Plant a “Victory Garden”! Berks History for Victory Campaign Continues to Inspire

This week, we are proud to share an essay authored by Corrie Crupi-Zana, the Vice President of the BHC Board of Trustees. Following the introduction of our History for Victory! campaign earlier this year, Corrie felt inspired to research and write an article about victory gardening – we are so touched that this campaign continues to inspire our own, as well as others in our community!


During turbulent times of war, strife, disease, and the Great Depression, our government encouraged people to become empowered and be self-sustaining.  In an effort to help reduce the pressure on the already low food supply chain, Victory Gardens were promoted with the slogan “Digging for Victory”.  In school, children were asked to volunteer to become part of the Victory Garden army and be “Soldiers of the Soil”.

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Minnesota Historical Society, Getty Images

In a 1919 pamphlet published by the National War Garden Commission, it pitched “War Gardens for Victory” stating that gardening was an American civic duty. During World War II, some 20 million victory gardens were planted in the United States. People started gardens in any space available such as on roof tops, fire escapes, windowsills, or backyards. Eleanor Roosevelt set an example by planting a garden on the front lawn of the White House. In 1943, it went as far as using Comic Books to depict cartoons of Superman, Batman and Robin working in their gardens.  

Around Berks County, half our work force entered for the military services. The burden of feeding millions of starving people fell on the United States government. Our local government urged people to jump on this bandwagon and express their patriotism by planting gardens. The citizens of Reading were inspired and needed another way to supplement their food ration stamp allowance.  The intent was that these victory gardens would help boost their outlooks and create a sense of security by being rewarded with a productive abundance of home-grown fruits, vegetables, and herbs.  Many of Berks County’s department store fronts exhibited displays featuring garden tools and fruits and vegetables in their large show windows.  

Gardens started to sprout up everywhere there was a small plot or vacant lot of land.  Reading had numerous gardens at many locations.  Permits were needed and issued from City Hall at 9th Washington Streets.  In the beginning, most of these gardens had a Safety Committee or a paid watchman.  The Reading Railroad allowed an empty lot to be tilled and farmed by their employees at the corner of 6th and Spring Streets. The Pottiger tract was at Church and Amity Streets and the Barbey’s allowed space at Third and Windsor Streets.  Other plots included were the nice garden areas formed around Hampden Boulevard at Marion streets and on Sternbergh land near the Sterling Mansion on Centre Avenue.  The East Reading side of town also had many patches.   Berks County Historian, George M. Meiser IX, recalls a large plot of six beautifully maintained gardens that spread from Baer Park on West Douglass Street all the way down to Clinton Street on the west side.  In Lower Alsace Township there was a large community allotment in a field at Cornell Street and one on Taft Avenue and one on Butter Lane in Exeter Township which are still tilled today.

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Some of the basic vegetables planted were tomatoes, carrots, beets, lettuce, peppers, radish, turnips, cabbage, cucumbers, spinach, onions, celery, and potatoes. Also popular were fruits such as strawberries, grapes, peaches, and apples. They grew lemon balm, mint, and lavender for tea.  A variety of herbs were easily grown including as rosemary, dill, oregano, parsley, thyme, and fennel.  Canning, jarring, freezing, drying, and pickling became quite the hobby and a tranquil challenge with tangible results.  Ideas from the old countries were used to stew down fruits and vegetables for sauces, jams, and marmalade. Cuttings from fresh herbs were put into an ice cube tray with water and frozen to later be able to pop some freshness into a stew or soup. 

A resurgence of the garden phenomenon or “back-to-the-land movement began again in the late 1960’s when the need to work mother earth trended.  Land on the Mt. Penn Mountain was the perfect place for people to start what then was called a Free Garden.  There was a nice sunny, but marshy plot on Hill Road which was then maintained by the City of Reading in a section of the Clinton F. Earl Land Trust Preserve where they encouraged residents to start to plant.  

These same ideals resonate today in 2020, as we are witness to a shutdown of the world making even stepping outside or a trip to the grocery store causes anxiety.  Many people are fraught with fear of exposure to the Corona Virus.  At this time in our history, we must adapt and remember the past generations and how they learned to cope and what they accomplished during the hard times. We also saw them rise above and unite establishing the perfect role model. Today people should again be prepared for a possible disruption in the food supply and demand. 

