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


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.

Berks History for Victory!

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Drawing upon information from their collections and additional historical research, the Berks History Center (BHC) will embark upon an educational campaign and community story-telling project to promote home gardening for food security in Berks County and beyond. The initiative focuses on the revitalization of historic victory gardens, providing both the historical context and practical information for home-scale food production.

The “Berks History for Victory” campaign will launch digitally on Monday, April 13th on the Berks History Center’s social media platforms and will feature home gardening techniques for both urban and suburban residents as well as the national and local history behind victory gardening. Homeowners and renters alike are encouraged to participate and share stories about their victory gardening efforts using the hashtag #BerksHistoryforVictory

Currently closed to the public as ordered by Governor Tom Wolf and the PA Department of Health, the BHC has continued its operations remotely, employing all staff for the duration of the shut-down. Although many day-to-day roles involve interacting with visitors, the BHC quickly re-strategized after closing in March and developed creative ways to continue serving their community in a time of need.

“Despite losses to a significant portion of our revenue stream, our team has been able to adapt quickly, developing creative solutions to allow the organization to retain staff and continue fulfilling our mission,” says Executive Director, Benjamin Neely.

In the first week of the shutdown, the BHC launched “Berks History at Home” an educational resource page on the BHC website. The page allows families to explore Berks County’s history digitally with entertaining videos, a wealth of stories and articles, and a variety of resources and learning activities for families including downloadable coloring pages, junior historian prompts and more. Additional content is being released on the Berks History Center’s social media channels.

As state-wide stay at home measures were implemented, the BHC looked to the history books and discovered that in times of crisis, the American people, and more specifically the people of Berks County, have always been ingenuitive, adaptive, and overwhelmingly generous.

“In the past, producing food at home was an act of national solidarity in times of crisis, collectively taking the strain off of the American food system during the great world wars. Today, with uncertainty in our future, we can look to the lessons of the past to get us through this difficult time,” says Associate Director, Alexis Campbell.

“Gardening can be daunting for some, but we hope to demonstrate that home food production is both possible and fun, not to mention therapeutic. Even if you only grow one potted plant, we hope that gardening at home will be a source of inspiration and comfort, connecting you to the past and uniting our community in troubled times.”

First promoted during WWI, Americans were encouraged to produce their own food by planting vegetable gardens in their backyards, churchyards, city parks, and playgrounds.

At that time, the City of Reading offered residents several areas around town to start victory gardens, encouraging citizens to raise their own vegetables for consumption and conserve farm produce for the war effort. 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. Open city blocks, city parks with reservoirs or open land on private property were all made available to Reading residents for rent or free of charge.

Victory Gardens were again promoted by the U.S. government during World War II complementing a country-wide Food Rationing Program in 1942. Victory gardens were widely promoted during 1943 through 1945. However, once the war ended, so did government promotions and America’s reliance on victory gardens.

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BHC Curator, Amber Vroman will share stories from her home garden for “Berks History for Victory”

The “Berks History for Victory” campaign is primarily a digital learning experience, with historic images, stories and instructional videos released on social media. Two BHC staff will provide video-journals of their home gardening efforts. The BHC hopes to expand the program, by installing a small demonstration garden and living exhibit on the grounds of the BHC museum, located at 940 Centre Ave. However, plans to do so are tentative and dependent on the status of the state-wide stay at home order.

The “Berks History for Victory” campaign will complement a “Victory Container Garden” initiative led by District 1 Councilwoman, Lucine Sihelnik. By joining Sihelnik’s District 1 Victory Container Garden taskforce, the BHC will work to cultivate the community food system during the outbreak. Further collaborations are expected to grow, as the BHC and the task force encourage all citizens, community organizations, and businesses to get behind the revitalization of home food gardening.

“Victory Gardens are a positive way to feed our community, inspire stewardship, and are fruitful economically,” says Councilwoman Sihelnik.

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.

Follow @berkshistory on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.