Do you raise vegetables to feed yourself? If the answer is “Yes,” you are not alone. The National Gardening Survey reported that 77 percent of American households gardened in 2018, and the number of young gardeners (ages 18 to 34) increased exponentially from previous years. Why? Concern about food sources, an interest in healthy eating, and a DIY approach to problem solving motivate most to take up the trowel.
The process of raising vegetables to feed yourself carries with it a sense of urgency that many of us with kitchen cabinets full of canned goods cannot fathom. Farm families planted, cultivated, harvested, processed and consumed their own garden produce into the 20th century. This was hard but required work to satisfy their needs.
Two members of the Lancaster Unit of the Woman’s National Farm and Garden Association digging potatoes, 1918. THF 288960
Seed Sources Gardeners need seeds. Before the mid-19th century, home gardeners saved their own seeds for the next year’s crop. If a disaster destroyed the next year’s seeds, home gardeners had to purchase seeds.
Commercial seed sales began as early as 1790 in the community of Shakers at Watervliet, New York. The Mt. Lebanon, New York, Shaker community established the Shaker Seed Company in 1794. The Watervliet Shakers first sold pre-packaged seeds in 1835, but the Mt. Lebanon community dominated the garden seed business until 1891. They marketed prepackaged seeds in boxes like this directly to store owners who sold to customers.
Satisfying the demand for garden seeds became big business. Entrepreneurs established seed farms and warehouses in cities where laborers cultivated, cleaned, stored and packaged seeds. The D.M. Ferry & Co. provides a good example.
D.M. Ferry & Company Headquarters and Warehouse, Detroit, Michigan, circa 1880. THF76854
Entrepreneurs invested earnings into this lucrative industry.
Hiram Sibley, who made a fortune in telegraphy, and spent 16 years as president of the Western Union Telegraph Company, claimed to have the largest seed farm in the world, and an international production and distribution system based in Rochester, New York, and Chicago, Illinois. Though the company name changed, the techniques of prepackaging seeds developed by the Shakers at Watervliet and direct marketing of filled boxes to store owners remained an industry standard.
Hiram Sibley & Co. Seed Box, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888. THF181542
Planting gardens requires prepackaged seeds (unless you save your own!). These little packets tell big stories about ingenuity and resourcefulness. We acquired this 1880s Sibley & Co. seed box from the Barnes Store in Rock Stream, NY in 1929.
The original Sibley seed papers and packets are on view in a replica Hiram Sibley & Co seed box in the J.R. Jones General Store in Greenfield Village, which our members and guests will be able to enjoy once again when we reopen. Until then, take a virtual trip to the store by way of Mo Rocca and Innovation Nation.
Looking for gardening inspiration? Historic seed and flower packets can provide plenty! Survey the hundreds of seed packets dated 1880s to the present in our digital collections and create your own virtual garden.
The variety might astound you, from the mangelwurzel (raised for livestock feed) to the Early Acme Tomato and the Giant Rocca Onion.
Hiram Sibley & Co. “Beet Long Red Mangelwurtzel” Seed Packet, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888. THF181520
Hiram Sibley & Co. “Tomato Early Acme” Seed Packet, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888. THF278980
Hiram Sibley & Co. “Onion Giant Rocca” Seed Packet, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888. THF279020
Families in cities often did not have land to cultivate, so they relied on the public markets and green grocers as the source of their vegetables.
Canned goods changed the relationships between gardeners and their responsibility for meeting their own food needs. Affordable and available canned goods made it easy for most to hang up their garden trowels. As a result, raising vegetables became a lifestyle choice rather than a necessity for most Americans by the 1930s.
Can Label, “Butterfly Brand Stringless Beans,” circa 1880. THF293949
Times of crisis increase both personal interest and public investment in home-grown vegetables, as the national Victory Garden movements of the 20th century confirm.
Man Inspecting Tomato Plant in Victory Garden, June 1944. THF273191
Victory Gardens, a patriotic act during World War I and World War II, provide important examples of food resourcefulness and ingenuity.
You can find your own inspiration from Victory Garden items in our collections – from 1918 posters to Ford Motor Company gardens during the 1930s, and home-front mobilization during World War II here.
