Posts tagged ‘World War I’
Hats off to Providence Journal Business editor John Kostrzewa for today’s column on “A seed of hope and easy to plant.” Kostrzewa suggests that in this time of economic crisis, hope is in short supply. While we work on the big-picture, long-term, structural fixes, why not engage in a more immediate way to improve Rhode Island: “Dedicate plots of land throughout the state for community gardens.”
His column puts forward a number of initiatives that may seem groundbreaking, but they all have precedents in Rhode Island’s recent history. For instance:
“How about using some of the highly visible sloping land that runs away from the State House. Or what about the 4.5 acres across the street from the Amtrak station.”
Done: Around 1920-21, the Rhode Island Normal School had a demonstration school garden on its grounds southwest of the State House–where Providence Place Mall stands today (see photo above).
“Make community gardens a statewide project. Make it a competition among each of the cities and towns to design and plant their own plots.”
Done: In 1916, Governor R. Livingston Beeckman initiated an annual garden contest among mill towns. Prizes were awarded for best vegetable garden, garden, and village appearance.
“Pick the sites from available public land.”
Done. In 1908, the city installed school gardens at Roger Williams Park. In 1943, the RI Senate passed a resolution “to formulate and promulgate a plan and program of procedure for the state of Rhode Island victory gardens upon state-owned land.”
“The seeds and plants can be donated.”
Done: In 1908, Congressman Daniel Granger secured donations of seeds for the Roger Williams Park school gardens. In 1932, RI Congressmen arranged for the US Dept. of Agriculture to distribute seeds to RI gardeners.
“Once the gardens have been planted, turn over the maintenance to service organizations, such as the scouts or fraternal groups.”
Done: During World War I, local organizations that participated in the War Garden movement included: RI Horticultural Society, Providence Housewives League, RI Boy Scouts (who guarded the gardens), and the League of Improvement Societies–not to mention dozens of factories and schools.
“And with so many unemployed people, let them work in a garden until they find a job.”
Done: During the Great Depression, state and local governments organized a statewide subsistence garden program of “private backyard gardens, vacant lot gardens, community plots divided into individual gardens, industrial gardens, industrial gardens for part-time workers, and community gardens not divided into individual plots but worked by unemployed men in return for food orders.”
As Kostrzewa notes, we’re on our way, thanks to the work of groups like Southside Community Land Trust and the Children’s Garden Network. I’ll add my two cents: just look to the past to learn how green Rhode Island can be.
Bibliographic note: The photograph of the demonstration garden at the RI Normal School comes from the League of Improvement Societies in RI Year Book for 1920-21. All other historical information derived from articles in the Providence Journal, 1906-1943.
Check out the updated page for Green Zones: From the War Garden to Your Garden, a presentation on Victory Gardens, the Women’s Land Army of America, and how/why gardeners are growing their own food today. The event takes place on Tues., May 5, starting at 5:30pm at Firehouse 13, 41 Central St. in Providence.
A plan is stirring to hold an Urban Agriculture Spring Start Party afterwards. This will include seed/plant swapping, exchanging ideas, food, music, and kicking off the garden season together.
Community gardeners, backyard gardeners, local foodies, green folks, farmers, teachers, kids. . .can you help out with this emerging event? Contact me at szurier at wesleyan dot edu or leave a comment, and I’ll be in touch.
Yesterday, I was catching up on some research at the Rhode Island Historical Society Library, which holds 43 linear feet of collections relating to the Brown & Sharpe Manufacturing Company. I’ve mentioned Brown & Sharpe in previous posts, because National War Garden Commission founder Charles Lathrop Pack singled out this Rhode Island firm for sponsoring War Gardens in 1917.
I focused on a dozen of the 43 linear feet: materials related to Luther D. Burlingame and wartime activity. Burlingame worked for Brown & Sharpe as engineer, and he was active in Rhode Island’s environmental movement in the early 20th century. He not only coordinated the firm’s War Gardens during World War I, but he also launched the state’s subsistence garden program in 1932.
In the last section of the last scrapbook in the last box I had requested, I found several items related to Brown & Sharpe’s activities during WWI. The prize was an 1918 article by Burlingame on “Shop Gardening as a War Measure: How Factory Employees Can Help Increase the Food Supply.” Glancing at the sample list of employees who tended garden plots, I saw a familiar name:
That’s my grandfather, Louis Zurier, who worked–and gardened–at Brown & Sharpe in the war years! I was stunned to encounter him on the pages of a magazine article, in a scrapbook, in a box, at a library. There he was, with 14 bushels of potatoes worth $24.80 in 1917. Good growing, grandpa!
For the past few months I have been spending some quality time at the microfilm readers at the central (don’t make me call it Empire) Providence Public Library. The Rhode Island Collection includes a subject index to the Providence Journal. I am grateful to those generations of librarians who typed out article titles and dates and page numbers on catalog cards.
I have found hundreds of articles about WWI-era war gardens, WWII-era victory gardens, school gardens, community gardens, mill village gardens, and the like. And as I spin the microfilm reels to the next relevant page, it’s hard not to get distracted by all the other news and advertisements of the day.
