“The Farmer Is the Man That Feeds Us All.” The words of that folk tune became indelibly imprinted on U.S. popular culture when Alan Lomax included it as the 66th out of the 317 songs in Folk Songs of North America (in the English Language) (1960). In fact, linking “the farmer” to “the man” tells only half the story!
Plenty of popular images of women in agriculture exist. The painting above, rendered by a girl in Massachusetts in the early years of the new nation, shows a woman holding a cornucopia. This likely represented either Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, or Copia, the Roman goddess of abundance. The goddess to the far right, holding a branch, might represent Pax, the Roman goddess of peace.
Mode of Spinning and Weaving by the Pueblo Indians, 1857 / THF621691
Abundance and peace marked a stable and secure agricultural society. Yet, farms throughout the expanding United States flourished on lands that matrilineal indigenous societies had managed for centuries before colonization. The Henry Ford acknowledges these matrilineal indigenous societies as stewards of the lands that sustained them for centuries.
Hillsboro County Agricultural and Mechanical Fair Badge, 1852 / THF154922
The popular depictions of goddesses of agriculture, grains, harvest, and fertility continued in U.S. popular culture for decades. The agricultural fair badge above depicts either the Greek goddess, Demeter; the Roman goddess, Ceres; or America’s Lady Liberty—all matrons of agriculture.
In contrast, illustrations in The Farmers and Dairymans Almanac, published the same year (1852), featured only men engaged in the practice of growing crops and rearing livestock. The work fit the seasons—flailing grain, building fence, spreading manure, and bringing in the sheaves—but emphasized that men did agricultural work and ran the business of farming as well.
Male authority over business ventures, including farming, stemmed from legal traditions based in English common law. These included the precedent of feme covert—that married women had no legal civil identity separate from their husbands. Married women were civilly dead. Thus, only single adult women or widows could negotiate the legally binding contracts required to operate farms. Married women could not—their husbands alone had the legal authority to do so. State laws began chipping away at feme covert during the 1820s by granting married women authority over their wages, recourse if abandoned by a husband, or the privilege of parental authority. It took decades, however, before most states afforded married women authority over their property and finances.
Women acted as farmers, nonetheless. They performed many tasks routinely, including milking cows and tending chickens.
Farm scene showing Norwegian women at work in fields off Merrick Road, 1890-1915/ THF38397
Women worked in the fields, too, especially when crops needed planting, cultivating, or harvesting. Sometimes they did this work as a member of a gang of laborers. The companionship might have eased some of the tedium of hoeing around seedlings to reduce competition from weeds, but it did not ease the physical demands of the labor. The women shown above, described as Norwegian by the photographer, work in farm fields near Brooklyn, New York.
Workers in an Onion Field, H. J. Heinz Company, circa 1910 /THF291590
Perishable commodities required everyone to pitch in. The above photograph shows girls and boys, as well as women and men, busy in an onion field under contract to the H. J. Heinz Company.
In a Great Pine Forest, Collecting Turpentine, North Carolina / THF278800
During harvest seasons, farming needs often took precedence over domestic routines and women worked alongside men to get work done as quickly as possible. This included harvesting turpentine from long-leaf pine forests—yes, forestry work is a branch of agricultural work.
Illustrated Industries and Geography of America (1882), pg. 240 / THF277183
The need to get hay in dry provided opportunities for girls and women to contribute their labor. The 1882 illustration above shows a girl and a boy on horses that generate the power to raise the loaded hay fork and run it along the track to dump hay in the barn. The same illustration shows a woman at work in the dirtiest job, distributing the dumped hay in the mow.
A Rice Raft with Plantation Hands, Near Georgetown, South Carolina, 1901-1909 / THF278804
The work completed by women and children often contributed to the economic solvency of the family farm. They “gleaned” by walking through harvested fields and picking up grain and straw missed by the work crews. The photograph above shows laborers after a day at work in rice fields in South Carolina. The raft transported them and their grain and straw back home, where they hulled the grain for family use or to sell and used the straw as forage or bedding for their livestock.
Other important farm work occurred in domestic spaces. This “women’s work” should not be discounted among farm work. Women and girls ensured food security and kept farms running by raising, processing, and preserving food crops and processing animal products (eggs, dairy, meat). Several farm homes in Greenfield Village tell these critical stories.
Daggett Farm in Greenfield Village, September 2007 / Photographed by Michelle Andonian /THF53544
The Daggett family, of Daggett Farmhouse, had a very set routine of farm and household management tasks. Samuel Daggett ran the business side of the farm. He had to ensure harvests of enough hay to keep the cattle herd healthy, and enough small grains to satisfy family consumption needs and market income. Anna Bushnell Daggett, on the other hand, oversaw the kitchen garden, to ensure harvests adequate to feed the family. The Daggett family raised food they needed for the entire year on their farmland. They had to plan the quantity and quality of plants and vegetables they needed to grow and harvest to ensure family survival. They then had to preserve the crops by pickling, storing (in a root cellar), fermenting, or drying them to ensure a supply throughout the winter months and into the next season.
Illustrated Historical Atlas of the County of Wayne, Michigan, 1876, page 34, detail /THF126026
The Ford farmhouse functioned well under the oversight of Henry Ford’s mother, Mary Litogot Ford. She maintained the busy farmstead while ensuring that her young and growing family was well fed and healthy. She, with the help of neighboring farmgirls, milked the cattle and tended chickens. She may also have helped with pressing seasonal farm work like bringing in the hay crop, but her young family probably consumed most of her attention on the farm. Mary unfortunately passed away on March 29, 1876, and it’s hard to imagine the historical farmstead operating without her at the center (distinctive in her dress in the illustration above, published in 1876) standing with children and chickens.
Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village, September 2007, Photographed by Michelle Andonian / THF52966
Firestone Farmhouse provides insight into the question, “What does it take to put a meal on the table?” This work drove a farm woman’s working day as she prepared three meals each day, 365 days every year. Morning activities focused on the repetitive and time-consuming tasks of preparing, consuming, and cleaning up after breakfast, while also preparing farm-grown produce, eggs, and meat for the noon meal. Other chores, including work in the kitchen garden, processing of dairy products, and tending to the chicken flock, in addition to household chores and childcare, consumed afternoons and evenings. Evenings involved additional preparation for the same tasks repeated the next day, and so on. Disruptions to these routines included celebrations like weddings, somber events such as funerals, and the haste of harvest which increased the farm workload for all.
Mattox Family Home in Greenfield Village, 1991 /THF45318
The center of many farm women’s lives revolved around the backyards of farm homes. Grace Mattox, her ancestors and her children, spent countless hours over decades keeping the backyard of the Mattox Family Home swept. This area, with its nearby brush arbor, provided additional space to get work done, and to visit with relatives and neighbors while they did it. The Mattox children remembered their hardscrabble existence, consisting of constant work to keep the garden cultivated, ripe vegetables processed, and food on the table.
The Henry Ford’s collections and these historic farmsteads in Greenfield Village provide a glimpse into the routines of farm women’s work. Their labor, from sun-up to sun-down, was essential to ensure the health and wellbeing of their families, as well as the smooth operation of their farms. These routines changed by the mid-twentieth century, as processed foods reduced the work required to maintain the family food supply and new farm implements replaced laborers. Often, women pursued off-farm work, but they remained essential to farm operations as their earnings helped family farms make ends meet.
