Worthington Gardened at Home for Victory Abroad

In the spring of 1941, Worthington residents joined city dwellers and suburbanites across the land in a national experiment. In an act of patriotism and unity, they would try to grow their own vegetables and fruit. So-called victory gardens would ease the government's task of providing enough food for the troops fighting the battles of World War II, while avoiding hunger on the homefront.

By the end of the 1941 growing season, some Franklin County horticulture experts were skeptical of the program's success. The Ohio State University agriculture faculty warned successful vegetable gardening was a far more complicated business than raising flowers and hosting rose shows, the traditional realm of garden hobbyists. In February 1942, experts debated the value of victory gardens before a gathering of 40 local gardening club representatives. Worthington resident and nationally-known garden writer Harry O’Brien suggested that if women really wanted to help their country, they should put on their old clothes and help bring in commercial growers' harvests as manpower would be in very short supply. Clarence Sullivan, who wrote a garden column for the "Columbus Dispatch," responded, "I think we'll all be gardening eventually anyhow, whether it's right or wrong. It's begun in Illinois, where they're getting ready to put the women gardeners into uniform."

In practice, Sullivan was proved right, although it is doubtful the ladies of the Worthington Garden Club had matching uniforms. Leonard Insley, Worthington's mayor, head of its civil defense council and publisher of the "Worthington News," appointed Granville Road resident Gardner Stearns to be chairman of Worthington's 1942 official victory gardens committee. That March, Stearns told the newspaper everyone who could have a garden should do so. "If you haven’t a place on your home lot we will have vacant lots available for you. As this is a war to the finish-- so should all of the gardens be a 'finish' and not just a spring flash," he said. Stearns' first public statement touched on an often-repeated theme-- no quitting when the work got hot, hard and boring.

The Columbus and Franklin County Defense Council had taken charge of the 1942 regional victory garden project. Ohio State University agriculture professor Howard D. Brown, a Worthington resident, was enlisted to run the Franklin County victory garden offensive. Brown launched a weekly gardening advice show on WOSU radio, a four-day vegetable gardening seminar at the Lazarus Department Store auditorium, and an adult evening school course at OSU for "serious study." His highly detailed weekly column for the "Dispatch," titled "Victory Garden Hints," ran in the Friday evening paper-- just in time for a weekend of toil in the garden. Brown lived on West New England Avenue in Worthington. There would have been plenty of back fence consultations with local gardeners, and the highly detailed advice he shared in his columns would have reflected the concerns he heard there.

Victory gardening was fraught with hazard and, especially during the early years of the war, it was presented as a type of backyard battlefield, sown with moral peril. This March 1942 article in the "Dispatch" is typical of how garden writing deployed language of war. In it, OSU vegetable specialist Joseph H. Boyd reminded readers that "Unless there is assurance that the planting of a Victory Garden of vegetables will actually result in the production of sufficient food to warrant the use of necessary seed, fertilizer, insecticides and other materials, it would be a greater patriotic service to conserve these materials by not planting a vegetable garden." Boyd admonished readers to plan an offensive battle from the start. "Depending on the defensive and failing to be on the alert will, most likely, end in a garden edition of the Pearl Harbor disaster, a mess made of a good start."

Official rationing was imposed beginning in the spring of 1942, around the time the first big victory garden campaign geared up for the growing season. Victory gardens were intended to offset the impact of strict rationing of food and other supplies on the homefront in order to provide enough materials for fighting the war and feeding the troops. Most fruits and vegetables grown commercially were sent overseas to feed the troops and, later, to the civilians who lived in countries devastated by the war. Americans were told if they wanted a supply of fruits and vegetables for the winter, they would need to grow and preserve them at home.