Luckily, for us in this generation, we have use of a Google search. We can watch do-it-yourself videos, digital online libraries of books, or You Tube for the experienced or unexperienced gardeners searching for the answers. I hope you are inspired to create your own “Corona Victory Garden”.  Please join the Berks History Center and its partners including: the City of Reading, DS Smith, Reading’s Environmental Advisory Council, Berks Nature, the Berks Conservation District, Penn State Cooperative Extension and the Berks County Master Gardeners, the Reading Public Library, Muhlenberg Greene Architects and Reading Hospital in this county-wide victory gardening initiative to encourage all citizens to cultivate your own food system to secure your own future and stand with “History for Victory”.

Authored by Vice President of the BHC Board of Trustees, Corrie Crupi-Zana


Honoring the First Defenders on the Fourth

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First Defenders Monument in City Park memorializing the Ringgold Light Artillery of Reading. Photo from from Berks History Center’s Henry Janssen Library

July 4, 1901 was an Independence Day in Berks County, different from most others. At promptly 10:00AM a celebratory parade moved from 24th and Penn Streets to City Park for the dedication of a newly placed monument that honored the Ringgold Light Artillery of the Union’s First Defenders. The title “First Defenders” was awarded to the five volunteer groups of Pennsylvania soldiers who were first to respond to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for militia to protect our nation’s capital from Confederate forces at the earliest stages of the Civil War.

It was April 12, 1861 when the Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter, officially beginning the war between the North and South. Washington D.C. was quickly understood to be a vulnerable and defenseless location for the Union, and action needed to be taken to protect the capital. On April 15, 1861, the President of the United States issued a proclamation calling out the militia of several states:

“Now therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, in virtue of the power vested by the Constitution and laws, have thought fit to call forth and hereby do call forth the militia of the several states of the Union to the aggregate number of 75 thousand, in order to suppress the said combination and to cause the laws to be duly executed.”

The general atmosphere among Berks County at this time was strong for maintaining the Union and upholding the Constitution. The Ringgold Light Artillery, under the direction of Captain James McKnight, had been actively preparing for this type of national emergency since January. Immediately after receiving Lincoln’s cry for support, a telegram was returned stating that the Ringgold Light Artillery “have ninety men, every one of them expecting to be ordered on duty for the U.S. Service before they leave their guns.” The following day, Captain McKnight received orders to get to Harrisburg by train as soon as possible. He left Reading with 101 of his men at 6 o’clock in the evening and arrived in Harrisburg by 8 o’clock, making the Ringgold Light Artillery the first to leave home and arrive for duty.

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Train car that carried the Ringgold Light Artillery from Reading to Harrisburg. Image: Berks History Center’s Henry Janssen Library

On April 18, 1861, fully uniformed and equipped, the Ringgold Light Artillery and four other companies left Harrisburg for Baltimore. As the First Defenders approached the center of the city to board the special train to Washington, they were met with a shower of stones, bricks, and clubs of an angry mob; fortunately, no one was seriously injured and they were able to reach the Capitol by 6 o’clock that evening. The members of the five companies were taken to the capital and were supplied with new arms. President Lincoln even greeted each and every one of the soldiers with a handshake, thanking them for their rapid efforts to protect Washington.

On April 23, 1861, Captain McKnight and the rest of the Ringgold Light Artillery were ordered to report to aid Captain Dahlgren at the Washington Navy Yard for the protection of the arsenal. It was ascertained that a rebel attempt would be made to capture the capital via said arsenal. The Reading troops remained in this position for several months before returning home. Many of them went on to see many major conflicts in the war, but regardless of other honors and credits, the survivors of these first five companies were ever proudest of the fact that they were “The First Defenders.”

