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”.
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.
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