“War Garden” Re-Created at Bush-Holley Historic Site
By Christopher Shields, Curator of Archives, Greenwich Historical Society
The idea of consuming locally produced food has fueled the popular farm-to-table “locavore” movement. Today, it’s difficult to find a menu in any popular restaurant that doesn’t highlight one or more offerings featuring meat or produce originating within 50 to 100 miles of the table where it will be consumed.
One hundred years ago, great effort was made by the federal government to encourage the vast expansion of gardening by volunteers on private property that was not already being employed in the production of crops (so called “slacker” land). The reason - the outbreak of World War I in Europe and the devastating disruption in food production that would result.
As farmers in Europe left their land to become soldiers and their farms became scarred and bloody battlefields, desperate food shortages were a constant problem. Leaders in the United States were among those to recognize the vital need to supply food to soldiers and civilians alike.
Charles Lathrop Pack, a businessman with interests in timber and real estate, became the leader of the National War Garden Commission and led an intensive effort to motivate and educate citizens to grow and preserve fruits and vegetables. Along with the Food Administration, the National War Garden Commission produced a wide variety of brochures, books and posters that provided detailed instructions and examples to aid the average citizen in his or her effort to produce viable crops. The promotional material was intended to persuade people that it was their duty, not an option, to contribute to the war effort in this way as patriotic Americans.
The efforts of these organizations paid off tremendously as these private gardeners dramatically increased the production of food for domestic consumption, allowing more to be exported to Europe. The use of locally grown fruits and vegetables also meant that fewer vital resources (like fuel) would be needed to transport goods to market.
With the explosion of food being produced domestically, people in all walks of life also became involved in the preservation of food for future use. Locally, the Greenwich Canning Kitchen (which was located on Railroad Avenue) was a vibrant, mostly volunteer operation that cleaned, cut and preserved a large amount of food that was grown in town.
The viability of dehydrating food as a means of preservation also took hold. Constant MacRae, who ran Bush-Holley House as a boardinghouse with her husband, artist Elmer MacRae, participated in a January 1918 Greenwich Garden Club demonstration at the Biltmore Hotel featuring a meal created from “waterless” ingredients.
Anna Greco, Curator of Education at the Greenwich Historical Society, spearheaded the effort to recreate a “war garden” featuring varieties of fruits and vegetables that would have been grown by volunteer gardeners throughout New England during World War I. Under her direction, dedicated volunteers Joseph Greco, Jenevieve Hughes and Joan Faust created this living preview for an exhibition Greenwich Faces The Great War, which was presented by the Historical Society from October 1, 2014 to March 22, 2015.
Visitors to Bush-Holley Historic Site at 39 Strickland Road in Cos Cob can pick up a brochure at the Storehouse Gallery providing additional details about the war garden.
—Christopher Shields, Archivist, Greenwich Historical Society