FMC Cascade Tomato Harvester in Use, circa 1985 / THF146505
The adoption of mechanical tomato harvesters in the 1960s both industrialized tomato production and ushered in a countermovement of small growers and local food advocates. How could one machine prompt such contradictory but real changes in agriculture? The full story spans decades and reveals complex relationships of supply and demand—for both agricultural products and the people who grow and harvest them.
Shortage and Struggle
California’s labor shortage threatened the supply of processing tomatoes for ketchup, sauces, tomato juice, canned tomatoes, and other products. Can label, "Del Monte Brand Spanish Style Tomato Sauce," circa 1930. / THF294183, detail
To meet rising demand for processing tomatoes (to be made into ketchups, sauces, tomato juice, canned tomatoes, and other products) in the early 20th century, growers needed laborers to pick them. Those laborers, in turn, needed living wages. Tensions between growers and laborers came to a head during the New Deal era of the 1930s, when government policies promised minimum wages, maximum hours, and workers’ compensation. Yet, lobbyists working for growers and agricultural processers convinced policy makers to exempt agricultural workers from these protections.
Laborers voted with their feet, seeking employment beyond farm fields. This caused a critical labor shortage that became even more acute during World War II for growers raising tomatoes and other crops in California and beyond. To meet demand, the United States and Mexican governments negotiated the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement. This guest labor program brought millions of farmworkers, known as braceros, from Mexico to work in the United States for short periods of time between 1942 and 1964.
A chain of events during the 1960s called attention to the plight of agricultural laborers. Edward R. Murrow’s television documentary Harvest of Shame (1960) highlighted the precarious existence of migrant laborers who worked picking perishable fruits and vegetables in the Midwest and along the East Coast. The Bracero Program expired in 1964, reducing the number of available laborers and increasing growers’ dependence on the existing labor pool. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, along with other anti-poverty and housing legislation, made it clear that migratory and seasonal laborers had the right to humane treatment.
On the West Coast, Filipino laborers organized as part of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. Seeking better wages and a more favorable rate of payment, they launched a grape strike that expanded into Delano, California, in 1965. The National Farm Workers Association, consisting mostly of Mexican migratory workers, joined the cause. This coordinated effort resulted in a new organization, the United Farm Workers (UFW), with Cesar Chavez as president.
The organizing efforts of groups like the United Farm Workers to secure better wages and living conditions for agricultural laborers in California gained national attention in the 1960s. United Farm Workers flag, circa 1970. / THF94392
The UFW devised innovative solutions to increase pressure on growers, and—especially due to the efforts of co-founder Dolores Huerta—built the Delano grape strike into a national boycott. This focused attention on basic needs for migratory and seasonal laborers. In addition to ensuring some protections for individuals, the coordinated effort secured the right for migratory and seasonal laborers as a class to collectively bargain.
Engineering a Solution to Labor Shortages
Tomato growers, keen on getting their crop planted, cultivated, and harvested at the optimum times, were interested in mechanical solutions that could address labor shortages. Mechanizing the harvest of this perishable commodity, however, proved to be a time-consuming challenge.
Scientists at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), sought a labor shortage solution through mechanical and biological engineering. Research and development begun in the 1940s finally resulted in the successful design of both a mechanical tomato harvester (created in partnership with Blackwelder Manufacturing Company) and a tomato that could withstand mechanical harvesting (the VF145).
Top: UC Davis vegetable crops researcher Gordie “Jack” Hanna developed the machine-harvestable VF145 tomato. Bottom: An early mechanical tomato harvester underway. Images from the 1968 USDA Yearbook, Science for Better Living. / THF621133 and THF621134
By 1961, Blackwelder had released a commercial harvester and recommended the VF145 tomato for optimum mechanical harvesting. FMC Corporation released a competing harvester by 1966. Manufacturers touted the labor-saving value of mechanical harvesters at a time when the supply of laborers was too small to meet demand, and the adoption of this new technology was swift. In 1961, 25 mechanical harvesters picked about one-half of one percent of California’s tomato crop. Between 1965 and 1966, the number of harvesters doubled from 250 to 512 and the percentage of mechanically harvested tomatoes in California rocketed from 20 percent to 70 percent. By 1970, the transition was complete, with 99.9 percent of California’s tomato crop harvested mechanically. (For more, see Mark Kramer’s essay, "The Ruination of the Tomato," in the January 1980 issue of The Atlantic.)
Some might claim mechanical harvesters helped save California’s processed tomato industry—by 1980, California growers produced 85 percent of that crop. But a closer look reveals a more complicated cause-and-effect. While growers could theoretically save their crop by replacing some labor with machines, many small-scale growers could not save their businesses from large-scale competition. By 1971, the number of tomato farmers had dropped by 82 percent. (This consolidation was mirrored elsewhere in the industry, as just four companies—Del Monte, Heinz, Campbell, and Libby’s—processed 72 percent of tomatoes by 1980.)
Tomato harvester advertisements promised farmers could save their businesses by replacing scarce laborers with machines, but many small-scale growers could not save themselves from large-scale competitors. Advertisement for FMC Corporation Tomato Harvester, circa 1966. / THF610767
A group of growers sued UC Davis, challenging the school for investing so much to develop the tomato harvester without spending comparable resources to address the needs of small farmers.In response, UC Davis opened its Small Farm Center, an advocacy center for alternative farmers, in 1979. These events coincided with wider efforts to hold the United States Department of Agriculture accountable for unequal distribution of support, resulting in increased attention at the national level to economically disadvantaged and ethnically diverse farmers. Around this same time, food activist Alice Waters raised awareness through her advocacy of locally sourced foods. Her restaurant, Chez Panisse, founded in Berkeley, California, in 1971, became an anchor for the burgeoning Slow Food movement.
So, while mechanical tomato harvesters—like the one on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation—represent large-scale scientific and industrial advances, they also offer insight into this country’s complex labor history and help tell stories about small-scale farmers and their connections to communities, customers, and all of us who eat.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture & the Environment at The Henry Ford. Adapted by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Machine-harvesting new tomato varieties, as depicted in the 1968 USDA Yearbook, Science for Better Living. / detail, THF621132
For millennia, people have domesticated plants and animals to ensure survival—this process is agriculture. And while most of us neither grow crops nor raise livestock, agriculture affects all our lives, every day: through the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the fuel we use to move from place to place.
But agriculture is also the changing story of how this work is done. At every step, people have created new technology and tools to challenge nature’s limitations and to reduce the physical labor required to plant, cultivate, and harvest.
People produced much of what they ate until processed foods became big business in the United States during the late 1800s. As market demand increased, and commercial growing and canning grew, it prompted changes in farming. Take the tomato. Canning required ample quantity to guarantee supply, and vast fields of perishable crops required rapid harvest to ensure delivery of the best crop to processors.
Workers harvest tomatoes by hand at a Heinz farm in 1908. / THF252058
But mechanizing the tomato harvest required changing the crop—the tomato itself—so it could tolerate mechanical harvesting. During the 1940s and 1950s, crop scientists cross-pollinated tomatoes to create uniform sizes and shapes that matured at the same time, and with skins thick enough to withstand mechanical picking.
Agricultural engineers developed harvesting machines that combined levers and gears to dislodge tomatoes from the stalk and stem. But humans remained part of the harvesting process. At least eight laborers rode along on the machines and removed debris from the picked fruit.
In 1969, the first successful mechanical harvester picked tomatoes destined for processing as sauce, juice, and stewed tomatoes.