Woman's National Farm and Garden Association at Dedham Square Truck Market, 1918. THF288964
But the “fruits” of the garden didn’t just stay at home. Entrepreneurial-minded Americans took their goods to market, like these members of the Woman's National Farm & Garden Association and their "pop-up" curbside market in Dedham, Massachusetts, in 1918.
Clara Ford with a Model of the Roadside Market She Designed, circa 1930. THF117982
Clara Ford, at one time a president of the Women’s National Farm and Garden Association, also believed in the importance of eating local. Read more about her involvement with roadside markets here.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.
George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Institute, 1939 THF213730
George Washington Carver’s commitment to knowledge, serving the community, and making a difference drove his work as an influential agricultural scientist.
Carver loved plants as a child and studied them his entire life. Despite the many challenges he faced, he earned degrees in agricultural science and gained international recognition for his work.
In 1896, Carver began his 47-year career at Tuskegee Institute, a university in Alabama committed to educating African-Americans. There, he taught agricultural science, managed the school’s experimental farm, and researched better farming practices.
One of the many bulletins Carver produced to help southern farmers THF288047
Carver shared his knowledge through practical instruction, “how-to” publications, and a mobile classroom. His research became the basis for lessons on improving the health and nutrition of the soil as well as the health and well-being of people and the livestock they tended.
Carver understood that farm families who raised cash crops like cotton had little time to grow food for themselves and no extra money to buy it. He identified hundreds of new uses for undervalued food crops like peanuts and sweet potatoes, which increased market opportunities and improved diets.
An interactive digital experience in Henry Ford Museum features the stories of Luther Burbank, Rachel Carson, and George Washington Carver.
Learn more about Carver’s remarkable career in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, where a new digital experience in the Agriculture & the Environmentexhibit explores
Bulletins produced by Carver to help southern farm families
Carver’s work to create nutrient-rich soil needed to grow healthy crops
Weeds – an untapped food source Carver liked to call “nature’s vegetables”
New products Carver developed from crops southern farmers already grew
The Henry Ford acquired the Vegetable Building from Detroit's Central Farmers Market in 2003, saving it from demolition. Like the farmers markets of today, the Detroit Central Farmers Market was a gathering place – a commercial center, a hub of entrepreneurship and a community space where family, friends, and neighbors congregated and socialized.
This farmers market can become a destination again, a resource for exploring America's agricultural past, present, and future. We need your help to make this happen. #PledgeYourPassion by making a gift this Giving Tuesday.
Learn more about the remarkable history of this important structure.
The City of Detroit invested in a new permanent market building - this expansive vegetable hall - in 1860. Located at the east end of Michigan Avenue, just east of Woodward at Campus Martius, it was roughly four blocks square, extending from Woodward to Randolph. The major building in the market was the expansive vegetable building. Market gardeners, florists, orchardists, and nurserymen sold their produce from rented stalls between 1861 and 1893.
The growth of Central Market reflects Detroit’s growth as a city. Much of Detroit’s early history revolved around its importance as a port and strategic location in the Great Lakes. During the 19th century, Detroit’s manufacturing base and its population grew rapidly, more than doubling every 10 years from just 2,222 people in 1830 to 45,619 in 1860. The Central Market was the first Detroit market not located by the docks, reflecting the city’s transition from a port town to a city. Farmers were now coming to Detroit to sell to city residents, rather than to ship produce to eastern cities.
This certified 1884 Sanborn insurance map shows the Central Market area, including the Vegetable Building and other shops.
The Central Farmers Market began in 1843 as a simple shed built off the rear of the old City Hall building. Problems with traffic congestion caused by the market, along with the desire to make the prominent square more presentable, led newly elected Mayor Christian H. Buhl to pledge to build a new covered market building. The city hired local architect John Schaffer to develop plans. Schaffer’s design called for a “structure to be comprised of forty-eight iron columns supporting a wooden roof, [measuring] 70 by 242 feet from outside to outside.” The construction contract was awarded in June to Joel Gray at a cost of $5,312. In late September of 1860, the Detroit Free Press wrote:
“The new market building in the rear of the City Hall is nearly competed and promises to be a fine structure. It covers the whole of the space occupied as a vegetable market, and consists of an open shed, the roof of which is supported on iron columns and a well-finished framework. The roof is of slate and cost about $1,500. It is designed in time to make a tile floor and erect fountains. The building will accommodate all the business of the market and will constitute an ornament as well as a great convenience to that important branch of city commerce.”
