Hayman that particularly distressed those not familiar with the variety was its tendency to exude sugar as a viscous black fluid at its ends while cooking. For knowledgeable producers, this was the sign that the potato has been cured to perfection, but to those unfamiliar with the Hayman, the sugar secretions suggested that the potato was coarse, had gone bad or was only good for livestock feed.
In the period from 1900 to 1910, northern agronomists and culinary writers systematically denounced the Hayman potato and other sugar-exuding white skinned varieties. In the latter decades of the 1800s it was a nationally cultivated variety, but in the 1920s, as the visual aesthetics of potatoes became important, particularly because of pie competitions, the green-yellow pallor of the Hayman’s meat was deemed less attractive than the bright orange pumpkin yams and reddish meat of other varieties, leading to a further diminution of its popularity. Eventually its cultivation and consumption were constricted to its first home in the coastal zone from the outer banks of North Carolina, tidewater Virginia, and the Eastern Shore where the taste of the potato remained the standard against which all other varieties were judged. In the 21st century, it has become the signature sweet potato of the Virginia Eastern Shore. Greatly prized locally, the potatoes also enjoy a following among consumers, many with Southern origins, in the large metropolitan areas of the northeastern United States. Labor intensive and requiring a significant amount of hand-cultivation from planting through harvest, the Hayman is a varietal that remains limited in its circulation. Current production is limited to a small group of growers who share seed stock and cultivation practices.