The 1968 United States Department of Agriculture Yearbook, Science for Better Living, depicted new machine-harvestable tomato varieties that “all ripen near same time, come from vine easily, and are firm fruited.” The oblong shape reduced rolling and bruising. / THF621135
Today, all processed tomatoes—the canned products you find on grocery store shelves—make their way from field to table via the levers, gears, and conveyor belts of a mechanical harvester. But you can still buy a hand-picked tomato at your local farmers’ market—or grow your own.
The process of growing food still involves planting and nurturing a seed. But exploring agriculture in all its complexity helps us recognize the many effects of human interference in these natural processes—an ever-changing story that affects all our daily lives.
Adapted by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, from a film in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation’s Agriculture and the Environment exhibit. The team that wrote and refined the film script included Debra Reid, Curator of Agriculture & the Environment; Ryan Jelso, Associate Curator, Digital Content; Ellice Engdahl, Manager, Digital Collections & Content; and Aimee Burpee, Associate Registrar—Special Projects.
Pumpkins offer the perfect opportunity to connect art with agricultural science.
All pumpkins are plants classified within one of five domesticated species of squash (genus Cucurbita). All are native to the Americas. Indigenous people domesticated them and improved them over generations by saving seeds and tending the next crop. Great variety exists because of this long and ongoing process. The histories of heritage varieties within genus Cucurbita acknowledge this legacy.
The following items within The Henry Ford’s collections add some complexity to the great pumpkin story.
Corn and Pumpkins at Firestone Farm, October 2, 2021 / Photo by Debra A. Reid
Connections Between Pumpkins (Squash) and Corn
Today, the story of the “three sisters”—corn, squash, and beans—reminds us of the indigenous origins of these three staple crops. The rest of the story acknowledges the ways that colonization destroyed indigenous cultures, and the ways that Euro-American agriculture co-opted selective agricultural practices over time. Great variation exists across regions and time. From this vantage point, the cultivation of pumpkins with corn represents a strategy adopted by Euro-Americans, especially in the northeastern and midwestern United States. Their goal focused on feeding themselves and their livestock.
The degree to which farm families grew pumpkins changed over time and differed depending on region of the country. A correspondent to the Michigan Farmer and Western Agriculturalist argued that “the practice of planting pumpkins in the same hill as corn, is not the best. What is gained in the pumpkin is lost in the corn. Where there is a thrifty pumpkin vine, there will be meagre ears of corn” [Eli Wooden, Pulaski, Michigan, May 8, 1843, published in Vol. 1, No. 7 (May 15, 1843), page 49].
Others advocated intercropping. Promotional material for the Triumph hand-operated corn planter urged farmers to purchase a pumpkin seed attachment so they could plant their pumpkins at the same time they planted their corn. “It takes no extra time or labor to plant Pumpkin Seeds when you are planting corn with Kent’s Triumph Planter. It takes no extra ground, no extra care.” In fact, as manufacturer A. C. Kent explained, “No farmer can afford to do without one.” The card described a bountiful pumpkin crop as excellent cattle feed. “Cows fed on them will give rich milk and fine flavored yellow butter,” and the material further asserted that cows fed no pumpkin rations would give neither.
Trade Card for Triumph Corn Planter with Pumpkin Seed Attachment, A. C. Kent Company, circa 1885 /THF208298
The intercropping of squash and corn served a purpose, but worked best in certain conditions. Corn and squash both need nitrogen, which beans (a legume) help the soil retain. Removing beans from the equation leaves two nitrogen-hungry crops competing for limited quantities in the same soil. Squash and corn plants both need large quantities of phosphorus, too, and squash vines also need potassium to thrive.
Farming Pumpkins in Indiana, 1920-1929, detail / THF149097
Farmers already practicing intensive animal husbandry could manure their intercropped fields with composted organic manure—preferably pig, chicken, or sheep manure with higher concentrations of nitrogen and other nutrients. This enriched the soil with the nutrients needed to yield a field of pumpkins and corn, as the detail above from a Keystone stereograph, “Farming Pumpkins in Indiana,” shows. Farmers that did not practice intensive animal husbandry needed to plan for decreased yields if they persisted in intercropping corn and squash. Mechanizing the corn harvest, a process that started in earnest during the 1920s, eliminated the tradition of planting squash in corn fields.
Agricultural science factored heavily into farmer decisions, but romantic notions of the pumpkin-corn relationship persisted largely because of associations expressed through poetry and adopted as part of regional popular culture.
Massachusetts abolitionist and poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892) waxed eloquent about the pumpkin in the context of corn fields and harvest rituals in “The Pumpkin,” likely written in 1844, and published in Poems by John G. Whittier (1849).
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!
When we laughed round the corn-heap, with hearts all in tune
Our chair a broad pumpkin – our lantern the moon…
Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley (1853–1916) further popularized the connections between pumpkins and corn fields with his poem, “When the Frost is on the Pun’kin,” published in 1888. Riley cast the rituals involved with fall harvest—“the gathering time,” as he called it—as fulfilling and regenerative practices. All occurred within the context of corn shocks with pumpkins stacked at their base, likely positioned there for a few days for the rind to “harden” prior to transport either to a storage bin or to market. An educational stereograph emphasized these connections by featuring verses from both Whittier’s and Riley’s poems.
Wagon Carrying Pumpkins at the Ten Eyck Farm, Dearborn, Michigan, circa 1905 / THF149092
The harvest really started the process of marketing the golden pumpkin. Processing pumpkin and squash is time-consuming. During the late-nineteenth century, canning technology created new commercial opportunities for farmers who contracted with canning companies to raise field pumpkins. The canners packed pumpkin and squash pulp into cans and decorated them with colorful labels that indicated the contents: “golden pumpkin.” An illustrated children’s book, The Pearl and the Pumpkin (c. 1904), featured a canner seeking choice pumpkins whose quest was disrupted by carving pumpkins for Hallowe’en.
Can Label, "Butterfly Brand Golden Pumpkin," 1880-1895 / THF113859
Cultivars of Cucurbita
Almost all summer squash fall within the Cucurbita pepo or C. pepo variety. Humans consider them most edible when immature—that is, before their rind hardens and seeds form. But mature summer squash can be stored for short periods of time and can be used for livestock feed. The Connecticut field pumpkin, the go-to for many canning companies, is also C. pepo.
The crookneck squash, a native of the eastern United States, makes an appearance in John Greenleaf Whittier’s ode, “The Pumpkin.” The crookneck grows on bush-type vines, yields edible fruit within 43 days of planting, and has either a warty or a smooth rind that protects a firm interior noted for its buttery and sweet flavor.
Two Members of the Woman's National Farm and Garden Association Feature Crookneck Squash while the Woman in the Middle Displays Two Cabbages, 1918 / THF288950
The pattypan squash, also known by many other names (including scallop squash), grows on bush-type vines, starts to yield about 50 days after planting, and produces squash for weeks. Gardeners hauled these attractive squash to market, as seen in the left foreground of this photograph of street vendors at Richmond, Virginia’s Sixth Street Market. The squash, along with watermelon, other melons, and sweet corn, affirmed the bounty of summer.
Sixth Street Market, Richmond, Va., 1908-1909 / THF278870
Winter squash species of Cucurbita are meant to be harvested only when fully mature. The largest of these species, C. maxima, includes one of the most marketable of all squash, the Boston Marrow. It takes approximately 105 days to mature and weighs around 15 pounds on average.