In its first year, the market earned the city $1,127 in rent, covering 20% of the construction costs in one year. The building thrived as the vegetable market through the 1880s. The emergence of the Eastern Market, and the continuing desire to open the street to traffic, led the Common Council to decide to close the Central Market in 1892. In 1893 the Parks and Boulevards Commission, which operated Belle Isle, received approval to move the building to Belle Isle for use as a horse and vehicle shelter. The building was re-erected on Belle Isle in 1894.
In later years it was converted to a riding stable – the sides were bricked in, the roof was altered to add clerestory windows to let in light, and an office and wash area was constructed in the south end. After the riding stable closed in 1963, the building was used to keep the horses of the Detroit Mounted Police, and then later used for storage. It was considered for demolition since the early 1970s. Over the summer of 2003, the building was dismantled and the parts from the original market building were preserved for re-erection in Greenfield Village.
The Detroit Central Farmers Market vegetable building is a rare and important building. Because of fires and development pressures, wooden commercial buildings, particularly timber-framed buildings, rarely survive to the present in urban settings. This may be the only 19th century timber-frame market building surviving in the United States. Its move to Belle Isle saved it from demolition.
The building is architecturally significant. It is an excellent expression of prevailing architectural tastes, as demonstrated by the Free Press review. It captures the rapidly changing world of building construction of the mid-19th century. The building represents the pinnacle of the timber framer’s craft; it is elegantly shaped and ornamented in a way that makes the frame itself the visual keystone of the design. It was built shortly before timber frame construction was eclipsed by the new balloon frame construction, which used dimensional lumber and nailed joints. The cast iron columns that support the timber-framed roof represent the newest in manufactured construction materials. Cast iron was the favorite material of the modern builder in the mid-19th century. It was easy to form into a variety of shapes, and ideal for adding ornamentation to buildings at a moderate cost. The columns in the market building have been formed to represent two different materials – the lower section resembles an elaborately carved stone column, while the upper section looks like the timber frame structure that it supports.
The building captures the exuberance and optimism of the city of Detroit as it grew in its first wave from a frontier fort and outpost, to an important city. A “useful and beautiful” market building in the city’s central square was important to this image of this growing city – as evidenced by the fact that it took only nine months from Mayor Buhl’s inaugural address of January 11, 1860 promising a new market building, to its substantial completion. Few buildings survive from this first era of growth in the city of Detroit.
For 30 years customers engaged with vendors at the Vegetable Building in Detroit's Central Market. For 110 years the building served the public in a variety of ways on Belle Isle. Your donation will help The Henry Ford rebuild this structure in the heart of Greenfield Village. There it will inspire future generations to learn about their food sources. Make history and #PledgeYourPassion this Giving Tuesday.
Jim McCabe is former Collections Manager at The Henry Ford.
THF213753 / George Washington Carver at Dedication of George Washington Carver Cabin, Greenfield Village, 1942.
On this day in 1946, George Washington Carver Recognition Day was designated by a joint act of the U.S. Congress and proclaimed by President Harry S. Truman. Carver died just three years earlier on this day in 1943.
Immediately, public officials and the news media began to celebrate his life and create lasting reminders of his work in education, agricultural science, and art. Carver, mindful of his own legacy, had already established the Carver Foundation during the 15th annual Negro History Week, on February 14, 1940, to carry on his research at Tuskegee. It seems fitting to pay respects to Carver on his death day by taking a closer look at the floral beautis that Carver so loved, and that we see around us, even during winter.
Carver recalled that, “day after day I spent in the woods alone in order to collect my floral beautis” [Kremer, ed., pg. 20]. He believed that studying nature encouraged investigation and stimulated originality. Experimentation with plants “rounded out” originality, freedom of thought and action. THF213747 / George Washington Carver Holding Queen Anne's Lace Flowers, Greenfield Village, 1942.