However, rationing imposed some unexpected consequences. The war’s demand for any and all available metal meant tools such as spades and hoes were in short supply. This became a temporary crisis in late summer when legions of first-time canners could not find enough available pressure cookers to preserve their garden’s produce. Gasoline was so tightly rationed workers were only allowed enough to travel to work and back. Brookside Country Club plowed up seven acres of its golf course for members to use as victory gardens, but some may have struggled to get there often unless they lived nearby. Rubber was also hard to find; garden hoses had to be shared among neighbors. Commercial growers had priority for fertilizer and seeds; in his weekly columns, Professor Brown urged victory gardeners to buy early if they wanted to have something to put in the ground.

Amid predictions of dire food shortages, Ohio's 1943 victory garden campaign literally presented the home-grown vegetable as a weapon of war. A free "Garden for Victory Ohio" bulletin of gardening advice featured a procession of animated ears of corn, celery stalks, tomatoes, cabbage heads and squash carrying guns and "marching to join the fight for democracy." Professor Boyd who, in 1942 had admonished readers not to be slackers, now found himself appointed director of the Ohio Victory Garden Council the following year. In 1943, no yard would be too small for a few lettuce plants, peas and tomatoes. In February 1943, the Franklin County Victory Garden drive announced that 20,000 vacant lots would be made available for victory gardens in the city of Columbus. A series of free classes on gardening and how to use point rations met in the Lazarus Assembly Center located at Front Street and State.

Ellis Halley served as chairman of the victory garden campaign in the Worthington area. Halley, who lived on Evening Street, lived around the corner from Professor Brown. At the time, Halley worked as a field supervisor for Davison Chemical Company, a fertilizer manufacturer in Columbus. That summer, Brown worked with the Columbus school system on a program that launched a victory garden grown by students at every Columbus public school. Worthington had no shortage of expert advice.

The 1943 Worthington campaign envisioned "'A Garden for Every Home' on every available lot, and community gardens for those who have no gardening space at home, or who wish an additional lot." Evening Street residents had already arranged to lease five acres of the farmland directly across the street. The area-- between Evening Street, Dublin-Granville Road and South Street-- belonged to St. John’s Episcopal Church and was part of Worthington’s original 1803 land distribution. Frank Medick offered a tract of seven acres on Morning Street for community gardens. An additional six lots were available on East North Street and four acres on West South Street. According to the "Worthington News," some residents were eager to farm an extra community lot, as well as their own backyards. A team of victory gardeners canvassed the village, Riverlea, Colonial Hills and Park Highlands with a questionnaire to find out how many gardens each resident was willing to farm. The "Worthington News" included a copy of the survey in the March 11, 1943, edition. Use of a community lot would cost $4, which included plowing and harrowing. More than 300 residents committed to a victory garden for the 1943 growing season.

Victory Garden campaign organizers faced two issues: not only did inexperienced gardeners need to successfully grow and harvest vegetables from seed, they also needed to learn how to preserve them for wintertime shortages. In Worthington, Ellis Halley’s committee recognized that canning might be a new skill for some Worthington gardeners. "Can All You Can, While You Can" classes were taught at Homedale School and Worthington Elementary in late May 1943. In fact, that year-- due to metal shortages-- the lack of canning equipment was so dire the statewide Victory Garden Planning Council organized community canning centers and pressure cooker distribution programs in each of Ohio’s 88 counties. Fern Sharp, a WBNS radio commentator on "Women's Affairs," hosted a free food preservation demonstration at the Palace Theatre in downtown Columbus. Sharp also used her broadcasting platform to create a victory garden barter clearinghouse for surplus vegetables. Callers could register their garden offerings or ask for supplies by contacting WBNS. By the end of 1943, 5,000 local canners and gardeners had used the exchange service to sell or barter produce.

Lest gardeners lose interest after the spring planting, Worthington’s 1943 campaign hosted weekly visits to local gardens during July and August. The tours were intended to keep everyone on track to cultivate succession crops for harvest in the fall.

Two-thirds of Columbus-area gardeners planted their first victory garden in 1943. The year-end total for the countywide harvest was estimated to be more than 27 million pounds of vegetables grown in 31,000 victory gardens. Franklin County gardeners were told 35,000 gardens would be needed in 1944 to meet the government’s prediction that 10 percent more food must be grown that year for Americans on the homefront to be fed. "Grow more in '44" was the message.