Hiram Sibley & Co. "Squash Boston Marrow" Seed Packet, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888 / THF278982
Seed companies described the Boston Marrow as having “excellent flavor” (from a Hiram Sibley Co. seed packet) and being unsurpassed in sweetness (from the D.M. Ferry & Co. 1882 catalog, page 56). The flavor, much celebrated, got the attention of canning companies from coast to coast. Olney & Floyd, located near markets swayed by the Boston Marrow’s reputation, featured the squash on its label. Across the country, the California-based Del Monte brand included a prototypical Boston Marrow on its “Squash” label, but the generic name implied the inclusion of other pie-worthy squash.
Can Label, "Butterfly Brand Boston Marrow Squash," 1890-1920 / THF294193
The Hubbard squash, another C. maxima, gained market share during the late-nineteenth century. Seed purveyors, including Detroit seed company D. M. Ferry, described it as “the best winter squash known … sweet and rich flavored” and “as good baked as the sweet potato” (page 56). A polychrome print in D. M. Ferry’s 1882 seed catalogue included a dark-green Hubbard among the “12 best varieties of Vegetables.” The illustration did not do justice to the squash, however, which averaged around 15 pounds, but could top scales at 50 pounds.
Winter squash could survive months in storage. Research by horticulturalists hoped to extend that life to take advantage of higher market prices during late-winter months. William Stuart of the Vermont Experiment Station in Burlington recorded changes in weight and moisture levels for one ton of Hubbard squash to document best storage practices. He explained that farmers could minimize loss by harvesting the squash only when they were fully matured. He advised farmers to cut the fruit from the vine, leaving the stem attached, and to “harden” the fruit for two to three days in the field before moving them to storage bins. Farmers needed to handle their harvest “as one would handle eggs” because breaking stems or bruising them would hasten decay. Such care could return $50 per ton at market during February and March, compared to $15 to $20 per ton during the fall harvest season (“Storage of Hubbard Squash,” Farmers’ Bulletin 342: Experiment Station Work XLIX (1908), pages 18–19).
How Big Does Your C. maxima Grow?
Prize Pumpkins, Yakima Valley, Washington, 1904 / THF122617
Agricultural publications often celebrated exceptionally large squash. The Michigan Farmer noted “A MAMMOTH squash” weighing 126 pounds was displayed at the Horticultural Exhibition in New Haven, Connecticut [Vol. 1, no. 17 (October 16, 1843), pg. 133]. Might the MAMMOTH squash have been a Mammoth Gold or other member of C. maxima? Was Charlie Brown’s great pumpkin a Mammoth Gold?
It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, 1967 / THF610382
Concerns about the preservation and perpetuation of indigenous squash and other Cucurbita cultivars led to the formation of Native Seeds/SEARCH in 1983. Volunteers collected and preserved endangered traditional seeds from the Southwest. Today the Native Seeds/SEARCH seed bank includes nearly 2,000 crops suited to arid southwestern North America, from Colorado to central Mexico. This area factored prominently in domestication of Cucurbita, and the urgency to understand biodiversity in context has only increased in the decades since its founding.
Today, Native Seeds/SEARCH remains committed to seed preservation and propagation, but also emphasizes the knowledge required to grow them. Adapting crops to ensure sustainable ecosystems and food security into the future now represents the mission of Native Seeds/SEARCH:
The resilience of our food systems depends on agricultural biodiversity, as farmers and plant breeders can draw on the myriad genetic combinations as raw materials to develop new varieties better adapted to an uncertain and changing environment. Climate change, water scarcity, new and more virulent crop pests and diseases—all of these troubling trends currently threatening our food security require a wide pool of genetic diversity to prevent catastrophic crop failure and famine.
Hopefully these variations on Cucurbita inspire you to learn more.
Michigan Farmer and Western Agriculturalist. 1843.
[Riley, James Whitcomb]. “When the Frost is on the Punkin,” in “The Old Swimmin’-hole” and ‘Leven More Poems by Benj. F. Johnson, of Boone. Sixth Ed. Indianapolis, Indiana: The Bowen-Merrill Co., 1888. Pages 31-33.
William Ford’s farm, depicted in an 1876 county atlas. / THF116253
Farm families in the late 1800s often maintained orchards. Just a couple of apple, pear, plum, or cherry trees could ensure a varied diet and foodstuffs to preserve for winter. And those with land to spare could raise enough excess produce to bring to market.
William Ford, Henry Ford’s father, raised apples for market on his Dearborn, Michigan, farm. The image above, from an 1876 county atlas, shows orchard trees, and the 1880 census of agriculture (collected by the census taker in the summer of 1879) reported 200 apple trees on 4½ acres of the Ford farm—a number that would produce apples well beyond the Ford family’s needs.
Forty years later, apple trees remained part of the landscape at the farmhouse, which was restored by Henry Ford in 1919. Ford’s historical architect, Edward Cutler, drew a map that situated the homestead among outbuildings and trees. It’s difficult to make out, but Cutler identified three varieties of apple trees there—Wagner, Snow, and Greening—that were presumably grown during Henry Ford’s childhood.
At that time, illustrations from horticultural sales books and descriptions in period literature would have helped customers like the Fords determine what fruit tree varieties to buy. An 1885 book on American fruit trees described the Wagner as an early bearer of tender, juicy apples that could be harvested in November and keep until February. A nurseryman’s specimen book itemized the merits of the Snow, “an excellent, productive autumn apple” whose flesh is “remarkably [snow-]white, tender, juicy and with a slight perfume.” And an 1867 book touted the Rhode Island Greening as “a universal favorite” that bears an enormous fruit superior for cooking.
Wagner, Snow, and Rhode Island Greening apple varieties, as illustrated in nurseryman’s specimen books. / THF620189, THF620326,THF620178
When Ford Home was relocated to Greenfield Village in early 1944, Edward Cutler made efforts to represent the surrounding vegetation as Henry Ford remembered it. He included apple trees, though age and condition took their toll on those plantings in the decades that followed. In 2019, The Henry Ford’s staff collaborated with Michigan State University’s Extension Office on a plan to keep the fruit trees of the historic landscapes throughout Greenfield Village healthy. Their strategy involved replacing heritage trees with young stock of the same variety. As part of this project, in April of that year, groundskeepers at The Henry Ford planted new Wagner, Snow, and Rhode Island Greening trees at Ford Home.
Kyle Krueger of The Henry Ford’s Grounds team plants a new Wagner apple tree near Ford Home in Greenfield Village, April 18, 2019. / Photograph by Debra Reid
It will take as many as five years before these new trees bear fruit—as long as weather conditions and the trees’ health allow it—but in the meantime, visitors to Greenfield Village can walk the orchards to check on their progress!
Debra Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted for the blog by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content. It originally ran in a spring 2019 issue of The Henry Ford’s employee newsletter.
Join us this Saturday, September 25, 2021, at the William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace in Greenfield Village, as a group of living historians present household and harvest activities and stories of rural western Pennsylvania in 1800.
What forces would have been in play for Anna and Alexander McGuffey in the young American nation at that time?
The first decade of the 19th century in America saw the rise, through trial and error, of a new nation—our Early Republic. The Early Republic era, which roughly ran from the 1780s through the 1830s, was greatly influenced by world events and national politics. The French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon, and the ongoing war between England and France all challenged, and at times threatened, the newly formed government of the United States. A war with Great Britain, the War of 1812, was fought from 1812–1814.