Carver wanted children to learn how to study nature at an early age. He explained that it is “entertaining and instructive, and is the only true method that leads up to a clear understanding of the great natural principles which surround every branch of business in which we may engage” (Progressive Nature Studies, 1897, pg. 4). He encouraged teachers to provide each student a slip of plain white or manila paper so they could make sketches. Neatness mattered. As Carver explained, the grading scale “only applies to neatness, as some will naturally draw better than others.”
Neatness equated to accuracy, and with accuracy came knowledge. Farm families could vary their diet by identifying additional plants they could eat, and identify challenges that plants faced so they could correct them and grow more for market.
Carver understood how the landscape changed between the seasons, and exploring during winter was just as important as exploring during summer. Thus, it is appropriate to apply Carver’s directions about observing nature to the winter landscape around us, and to draw the winter botanicals that we see, based on directions excerpted from Carver’s Progressive Nature Studies (1897). (Items in parentheses added to prompt winter-time nature study - DAR and DE, 3 Jan 2018.)
Leaves – Are they all alike? What plants retain their leaves in winter? Draw as many different shaped leaves as you can.
Stems – Are stems all round? Draw the shapes of as many different stems as you can find. Of what use are stems? Do any have commercial value?
Flowers (greenhouses/florists) – Of what value to the plant are the flowers?
Trees – Note the different shapes of several different trees. How do they differ? (Branching? Bark?) Which trees do you consider have the greatest value?
Shrubs – What is the difference between a shrub and a tree?
Fruit (winter berries) – What is fruit? Are they all of value?
Carver worked in greenhouses and encouraged others to use greenhouses and hot beds to start vegetables earlier in the planting system. The sooner farm families had fresh vegetables, the more quickly they could reduce the amount they had to purchase from grocery stores, and the healthier the farm families would be.
THF213726 / George Washington Carver in a Greenhouse, 1939.
In 1910, Carver included directions for work with nature studies and children’s gardens over twelve months. Selections from “January” suitable for nearly all southern states” included:
Begin in this month for spring gardening by breaking the ground very deeply and thoroughly
Clear off and destroy trash (plant debris) that might be a hiding place for noxious insects.
Cabbages can be put in hot beds, cold frames, or well-protected places.
Grape vines, fruit trees, hedges and ornamental trees should receive attention (pruning, fertilizing)
Both root and top grafting of trees should be done.
THF213314 / Pamphlet, "Nature Study and Children's Gardens," by George Washington Carver, circa 1910.
Carver illustrated his own publications, basing his botanical drawings on what he observed in his field work. He conveyed details that his readers needed to know, be they school children tending their gardens, or farm families trying to raise better crops.
THF213278 / Pamphlet, "Some Possibilities of the Cow Pea in Macon County, Alabama," by George Washington Carver, 1910 / page 12.
Edible wild botanicals, also known as weeds, appeared in late winter. Carver encouraged everyone from his students at Tuskegee to Henry Ford to consumer more wild greens year round, but especially in late winter when greens became a welcome respite from root crops and preserved meats which dominated winter fare. His pamphlet, Nature’s Garden for Victory and Peace, prepared during World War II, featured numerous drawings of edible wild botanicals, also called weeds. Americans could contribute to the war effort by diversifying their diets with these greens that sprouted in the woods during the late winter and early spring. Carver illustrated each wild green, including dandelion, wild lettuce, curled dock, lamb’s quarter, and pokeweed. Following the protocol used in botanical drawing, he credited the source, as he did with several illustrations identified as “after C.M. King.” This referenced the work of Charlotte M. King, who taught botanical drawing at Iowa State University during the time of Carver’s residency there, and who likely influenced Carver’s approach to botanical drawing. King’s original of the “Small Pepper Grass” drawing appeared in The Weed Flora of Iowa (1913), written by Carver’s mentor, botanist Louis Hermann Pammel.
THF213586 / Pamphlet, "Nature's Garden for Victory and Peace," by George Washington Carver, March 1942. To learn more about Carver, consult these biographies:
Hersey, Mark D. My Work is that of Conservation: An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011.
Kremer, Gary R. George Washington Carver: A Biography. Santa Barbara, Cal.: Greenwood, 2011.
Kremer, Gary R. ed. George Washington Carver in His Own Words. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987.