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Ringgold Light Artillery in the Washington Navy Yard. Image: Berks History Center’s Henry Janssen Library

The Memorial to the First Defenders, 1901

As noted earlier, on July 4, 1901, the City of Reading dedicated a monument in City Park to memorialize the men of the Ringgold Light Artillery. An article written in the Reading Eagle on that particular day mentions that designs had been submitted by Bureau Brothers of Philadelphia (at a cost of $1,320) and P. F. Eisenbrown’s Sons of Reading (at a cost of $1,350). The committee favored to award the home contractors with the job of crafting and erecting the monument in City Park. July 4th was the chosen day of dedication “in the hopes that Mt. Penn would be set ablaze with redfire.” Adorning the front of the monument, a plaque was fastened that reads:

To commemorate the patriotism and promptitude of the Ringgold Light Artillery of Reading, Pennsylvania, which reported for duty at Harrisburg, April 16, 1861, arriving there first of the Pennsylvania companies; and with the Logan Guards of Lewistown, Washington Artillerists of Pottsville, National Light Infantry of Pottsville, and Allen Infantry of Allentown, entered the city of Washington April 18, 1861, The First Defenders of the Capital.

The monument still stands today, nearly 120 years after its dedication, reminding us of the sacrifices of those brave men—and so many others before and since—whose service to our country is the reason we are able to freely celebrate today.

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Button from the July 4, 1901 Dedication Ceremony of the First Defenders Monument. From the Berks History Center Museum Collection.

Written by BHC Curator, Amber Vroman

Bountiful Victory Gardens during WWII

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Office of War Information poster, 1941. U.S. National Archives

Victory gardens were widely promoted during 1943 through 1945, during which time victory gardens gave rise to around 40% of all produce consumed nationwide. This large percentage of crops resulted from an estimated 20 million victory gardens cultivated across the American nation in 1944 –a staggering number when compared with the 5 million gardens cared for in 1918 during the First World War

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These photos from the Library of Congress depict variety of Victory Gardeners around the country, including Vice President, Henry A. Wallace in his Victory Garden!

Join the movement. Plant your own #BerksVictoryGarden and share your stories with other local gardeners the Berks Victory Gardeners facebook group. 

Part of the Berks History Center’s 2020 “Berks History for Victory Campaign.” Click here for more information. 

Share Your Story: Berks County & COVID-19

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These are extraordinary times and your history is worth saving! We are now witnessing a unique historical moment as our community responds to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Berks History Center wants to preserve your story.

While we can’t preserve everything, we are interested in collecting personal accounts, observations, images, sound and/or video files throughout this challenging time. Once we are able to open our doors, we hope to collect objects, diaries, documentaries, and more relating to our community’s unique experiences during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Please take a moment to share your stories with us. A selection of material submitted may be shared through the BHC media accounts and submitted stories will be preserved in the BHC collections for future generations.

Click here to share your story.

Maximizing Food Production in Wartime

Victory Garden Layout
Ohio History Connection Collection

Victory Gardens were designed to maximize food production and meet the dietary needs of small families in wartime. During WWII, amateur gardeners were provided instruction pamphlets issued by the US Department of Agriculture on how, when and where to sow, and were offered suggestions as to the best crops to plant, along with tips on preventing disease and insect infestations. These comprehensive manuals were effective guidelines and resulted in an estimated 20 million victory gardens cultivated across the nation in 1944. From 1942 to 1945, war gardening gave rise to around 40% of all produce consumed nationwide.

Due to the wet conditions today, the BHC staff will be getting their hands dirty tomorrow (May 2, 2020), installing our very first Victory Garden on the lawn of the BHC museum. The BHC demonstration garden will be designed to emulate the layout of these historic victory gardens, planting as efficiently as we can in the small sun exposed spaces we have available.

Discover more about the layout of victory gardens and what to plant in this “ABC of Victory Gardens Pamphlet” from the Ohio History Connection‘s digital collection.

Part of the Berks History Center’s 2020 “Berks History for Victory Campaign.” Click here for more information. 

We Are Growing with Help from Our Friends

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The Berks History Center is pleased to announce that its “Berks History for Victory” project has grown thanks to $1330 in support from The Friends of Reading Hospital. Launched on April 13, 2020, Berks History Center’s “Berks History for Victory” campaign aims to promote community food security through the revitalization of historic victory gardening in Berks County.

First initiated as an educational campaign and digital storytelling project on the Berks History Center’s website and social media platforms, “Berks History for Victory” will take root in the City of Reading with the installation of a demonstration victory garden at the Berks  History Center. In addition to building a “living exhibit” on the grounds of the BHC museum, funds from The Friends of Reading Hospital will also supply city residents with Victory Garden “Kick-Start Kits,” which include vegetable starts and bilingual educational pamphlets that share the history behind victory gardening as well as practical information for starting a vegetable garden at home.