Thomas Jefferson’s election as president of the United States paved the way for westward expansion. / THF8163
The election of Thomas Jefferson, who served as president from 1801–1809, paved the way for the westward expansion of the United States. At a time when the western frontier was eastern Ohio, the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition that quickly followed were huge factors for westward movement in the decades to come. To offer some perspective, the United States population in 1800 was over 5.3 million—of whom nearly one-fifth were enslaved.
By 1800, the McGuffey family, who had settled in western Pennsylvania in the 1780s, followed the traditional seasonal routines of farming. In an area that had been settled for nearly 20 years, no longer a frontier, the Pennsylvania landscape encompassed cleared fields, mature orchards, more substantial homes, and an established community.
Job Roberts’ 1804 book, The Pennsylvania Farmer, showed that farming was common in the state by the turn of the century. / THF625673
The McGuffeys were not isolated, and would have been aware of world events, regional and national politics, and trends in fashion, and would have had access to a wide range of imported goods. They would make their own westward journey into Ohio in 1802.
We hope you can visit us Saturday to learn more about the family and their fall activities.
Jim Johnson is Director of Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford.
Farm wagon with horse and driver, 1911–1915. / THF200478
During the Carriage Era, while large American cities were crowded with horses, rural areas had fewer animals—but horses were just as important. In the country, horses were much less likely to be used for hauling people and more likely to pull farm equipment, such as plows and reapers, or to haul wagons loaded with hay, grain, cotton, or freight.
In large parts of the South, mules (the offspring of male donkeys and female horses) were preferred over horses. Mules are sterile and so cannot reproduce on their own, but live longer than horses. Southerners believed that mules withstood heat better than horses, though they are smaller and weaker than the large draft-horse breeds. Unlike horses, mules will refuse to be overworked. Their famous “stubbornness” is in reality a self-preservation method—when tired, they simply stop and will not resume their labor until their energy is restored.
Uses for Horse-Drawn Vehicles in the Country
At the beginning of the 19th century, rural horses were primarily employed in tilling the soil, pulling plows, harrows, and cultivators. But later in the century, inventive minds rolled out a steady stream of new farm equipment—reapers, rakes, binders, mowers, seed drills, and manure spreaders. Implements that could be pulled with one or two horses gave way to four-horse plows, eight-horse disc harrows, and giant combines pulled by 25 mules. In addition, every farmer needed one or more wagons for hauling crops to market or supplies from town.
For much of the 19th century, most farmers could not afford vehicles whose only purpose was hauling people. The family could always ride in a wagon. But by mid-century, light people-hauling buggies were cheap enough for some to afford. Mechanization caused their price to fall steadily, so that by the end of the century, one could mail-order a buggy from Sears or Montgomery Ward for $25. Well before Henry Ford’s Model T automobile, cheap carriages whetted people’s appetites for inexpensive personal transportation that did not depend on public conveyances running on fixed routes and fixed schedules.
Milton Bryant with his nephew, Edsel Ford, in a typical farm buggy, 1894. / THF204970
A good deal of commercial transportation also moved through the countryside. Stagecoaches carried passengers between towns and cities. Freight wagons hauled goods from depots to towns not served by railroads. Commodities like kerosene were distributed by wagon.
Horse-Drawn Country Vehicle Highlights from The Henry Ford’s Collection
This is a typical, all-purpose farm wagon with a basic square-box body and a seat mounted on leaf springs. Wagons like these were usually drawn by two horses, and thousands were made by many companies across the country. Franz Eilerman of Shelby County, Ohio, bought this particular wagon, which is on exhibit in Agriculture and the Environment in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, in 1902 for his son, Henry.
This wagon, used in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, is an example of a special purpose wagon. It has flared sides to increase its load-carrying capacity and includes tall end racks, called “hay ladders,” to assist in tying down large loads of hay. In a horse-powered world, hay was an essential crop. While much hay was used on farms, huge quantities were also transported to cities on wagons like this and sold at central hay markets.
Buckboard Used by the Dr. George E. Woodbury Family, circa 1885
The buckboard is an American innovation. It is essentially a pair of axles connected by springy floorboards mounting a seat. The floorboards provide a springing action in place of a heavier, more complex spring system. Buckboards were developed in the first third of the 19th century and could carry both people and goods. This rather elaborate buckboard with a pair of seats was used by a Massachusetts physician, Dr. George E. Woodbury, and was drawn by two horses.
Mail Wagon Used for Rural Delivery in Missouri, circa 1902
One of the major innovations that helped break down rural isolation was Rural Free Delivery (RFD), instituted by the Post Office Department in 1896. Prior to 1896, farmers had to pick up their mail at the post office. Rural mail carriers were required to provide their own vehicles, and many chose light mail wagons like this one. Its wood and canvas construction keeps its weight down, and it features pigeonholes for sorting mail. It is even outfitted with a coal-burning stove to keep the mail carrier warm in winter. This wagon was used by August Edinger to deliver mail in Kimmswick, Missouri, from 1902 to 1925. In 1925, he bought a Model T Ford and retired his horse-drawn wagon.
Oil Tank Wagon for Standard Oil Company, circa 1892
Standard Oil of Indiana used wagons like this one to distribute kerosene and lubricating oils throughout the Midwest. By 1902, some 6,000 such wagons plied the rural roads. This two-horse wagon served the region of Michigan between Chicago and Detroit.
The pleasure wagon is an American innovation developed in the early 19th century. The idea was to create a light wagon suitable for carrying both people and goods. The seat is mounted on long pieces of wood that serve as springs; the seat can be removed to increase the carrying capacity. The wagon is suspended on leather thoroughbraces and is highly decorated with paint. It was drawn by a single horse.
Horses had to be trained to pull vehicles and farm implements. A whole class of vehicles called breaks was created for this purpose. Individual farmers would likely not have breaks, but breeders would have them so they could break their animals to the harness before selling them.
This vehicle takes its name from its purpose—to break, train, and exercise pairs and teams of carriage horses. Heavily built, to give animals the feel of a heavy carriage, it can also stand the abuse that unruly horses might give it. An unbroken horse was usually matched with a steady, reliable horse during training.
Lighter and less expensive than the more famous Concord coach, stage wagons served much the same purpose. They carried passengers and mail over designated rural routes on a regular schedule. This one ran between Julian, a California mining town, and Foster Station, where passengers caught a train for the 25-mile trip to San Diego. This wagon was pulled by two, possibly four, horses.
Not all horse power was used to pull vehicles. With the aid of treadmills, sweeps, and whims, horses could become portable motors for powering sugar cane mills, threshers, corn shellers, small grain elevators and so forth. This two-horse model of treadmill, on exhibit in the Soybean Lab Agricultural Gallery in Greenfield Village, is typical: The horses walked on an endless belt, turning wheels that could power machines.
An example of the light, relatively cheap passenger vehicles that appeared in the last quarter of the 19th century, this runabout features James B. Brewster’s patented sidebar suspension and extremely light, steam-bent hickory wheels. It exemplifies the light construction that came to characterize American carriages, weighing just 96 pounds. It was pulled by a single horse.
Bob Casey is former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”
Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford, answers some questions about the Vegetable Building from Detroit’s Central Market, which is currently being reconstructed in Greenfield Village, on The Henry Ford’s Instagram account, August 5, 2021.
To celebrate National Farmers Market Week last week, some of our staff interviewed Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford, on site in Greenfield Village, where the Vegetable Building from Detroit’s Central Market is being reconstructed. In case you missed this story on our Instagram account, catch up below! And you can read even more about the Vegetable Building’s history and The Henry Ford’s plans for its future in prior blog posts.