This ad, run in the classified section on 15 May 1917, was a happy find. In 1917, Rhode Island had a case of gardenmania. In addition to all the organized garden programs–school gardens, Governor’s mill village garden contest, factory gardens, demonstration gardens, community gardens, and vacant lot gardens–individual citizens were planting “pocket-edition” gardens in their own backyards. Vegetable gardening was a statewide movement, or as the ad would have it, “a universal planting crusade.” The more I read about the Progressives’ impact on the urban environment in the 1900s and 1910s, the more I think about how it’s time to renew their goals for healthier cities and citizens today.
In my research on Rhode Islanders’ wartime gardens, I expected to find precedents for school gardens, for community gardens, for public gardens, and for women and children going to work at local farms. I was surprised, however, to learn about the number of allotment gardens that local manufacturers provided for their workers.
As I mentioned in a previous post, the National War Garden Commission saluted the Brown & Sharpe Manufacturing Company for establishing 30 acres of war gardens in Providence in 1917. Today I found a Providence Journal article announcing the kickoff of the B&S gardens–nearly 600 25’x80′ and 25’x100′ plots on and around Pleasant Valley Parkway. The company obtained, plowed, harrowed, fertilized, and staked the plots. The newspaper reported, “What is now a big, barren lot of land, is expected, within a few months, to become a huge field of potato plants and blossoming bean stalks. Here hundreds of employes [sic], aided by the company by which they are employed, will do their ‘bit’ for the country along agricultural lines and at the same time provide themselves with a generous supply of potatoes or beans for the next winter.” The photo depicts a worker and family preparing their garden in May 1917.
Several Rhode Island manufacturers provided land for free and materials (like seeds, fertilizer, tools) at cost to their employees. My running list through 1917 includes Stillwater Worsted Company; Manville Company; Wanskuck Company; Goddard Brothers; B&S; Pawtucket Rendering Company; and Slatersville Finishing Company.
It was a win-win situation for employee and employer alike. The employee received a free plot of prepared land; free or cheap supplies; food for their family; and an opportunity to support the war effort. Did the worker also get work time to garden? Not sure. The employer received the gratitude of their workers; control of their workers’ leisure time (more time in the garden = less in the bar or the union hall); stronger and healthier workers; and enviable public relations for their support of workers and the war effort.
Workplace gardens were common in Rhode Island and throughout the states during World War I. Know of any other examples, past or present?
As America entered World War I, women and children enlisted in garden armies, gardeners went to battle against insect pests, and every effort was made to ensure that “our food is fighting.” But as if all that wasn’t enough, American land also was compelled to go to war.
The National War Garden Commission targeted empty city lots and sent out battalions of pitchfork-waving civilians…to use their pitchforks and garden. America could not afford to have any land slacking off during wartime. Gives a whole new meaning to the idea of fighting to protect American soil.
The “slacker land” was put to work as sites for community gardens. The benefits of community War Gardens included sharing expertise, soil preparation activities, plants, and equipment. And there were the social benefits: friendly rivalry, community building, etc. In The War Garden Victorious (1919), Charles Lathrop Pack promoted community gardens as community assets that increased real estate values, freed up funds that would have been spent on food, and beautified the city. He urged local governments, chambers of commerce, and other civic organizations to retain the gardens as a post-war economic development program.
Contemporary proponents of urban agriculture use many of the same arguments today. See “Urban Agriculture in Providence,” a publication of the Urban Agriculture Policy Task Force initiated by Southside Community Land Trust/Citywide Green. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of vacant lots in Providence. Join a community garden, and “put that slacker land to work!”
A sister project of the Women’s Land Army of America was the United States School Garden Army (USSGA). This program was created by the federal Bureau of Education in early 1917. According to Charles Lathrop Pack, the army tended two fronts: 1) increasing food production and 2) agricultural education. The longterm goal was to grow “future citizens trained to intelligent application of the principles of thrift, industry, service, patriotism and responsibility.”
The US School Garden Army distributed gardening textbooks to American schools. Principals, teachers, and parents assisted students with creating and tending school gardens and home gardens. Historian Rose Hayden-Smith notes that the USSGA represented a groundbreaking effort to make agricultural education universal and nationwide. The program daringly (listen up, today’s educators!) targeted urban and suburban students, not just children in rural farm communities. The program was very appealing to Progressive reformers who viewed wholesome outdoor activities as an antidote to the unhealthy and unsavory urban environment.
The illustrations for School Garden Army publications are terrific. Artist Maginel Wright Enright (sister of Frank Lloyd Wright) designed a poster which became the symbol of the program. Pied Piper Uncle Sam leads a brigade of children brandishing garden tools as their weapons.
In just 18 months, the United States School Garden Army spent $250,000 to provide more than 50,000 teachers with the curriculum to educate several million children. Although the Board of Education disbanded the USSGA once the war was over, the United States Department of Agriculture continued some of the educational programs it had developed for rural youth during WWI. Efforts like the Cooperative Extension System and 4-H still thrive today.