In April 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked every American to plant a victory garden. According to the president, 42 percent of the fresh vegetables consumed by the nation in 1943 came from victory gardens. "This should clearly emphasize the far reaching importance of the victory garden program. Increased food requirements for our armed forces and our Allies give every citizen an opportunity to do something toward backing up the boys at the front," he said. "Food still remains a first essential to winning the war."

Successful food preservation had always been a challenge for home growers during the war years. By the early 1940s, frozen food technology had quickly advanced to the point where it became an attractive alternative to traditional canning. OSU professor Howard Brown of Worthington studied the rapid development of "food lockers," approximately six-cubic-foot freezer units that could be rented by individuals and housed at frozen food storage facilities. However, Worthington’s attempt to obtain a food locker facility in 1943 was stymied when a federal authority ruled that additional food lockers were prohibited within a 35-mile radius of a city of 75,000 or more inhabitants. Columbus already had several food lockers, but none nearby. W.W. Clark applied with the government for permission to install a 400-unit food locker at his Chevrolet dealership at the corner of East New England and High, and had leased 450 units by the time the negative decision was announced. Worthington residents had better luck the following year when Clintonville Lockers was given permission to open a 1,000-unit facility at the corner of Erie Road and High Street. Guy Harris, the owner, spent several weekends at Snouffer Furniture in Worthington meeting with potential clients.

Harry O’Brien may have been Worthington’s most famous gardener. He was known nationwide for his "Diary of a Plain Dirt Gardener" in "Better Homes & Gardens" magazine. He taught journalism at The Ohio State University while running his own experimental farm on West Wilson Bridge Road. During World War II, he wrote extensively for national farm and garden publications and served on innumerable local victory garden projects. His great gift was to combine his extensive garden knowledge with clear, often humorous, prose. According to Clarence Sullivan, the garden columnist for "The Columbus Dispatch" in 1943, O'Brien's Worthington neighbors considered him to be a "food barometer" whose garden indicated "which vegetable to grow and how many to can, dehydrate, or preserve." O’Brien took over writing the "Dispatch" weekly column "Garden Notes" in 1946. He carried on writing the column for 22 years.

Although the language of victory gardening deployed a manly vocabulary of "attacks" on "garden enemies," and plenty of advice suggested there was a chemical solution to any garden battle, one of Worthington’s most successful, progressive gardeners worked entirely outside those lines. Bernice Warner and her mother moved to a house at the foot of West South Street in 1934. Warner worked as a bookkeeper for a local paint company until 1938 when she fell hard for the idea of using earthworms to create perfect garden compost. By 1946, when she was profiled by "The New Yorker" magazine, she was one of the very few breeders of a special line of earthworms that she sold to organic gardeners around the world. As she told "The New Yorker," "Even members of my own garden club aren’t interested in worms. They think they are good for nothing but fish bait and they think I’m slightly silly. Well, I think they’re silly too, because they don’t realize that if they didn’t have worms in their gardens, they wouldn’t have any plants."

Warner raised her worms in a large compost pile in her yard. According to a 1956 profile in the "Dispatch," her Ohio Earthworm Farm sold about two million worms a year, plus tons of super fertile soil called Earth-Gold. Sales totaled about $20,000 annually. She lectured across the country and was featured in numerous garden publications. According to the "Dispatch," "Her closest neighbors have no objection to the unusual project. They admit there is no odor. The beds attract no insects. And besides, Miss Warner accepts all they grass and weed cuttings they have to offer."

Worthington gardeners continued to organize and plant through the war years. In post-war Worthington, what had been a duty may have continued as a pleasure. Harry O’Brien opened his very first garden column in the "Dispatch" with the sentence, "Garden news for 1946 is that vegetables grown will still be popular as well as necessary."