Tell us about the Detroit Central Market Vegetable Building project.
The Detroit Central Market Vegetable Building project is a great museum project because museums collect, preserve, and interpret. We collected this building back in 2003, and it was in storage for almost 20 years, protected. Now it's being reconstructed in Greenfield Village as a hub for future food-related programs.
What is the significance of this Vegetable Building structure from the Detroit Central Market?
This structure is historically significant for a few different reasons. The master builders who are reconstructing it say that it's the most ornate timber-frame structure in North America that they've seen. That relates to another aspect of its significance, because it was designed by an architect who came from Bavaria, John Schaffer. He created the plans, and then there would have been a builder and master timber framers who erected it back in 1860, before it opened in 1861.
One of the original ornamental wooden brackets from the Detroit Central Market Vegetable Building. / THF173219
It's also an opportunity for us to talk about rural and urban connections, because the City of Detroit established the market to make sure that the citizens in the city could get food. So, it furthered food access and brought the farmers to the city.
How did The Henry Ford acquire the Vegetable Building from Detroit Central Market?
The Henry Ford acquired this building in 2003, purchasing it from the City of Detroit as an effort to save it from demolition—because it was planned for demolition. That was in its 140th year. It had spent 30 years downtown in Detroit, between 1861 and 1894, and then 110 years on Belle Isle. During that 110 years, it had seen plenty of use as a shelter for vehicles and horses, as a riding stable, and as a storage building. Saving it really preserved a huge part of Detroit culture—but also public space culture, because it had been in use that whole 110 years on the public park on Belle Isle.
What’s the process for moving and restoring a historic structure in Greenfield Village?
After The Henry Ford purchased the building, staff and contractors then had to dismantle it, and it was stored until we had the financial support to reconstruct it. Master timber framer Christian and Sons, Incorporated, was hired to dismantle it—and almost 20 years later, they also oversaw the reconstruction of the timber frame roof. The Henry Ford’s recently retired Curator of Historic Structures and Collections Manager Jim McCabe worked with them on the whole process, with the reconstruction currently underway in Greenfield Village. Right now, the master tradesmen are putting purlins on the roof, and sheeting for the slate shingles that will top off the historic structure.
When the Vegetable Building was deconstructed on Belle Isle in 2003, the original materials were carefully tracked and stored so that eventually they could be reconstructed in Greenfield Village. / THF113552
What are the most interesting facets of working on the Detroit Central Market Vegetable Building project?
Working on this project allows me to do history research, which is what I absolutely love to do. I also know that guests have interests that don’t necessarily involve digging into the historic archive.
When we talk to guests, they often ask how much of a building is original. It's an interesting aspect of preservation for this project that half of the columns, 16 of the 32, will be original, and half of them will be replicas, to make sure that the structure is compliant with code and structurally sound engineering.
What’s the significance of National Farmers Market Week?
National Farmers Market Week is important for us because we are able to share this work in progress and get to some of the nuances about farmers markets. Detroit Central Market was Detroit’s public market: It was constructed, owned, and operated by the city and engaged many more people, many more vendors, than farmers and market gardeners alone.
But today you might hear the term farmers market, and it often means a farmer-owned and -operated cooperative venture in a community to ensure that farmers who grow produce have customers to sell to directly. So this opportunity to share during National Farmers Market Week helps us celebrate our work, the work of artisans, and the ongoing engagement between growers and you, the consumer.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.
Central Market in Downtown Detroit, Michigan, circa 1890. / THF96803
As a 2021 Simmons intern at The Henry Ford, my experience, skillset, and reverence for community engagement, localization, and food justice combined into a recipe for growth.
I came to this work having spent the winter working with staff from The Henry Ford and a group of my peers on a script for a Central Market character that will debut in Greenfield Village in 2022. I also brought my knowledge of the local food environment, agroecological issues, museology, key contacts, and equity methodology. This confluence of background knowledge enabled me to envision a plan for weekly open-air historical markets in Greenfield Village that will preserve slow food culture in an urban environment. Ultimately, this has brought me one step closer to my career in designing and interpreting agroecological landscapes with communities before I head off to Burlington, Vermont, to start my PhD in Food Systems.
By now you have likely read of the reconstructed Central Market Vegetable Building in Greenfield Village. You may even know how The Henry Ford plans to bring it to life in Spring 2022 through the resurrection of historical markets for visitors to purchase fresh cut flowers, fruits, vegetables, and honey, or to pick up a cup of coffee and hear stories from market characters such as Mary Judge. This weekly educational market experience will offer a dozen growers a space to share their story, practices, and agricultural knowledge with highly engaged visitors, providing them access to the thousands of members and visitors who come to Greenfield Village every day.
Central Market vegetable shed reconstruction by Christian & Son, Inc. construction company on July 15, 2021. / Photo taken by Ayana Curran-Howes.
These markets will begin with a spring flower market in April 2022, where visitors can purchase lilies, pansies, and sweet peas, to name a few. This will whet the appetites of museumgoers for the weekly Saturday markets, from mid-June through mid-August, where 12-24 farmers (scaled up over time) will sell honey, fruit, vegetables, flowers, dairy, poultry, eggs, value-added items (like jams, pickles, salsa, and bread), and refreshments (such as coffee, cider, and donuts).
People look at flowers for sale at the Central Market, undated (BHC glass neg. no. 2553). / Detail of image from Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library. (EB02e878)
I conducted historical research to answer the questions, “What fruits, vegetables, and other foodstuffs were being sold in the Central Market? When? By whom? Where in the market?” This work focused on bookending the market, looking extensively at the 1860s and 1890s. I conducted primary research using Michigan Farmer from the 1850s and 1860s, seed catalogs and nurserymen specimen books from The Henry Ford’s Digital Collections, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, and the Detroit Free Press archives.
D.M. Ferry & Co. Seed Annual Descriptive Catalogue, 1883, front and back covers. / THF620066, THF620067
Michigan Farmer journals were particularly helpful for identifying notable growers and specific varieties beloved by growers. In the 1863 Michigan Farmer, the most popular varieties of pears described for growers are Belle Lucrative, Flemish Beauty, and the Bartlett, which “deservedly stands without a rival.” This journal also introduces growers to new varieties like Clapp’s Favorite, which is “similar to Bartlett in form, but less musky in flavor” (Michigan Farmer, October, 1863, pg. 162–163). These specific varieties will be important for prioritizing heritage varieties in the market, a key component of slow food culture.
Description and depiction of pear varieties, Michigan Farmer, October 1863, pg. 163. / via Google Books, reproduced from the University of Michigan.
In order to paint a picture of what vendors sold within the market, we used city directories, George W. Hawes’ Michigan State Gazetteer, the Prairie Farmer Annual, Detroit Free Press advertisements, and some references to stall-keepers within newspaper articles from the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News. When we could identify what stalls individual hucksters, market gardeners, florists, butchers, and fishmongers occupied, we still had to discern where these stalls were located inside the vegetable shed. One Detroit News article was particularly helpful in orienting where certain types of vendors were situated: “Just at this time the southern row of stalls in the vegetable market is a center of floral radiance and beauty” (Detroit News, “Seen on the Streets,” May 24, 1891). Central Market shoppers found butchers in the Central Market building and fruit vendors on many corners around the market, and hired unskilled laborers, such as chimney sweeps, at the east entrance of the Central Market vegetable shed.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan. / Sanborn Map Company, Vol. 2, 1884, with annotations by Ayana Curran-Howes.