Weather permitting, the BHC staff will break ground on Friday, May 1, 2020, installing the new demonstration victory garden on the lawn of the BHC museum. In the case of rain, the garden will be installed the following week. Updates and the installation process will be documented and shared on social media. The BHC invites the community to follow along @berkshistory on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.

City residents interested in kick-starting their own victory garden at home can pre-register online for a “Berks History for Victory Kick-Start Kit.” Supplies are limited and kits will be reserved on a first come, first served basis. The kits include vegetable starts as well as bilingual educational pamphlets. Soil for container gardens will be available on site but are not included in the kit. The BHC encourages registrants to bring their own containers, anything from coffee cans and 5 gallon buckets to traditional gardening pots to fill (self-serve) for their home container gardens at the time of the pick-up.

Online registration opens on Wednesday, April 29, 2020 and reserved kick-start kits will be available for pick-up at the Berks History Center on Monday, May 11, 2020. Two pick-up methods will be available to ensure safe social distancing: Walk-up registrations will be distributed at the BHC museum at the corner of Spring and 2nd Streets, and a drive-through pick-ups will be available the same day in the BHC parking lot, located at 160 Spring Street.

For more information and to register visit berkshistory.org/berks-history-for-victory/

The “Berks History for Victory” initiative has grown in collaboration with Reading’s Victory Garden Task Force and a growing number of community partnerships. The task force’s “Cultivating Community” victory garden project, led by Councilwoman, Lucine Sihelnik, will distribute complete container gardens to District 1 on Monday, May 11, 2020, the same day as the “Berks History for Victory” kick-start kit giveaway.

The Berks History Center has also partnered with the Reading Public Library to increase accessibility to information about home food production and the history of victory gardening in America. Through its Overdrive platform, the Reading Public Library has compiled a unique selection of digital books that can be accessed online by digital library card holders: https://bit.ly/BH4VGardenBooks To request a digital library card visit https://bit.ly/GetCardedToday

Muhlenberg Greene Architects, Ltd. (MGA) have also joined the movement to promote historic victory gardening for food security in Berks County. On their 100th Anniversary this year, MGA’s experienced architects will be putting together a set of plans for raised garden bed planters, which they will distribute to the public along with a series of “throwback” social media posts, sharing historic garden designs from some of the community’s most popular built residences built by MGA.

Other partnerships in the county-wide victory gardening initiative include: the City of Reading, DS Smith, Reading’s Environmental Advisory Council, Berks Nature, the Berks Conservation District, Penn State Cooperative Extension and the Berks County Master Gardeners.

Home gardeners and institutions alike are welcome to join the movement by sharing resources and stories on the Berks Victory Gardeners Facebook page and follow along on Instagram @BerksVictoryGardens Further collaborations are expected to grow, as the Berks Victory Gardeners invite all citizens, community organizations, and businesses to get behind the revitalization of historic home food gardening.

First promoted during WWI and again during WWII, Americans were encouraged to support the war effort and produce their own food by planting vegetable gardens in their backyards, churchyards, city parks, and playgrounds. Today, the BHC is seeking to revitalize this historic practice in order to build community and increase food security in Berks County.

The BHC invites families in Reading and Berks County to join them in their campaign to promote food security during the COVID-19 pandemic by learning about the history of victory gardens and growing their own gardens at home, wherever possible.

Dr. Clara Shetter Keiser – Medicine During Turbulent Times

The story of Dr. Clara Shetter Keiser, a Berks County woman who practiced medicine during turbulent times in our history, as told by her great-granddaughter, Catherine Shearer, BHC Trustee

“Viola and Walter Shearer were my grandparents and I was recently “reunited” with an artifact found in the attic of the Vinemont house they lived in.

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As pictured above, The Physician’s Perfect Call List and Record, belonged to my great-grandmother, Dr. Clara Shetter Keiser. Starting in January 1919 and ending in 1928, the book intermittently shows the names of patients, amount/debit, and record of narcotics dispensed.

When she started her recordings in the Call List and Record, we were already well into the Spanish flu pandemic (1918-1920) and she lived for another 11 years.  I can only wonder what advice she would be offering to us now!”