McMurry, Linda O. George Washington Carver, Scientist and Symbol. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
To read more about Carver and Nature Study, see:
Carver, G. W. Progressive Nature Studies. (Tuskegee Institute Print, 1897), Digital copy available at Biodiversity Heritage Library, https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/98621#page/132/mode/1up
Harbster, Jennifer. “George Washington Carver and Nature Study,” blog, March 2, 2015, https://blogs.loc.gov/inside_adams/2015/03/george-washington-carver-and-nature-study/
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. Deborah Evans is Master Presenter at The Henry Ford.
Henry Ford greatly admired his friend Luther Burbank for his work as a naturalist and botanist—it’s no coincidence that the shovel buried in The Henry Ford’s cornerstone belonged to Burbank. Greenfield Village also holds a strong Burbank presence—his garden office was moved to the Village in 1928, and eight years later, his birthplace was added. As part of our ongoing project documenting the histories of Greenfield Village buildings, we’ve just digitized a number of images showing Luther Burbank’s birthplace on its original site in Lancaster, Massachusetts, including this photograph labeled “south end.”
To see more artifacts related to the famed developer of the Russet Burbank potato, still one of the world’s most popular varieties, visit our digital collections.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
The act of farming draws nutrients from the soil. If the nutrients are not returned, the soil will become depleted and lose productivity. One of the best ways to restore the soil is to recycle what was removed from it by spreading manure on it. This International Harvester Manure Spreader made a dirty job not-so-dirty.
Caring for the Land: Forgotten – Then Re-discovered
To the Europeans who settled colonial America, the availability of land seemed limitless. Farmers paid little attention to caring for the soil, quickly abandoning the fertilizing activities they had practiced in Europe. These farmers felt it more cost effective to simply move on to new land when the soil lost productivity, rather than put in the effort to restore its fertility.
Before the Age of Steam, American farmers hand-threshed wheat or oats with a flail. Threshing machines powered by horses or portable steam engines increased daily production of threshing by a hundred times.
In the 1800s, the large number of horses required for farming consumed a lot of grain. Starting in the 1860s, farmers began threshing grain to feed those horses with a cousin of the "iron horse" - a steam traction engine like the Port Huron Thresher shown above.
As a Michigan farm boy, Henry Ford recorded his first sight of a traction engine: "I remember that engine as though I had seen it only yesterday, for it was the first vehicle other than horse drawn that I had ever seen. It was intended to drive threshing machines and power sawmills and was simply a portable engine and a boiler mounted on wheels." The steam traction engine inspired Ford to design and manufacture automobiles. To other rural people it represented a grand transition in American agriculture, and a new community activity.
Buying fresh produce direct from local farmers is a key to our efforts today to “eat local.” Nearly 90 years ago, Clara Ford was advocating the same thing, to improve on diets that were undermined by too much processed food and--more importantly to her--to improve the situations of rural farm women.
Barns are one of the best ways to tell where you are when you are traveling—especially if you happened to be traveling through the United States 150 years ago.
Barns are generally the largest man-made feature of the rural landscape. They can tell you a lot about the type of farming that is going on, as well as the cultural background of the family that built them. Unlike houses or commercial buildings, barns generally lack stylistic adornment. Since building a barn was often a community undertaking, the general form and the details of barn construction often changed slowly—barn-builders were limited to construction techniques that everyone in the community knew how to do. As a result, until the late 1800s, barns tended to differ more from place-to-place, than they did over time.
The barn at the Firestone Farm tells us that the Firestone family was of German ancestry, that people from the Germanic sections of Pennsylvania settled the community where the family lived in Ohio, and that their farm was the typical mix of livestock and grain crops found in the northeast and upper Midwestern United States.
What physical clues tell us this?
The Firestone barn is of a type known as a Pennsylvania-German bank barn, or “Sweitzer” barn, one of the primary barn types found in the United States before 1880. Bank barns are large, multi-purpose structures that combined several farm functions under a single roof. Two-story and rectangular in form, they have a gable roof with a ridgeline running the length of the building. They are called bank barns because one side of the barn is built into the bank of a hill, allowing wagons to be driven into the upper floor of the barn. The opposite side of the barn has an overhang, known as a projecting forebay. Livestock were kept in the lower story of the barn.