Then, to bring this historical research forward, I had to identify key farmers, as well as community organizations and other markets, who should be involved—in order to ensure the longevity and impact of this initiative. To not remain purely about the past, but to connect the past to the present and inspire the future, we had to become aware of how this Central Market project would be perceived and could be supported by the incredible urban agriculture community that exists in Detroit today and in southeast Michigan at large.
Consequently, I crafted an interpretation plan to ensure the markets become a sustainable, vital part of the slow food movement in Southeast Michigan. This plan is grounded in several desires: to be seen by market gardeners as a profitable venture and by the community as an asset, to be relevant to the local food environment (e.g., not to be redundant or competitive with other local markets), and to be feasible for staff of The Henry Ford and participating farmers. Additionally, we want to make sure that the market both showcases the ingenuity of late 19th-century market gardeners and hucksters and continues to foster ingenuity in present-day farmers, as this is what helps them to thrive on the outskirts of the market economy.
Simmons intern Ayana Curran-Howes, presenting on July 22, 2021, to 30+ staff of The Henry Ford and affiliates, including Debra Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment, at the annual Historical Resources internship presentations, organized by Sophia Kloc (featured left), Office Administrator for Historical Resources. / Photo captured by Deirdre Hennebury, Associate Director of the Museum Studies Program at University of Michigan.
This is also a significant component of larger initiatives underway. Jennifer Junkermeier-Khan, this year’s other Simmons intern, has drafted a five-year strategic plan to “Inspire and provide training for the next generation of food entrepreneurs, innovators, and visionaries with a focus on sustainability, health, and social justice.” Community engagement is one of four pillars of this plan and is imperative for making the Central Market vegetable building installation a springboard into a new era for The Henry Ford: an era that not only speaks openly about difficult histories, including violence and racism (past and present) in the food system, but also seeks to create a counter-narrative and opportunities for social justice hyper-locally.
Consequently, we want this work to be founded in equity from the start, given the legacy of—and ongoing—racism within our food system and market economy. This will require long-term relationship development with the surrounding community and careful selection of vendors. Thus, I created criteria for selecting vendors to ensure that farmers who can benefit the most are approached, as well as those who have knowledge to share with visitors on farming practices, produce varieties, and their own cultural and food traditions. Some of the criteria for vendors include whether they are minority-owned and -operated; using family or fair-wage labor; using integrated pest management, mixed livestock-crop, and no-till systems; and growing heritage varieties and breeds.
This historic marketplace will allow growers to develop their narrative around their practices, varieties, and cultural heritage, immortalizing their stories and recording their history in ways they are not currently captured and appreciated.
Not many growers specialize in heirloom varieties in this area—this may be something they are interested in but are not currently growing due to slow production, financial costs, and lack of demand from consumers. By incentivizing and making heirlooms more visible, we can increase demand by consumers and increase their feasibility for farmers.
Lastly, for the Central Market vegetable building and its weekly markets to have a lasting impact on visitors and lead to the food systems change we hope to see, they have to have a “big idea” and a few key messages. Within broader institutional initiatives, the Central Market will “transform relationships between consumers and the origins of their food through immersive historic market educational experiences that center the stories of diverse producers, past and present, to progress slow food culture.”This big idea will be supported by key messages for visitors to take home with them.
First, the current industrial agricultural system supports fast food culture. This harms the environment through soil erosion and nutrient degradation. It is also extremely inefficient at producing “real” food. Vast monocultures (or the cultivation of single crops in a given area) occupy most agricultural lands in the United States, resulting in products used for biofuels, animal feed, and processed foods. Our current agricultural system is also discriminatory and disconnects consumers from their food and those who produce it.
Second, slow food culture, preserved and practiced in museum spaces, and led by diverse producers in the local food environment, can heal this metabolic and sociocultural rift. This is done in large part by the replacement of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with heirloom crops and livestock bred to produce way beyond their bodily means with heritage varieties. With the preservation of genetic diversity through heritage and heirloom crops, farmers gain resilience against climate change. Diversity protects farmers against devastation to their crops and provides environmental benefits like erosion prevention. Growing heirlooms can also improve human health through the nutritional quality of food and can preserve cultural heritages. “Every culture in the world has a history of growing and cooking food for health, taste, beauty, and affordability,” and it is our goal to be a part of active preservation—not simply in the museum’s collections for perpetuity, but practiced in real time (Waters et al. 2021, pg. 118).
Simmons Interns Jennifer Junkermeier-Khan (left) and Ayana Curran-Howes (right), with Debra Reid, advisor and The Henry Ford’s Curator for Agriculture and the Environment. / Taken July 15, 2021, outside Lovett Hall at The Henry Ford.
Many genes incorporated into GMOs are stolen (biopiracy) from indigenous varieties, so that corporations profit from centuries of stewardship and plant knowledge by Black, Indigenous, Latina/o, and other marginalized groups (Shiva, 2016). Taking practices out of context and without the wisdom of those who stewarded them into existence only ensures that they are co-opted and watered down. Thus, the third key message of the Central Market vegetable building and its weekly markets is that social justice and supporting BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) farmers is restorative agriculture, and the practices of restorative agricultural practices are only carried forward from the past by diverse producers.
Lastly, visitors will walk away with an understanding and appreciation for public markets, where entrepreneurship, opportunity, struggle, and community all collide. All these messages will be told through the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes at the market—through performances, signage, and experiences, such as cooking demonstrations and magicians roaming the market vying for visitors’ attention.
Shiva, Vandana. Who Really Feeds the World?: The Failures of Agribusiness and the Promise of Agroecology. North Atlantic Books, 2016.
Waters, Alice, et al. We Are What We Eat: A Slow Food Manifesto. Penguin Press, 2021.
Sustenance is not usually associated with flowers or the horticultural industry, but cut flowers and ornamental plants have been nourishing humans for centuries. Flowers aid people through hard times by providing joy, mental health benefits, and ephemeral beauty unmatched in many eyes. Additionally, cut flower cultivation is a critical source of revenue and ecosystem service for agricultural entrepreneurs.
Stereograph of a blooming tree peony, circa 1865 / THF66255
The horticulture industry grew rapidly during the 19th century. New businesses, such as Mount Hope Nursery and Gardens out of Rochester, New York, used an expanding transportation infrastructure to market ornamental plants to Midwesterners starting during the 1840s. Yet, while consumers’ interest in ornamentation grew, so did their displeasure with distant producers distributing plants of unverifiable quality. Soon enough, local seed companies and seedling and transplant growers met Detroiters’ needs, establishing greater levels of trust between producer and consumer (Lyon-Jenness, 2004). D.M. Ferry & Co., established in Detroit in 1867, sold vegetable and flower seeds, as well as fruit tree grafts, direct to consumers and farmers.
At the heart of horticulture lies a tension between respect for local, native species and the appeal of newly engineered, “perfect” cultivars. Entrepreneurs such as Hiram Sibley invested in the new and novel, building fruit, vegetable, and flower farms, as well as distribution centers, in multiple states.
Hiram Sibley & Co. Seed Box, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888 / THF181542
Plant breeders such as Luther Burbank sought a climate to support year-round experimentation. As a result, he relocated from Massachusetts to California, where he cultivated roses, crimson poppies, daisies, and more than 800 other plants over the decades. Companies in other parts of the country—Stark Bro’s Nurseries & Orchards Co. in Louisiana, Missouri, and the W. Atlee Burpee Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—partnered with Burbank or established their own California operations to maintain a competitive edge. These larger farms had to send their flowers by rail across the country and as such, engineered for consistency and mass production.