Dr. Clara Shetter Keiser (1863-1931), a native of Lebanon County, was “one of the best known medical practitioners of her sex in this section”, as stated in her obituary in the Reading Eagle dated October 6, 1931. “For years she was recognized for her far-reaching activities in the promotion of health and other activities of civic value to the community. Few women, living in this locality, have been as devoted to so many interests outside of those surrounding their own livelihood, and of vital interest to the community, as Dr. Keiser.”

It was also mentioned in the obituary she was one of the first advocates of women’s suffrage in this area.

Clara Shetter graduated in 1882 from the Women’s Medical College, Philadelphia, and served on their staff until moving to Reading in 1886, where she opened an office at Sixth and Washington Streets.  In 1889 she married Dr. James W. Keiser (1860-1904), a well-known local physician, and the son of Hannah Shearer and David Keiser, a Reading carpet merchant and real estate developer.

After her husband’s death in 1904, she continued her career as a practicing physician to support and educate her four children. The three Keiser sons were noted in swimming circles, including the Pennsylvanian Swimming Hall-of-Fame, and the local YMCA, served in the military, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.  Her daughter, Viola Keiser, a 1908 honors graduate of Kutztown Normal School, married Walter J. Shearer, of Vinemont, Pennsylvania.

War Gardens in Reading & Berks

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Image: WWI War Garden Poster, Library of Congress Collection https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/00653180/

In Berks County, the Chamber of Commerce enforced the proposals of the National War Garden Commission during WWI. Community members could set up appointments with Mrs. C. G. Yoder to learn the basics of the gardening trade. She was available to teach the community techniques on planting, fertilizing, and what crops would grow best in their personal gardens.

The City of Reading offered residents several areas around town to start war gardens. Open city blocks, public parks with reservoirs or open land on private property were all made available to Reading residents for rent or free of charge. Gardens sprung up all over Reading, from the Hampden and Buttonwood reservoir plots, to the grounds near Sternbergh’s Stirling and Spring and Weiser Streets.

This April 22, 1918 article from the Reading Times tells citizens where space was available for Victory Gardening. Where will you be victory gardening this year? Whether its a small plot of land or a few containers, you can do your part to promote food security in Berks County. 

Part of the Berks History Center’s 2020 “Berks History for Victory Campaign.” Click here for more information. 

 

Be a Soldier of the Soil! Plant a Victory Garden

March 11, 1918 Reading Times
Reading Times, March 11, 1918

In a “Letter from Uncle Sam,” this March 11, 1918 announcement in the Reading Times explains how Victory Gardens help to conserve both food and transportation. The ad encourages citizens to “plant the little that he has” as a patriotic service.

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WWI Victory Garden Poster, Library of Congress

In addition to newspapers, posters were an effective means of communication during WWI, informing and encouraging the public to participate in the war effort. The virtues of victory gardens, also referred to as “food gardens for defense” are extolled on this WWI poster from the Library of Congress collection.

Will you be “a soldier of the soil” this year? The benefits of victory gardening are still as relevant today as they were during the Great War. Join our movement of Berks Victory Gardeners by planting a victory garden and helping to improve food security in Berks County! 

Part of the Berks History Center’s 2020 “Berks History for Victory Campaign.” Click here for more information.

1917 Food Garden Primer

Reading Times May 10, 1917
May 10, 1917 Reading Times

The main objective of the National Emergency Food Garden Commission was to supply thousands of newspapers with articles and hundreds of clubs with promotional materials to inspire the planting of food gardens, as well as daily practical advice on how to build gardens and cultivate vegetables. As a result of this effort, an average of ten million people were given access to daily instructions as to how to grow their own emergency food supply.

Through the commission, the 1917 “Food Garden Primer” was distributed widely around the country. The 8-page pamphlet provides practical information for beginning gardeners.

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This pamphlet was originally printed by Mayor Mitchel’s Food Supply Committee of New York City. The Albany Branch of the New York State Woman Suffrage Party pasted their own label on this pamphlet instead of creating one of their own, as a public service toward the war effort.

Click here to read the pamphlet in its entirety.

Suffrage gardens were a popular technique to gather support for woman’s suffrage in 1917.

Part of the Berks History Center’s 2020 “Berks History for Victory Campaign.” Click here for more information.