Field of Burbank's Rosy Crimson Escholtzia, April 13, 1908, Santa Rosa, California. / THF277209
Advertising fueled growth. Companies marketed seeds directly to homeowners, farmers, and market gardeners through a combination of colorful packets, seed boxes, catalogs, specimen books, trade cards, and purchasing schemes. Merchants could reference colorful trade literature issued by D.M. Ferry & Company as they planned flower seed purchases for the next year. The 1879 catalog even oriented merchants to its seed farms and trial grounds near Detroit. A D.M. Ferry trade card (seen below) advertised more than the early flowering sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) in 1889, featuring twelve “choice kinds” available in Ferry seed boxes or through orders submitted by merchants directly to the company (Little and Kantor, Journal of Heredity, 1941). Customers who returned ten empty seed packets earned a copy of Ferry’s Floral Album.
Trade Card for Sweet Pea Seeds, D.M. Ferry & Company, 1889. / THF214415
Additionally, magazines such as Vick’s Illustrated Family Magazine, published by Rochester, New York, seedsman James Vick, served as a clearinghouse of information for consumers and growers alike.
Flowers were not always grown in isolation. Cultivating and selling vegetables side-by-side with flowers was common practice, as it provided farmers diversity in income with the ebb and flow of seasons. The addition of flowers proved mutually beneficial to both profits and productivity for farms, as they attract pollinators and receive a high mark-up in the market. Furthermore, flowers could be placed alongside vegetables on farm stands as a means to decorate and draw the attention of market goers.
Market gardeners who also grew flowers saw the potential in Detroit, and this helped develop the floriculture industry. John Ford, a Scottish immigrant, gained visibility through his entries at the Annual Fair of Michigan State Agricultural Society, winning awards for cut flowers, dahlias, and German asters, as well as culinary vegetables, strawberries, and nutmeg melons, throughout the 1850s and 1860s (The Michigan Farmer, 1855, 1856, 1857, 1858, 1861/62, 1863/64). Ford served on the Detroit City Common Council. After that body approved construction, in 1860, of a new Vegetable Shed for Detroit’s City Hall Market (also known as Central Market), Ford or members of his family operated a stand in the market until at least 1882.
Another market gardener, John Breitmeyer, an immigrant from Bavaria, settled in Detroit in 1852 and grew a booming floral business. He anticipated the growth of the floral industry, building hot houses for roses in 1886 and establishing the first florist shop in Detroit in 1890 off Bates Street (The American Florist, April 28, 1900, pg. 1213). He worked with his two sons, who had studied floriculture in Philadelphia, to raise plants and flowers, but “the latter seemed the most profitable” (Detroit Journal, reprinted in Fort Worth Daily Gazette, August 12, 1889, pg. 4). There were 200 floral shops in Detroit by 1930, when the Breitmeyer family operation grew to specialize in “chrysanthymums [sic], carnations, and sweet peas” in addition to roses (Detroit Free Press, April 6, 1930).
Detroit City Business Directory, Volume II, 1889-1890, page 125 / THF277531
Florists sold cut flowers to satisfy consumers willing to part with hard-earned money on such temporary satisfaction. Many factors influenced their decisions: weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage; brightening a home interior; thanking a host; or treating a sweetheart. Whatever the reason, Breitmeyer and Ford and others responded to the zeal for floral ornamentation.
Memorial Floral Arrangement, circa 1878 / THF210195
The Michigan Farmer encouraged readers to “bring a few daisies and butter-cups from your last field walk, and keep them alive in a little water; aye, preserve but a branch of clover, or a handful of flower grass—one of the most elegant, as well as cheapest of nature’s productions and you have something on your table that reminds you of the beauties of God’s creation, and gives you a link with the poets and sages that have done it most honor. Put but a rose, or a lily, or a violet, on your table, and you and Lord Bacon have a custom in common.” (July 1863, pg. 32). Though the preferences varied, flowers inside the home were simultaneously a luxury and something that everyday people could afford, and connected them to poets and lords.
Publications encouraged the trade through how-to columns on decorating with flowers. This clipping from the Michigan Farmer explained how to construct a centerpiece featuring cut flowers.
Description of simple DIY floral ornaments in the household. Excerpt from Michigan Farmer, August, 1863/64, pg. 84. / Image via HathiTrust
What types of flowers might growers raise to fill their baskets and ornament their tables? The Michigan Farmer indicated that “no garden” should be without dahlias “as a part of its autumn glory” (April 1857, pg. 115) and that growers should “never be without” a Moutan peony (February 1858, pg. 48).
Urban markets featured many more plants and cut flowers to satisfy consumer demand. The Detroit News reported in May 1891 that “tulips of every hue and the modest daisy or bachelor’s button still linger on the stalls, but they are the first floral offerings of the spring, and their day is now about over.” The florists rapidly restocked, filling their southern row of stalls in the vegetable market with “floral radiance and beauty…. The hydrangeas with their pink or snow-white balls; fuchsias, with their bell-like cups and purple hearts; geraniums, in all the colors of the rainbow; the heliotrope, with its light-pink blossom; the begonia, with its wax green leaves; verbenas in pink, purple and white; the marguerite, with its white and yellow star; the kelseloria [Calceolaria] in blushing red or golden yellow; the modest mignonette, with its neutral tints but exquisite perfume; and the blue and fragrant forget-me-not” (“Seen on the Streets,” May 24, 1891).
Florists stood at the ready to satisfy customers’ needs, especially for a beau seeking a bouquet to woo his lover (Detroit Free Press, June 19, 1870). On one occasion, a woman reluctantly bought sunflower seeds and catnip instead of climbers that would make her house look “almost like Paradise,” fearing that this ornamentation would cause the landlord to raise her rent (Detroit Free Press, April 27, 1879). In other instances, men “commissioned” by their wives stopped by the flower stands in Central Market, perusing “roses, pansies, and hyacinth bulbs” (Detroit Free Press, January 10, 1890).
Shoppers at Central Market crowd around potted lilies and cut flowers wrapped in paper, undated (BHC glass neg. no. 1911). / Image from Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library (EB02e398)
By the late 19th century, customers had many options to satisfy their appetite for flowers. Many Detroiters purchased their flowers and ornamental plants at the Vegetable Building in Central Market. One huckster turned florist, Mary Judge, engaged customers at her Central Market floral stand with a pretty rose bush for a quarter (not 20 cents, or she’d make no profit), geraniums for 10 cents, or a “beyutiful little flower” for 5 cents (Detroit News, May 24, 1891).
They could also frequent florist shops like John Breitmeyer’s by 1890, or purchase seed from merchants to raise their own. Many reasons motivated them, from satisfying a sweetheart to keeping up with their neighbors’ ornamental plantings. No doubt, beautiful trade cards helped stir up allure and demand for popular garden flowers such as pansies.
Trade Card for Pansies Seeds, D. M. Ferry & Co., 1889 / THF298777
The entrepreneurs and florists of the 19th century sowed the seeds for an industry that remains vigorous but is far more globalized. There are botanic stories still to uncover and after centuries of cultivation, these beautiful ornaments still sustain something deeper within us.
Stewart, Amy. Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful. Algonquin Books, 2008.
Lyon-Jenness, C. (2004). Planting a Seed: The Nineteenth-Century Horticultural Boom in America. Business History Review,78(3), 381-421. doi:10.2307/25096907