Here's a look at the last of Chicago's WWII victory gardens
By RON GROSSMAN | Chicago Tribune | Published: May 8, 2020
CHICAGO (Tribune News Service) — The venerable Rainbow Beach Victory Garden currently lays fallow, as its website explains: “Our Garden is closed and the season postponed as we adhere to Mayor Lightfoot’s closure of the lakefront and ‘Stay at Home’ order.”
But its longevity suggests that, when the coronavirus pandemic ends, the garden’s members will promptly resume tilling their 160 plots on three acres of Chicago Park District land near 79th Street and South Shore Drive.
The Rainbow Beach Victory Garden is the last surviving veteran of Chicago’s contingent in a homefront brigade of World War II.
Vegetable gardens were a ubiquitous marker of the wartime landscape, along with street-corner honor rolls of neighbors in military service and gold stars in windows marking GIs who made the ultimate sacrifice. On Jan. 28, 1942, Mayor Edward Kelly joined a chorus of public officials calling upon Americans to plant victory gardens.
Kelly championed digging and hoeing as not just a hedge against food shortages. They were also “a means of sustaining civilian morale,” the Tribune reported.
Indeed, morale in the United States was then threatened by a flood of bad news from World War II’s battlefronts. America’s Pacific Fleet had been crippled during a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, who also routed U.S. forces in the Philippines. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi armies, having beaten the French, occupied the Balkans and a great swath of Soviet Russia.
Kelly’s appeal struck a responsive chord with Chicagoans, judging by the number who began serving their families homegrown vegetables. Decades later, under the headline “The victory garden reborn,” a Tribune editorial subsequently posited a kind of intuitive reaction in going back to the land.
“At such times one understands fully that many of our ancestors lived on the land and felt at home with it and that despite generations of town living we are poor displaced persons,” the 1973 editorial said. “At such times we discover the deep peace that comes of husbanding the earth’s bounty.”
The editorial was prompted by reports that, with Chicagoans spooked by a stock market crash, gardens were “springing up in seemingly unpromising spots.” The Tribune also observed: “The Burpee Company says that seeds for vegetables are outselling those for flowers.”
Something similar is happening during the current pandemic. This spring, the Burpee Co. announced a temporary moratorium on new orders of seeds so it could catch up on a surge in demand.
During World War II, patriotism inspired amateur farmers to establish as many as 21 million victory gardens that grew an estimated 40 percent of America’s vegetables.
Some of those plots were sizable, like the Rainbow Beach Victory Garden. Others were tiny, like one on the South Side tilled by Marian Shields.
“When my mother was a little girl of five or six — around the beginning of World War II — her family had a plot in the local victory garden,” former first lady Michelle Obama wrote of Shields in “American Grown.”
“On the corner of an alley near her home, a vacant lot had been turned into plots for each family in the neighborhood, and my mother used to accompany her own mother to tend it. They grew corn, tomatoes, green beans, peas and spinach from seed packets. The children in her family ate their vegetables, whether they liked them or not.”
Collectively, Chicago’s victory gardens visually fulfilled the city’s motto: Urbs in horto, or “city in a garden.”
Parks in Chicago and the suburbs had committed to creating 25,000 gardens, including one near the Art Institute, as part of the victory garden movement, the Tribune reported in 1942. The Oak Park, Rolling Green and Exmoor golf clubs were among those that had victory gardens, and the Illinois Central Railroad hosted 700 gardens on its right of way.
The Rubloff Development Corp. made a 157,000-square-foot site available for victory gardens in the fashionable Old Town neighborhood, and the Northwestern University Settlement House offered tenement dwellers on the Near North Side lessons on gardening in small spaces.
A suburban developer advertised “Victory Garden Homes.” Each Palos Heights home would come with a garden large enough to supply an average family with a year’s worth of vegetables.
Victory garden parades through the Avalon Park, Kenwood and South Shore neighborhoods recruited volunteers for what then-Gov. Dwight Green dubbed a “dig for victory” campaign.
“Victory gardens will be an insurance against possible shortages,” Green said, “and will release foodstuffs for the men who are fighting in the front line.”
When the war ended in 1945, the produce of 1,400 victory gardeners was exhibited at Soldier Field. Touting the event, the Tribune noted: “Tonight Chicago housewives will parade in hats decorated with their own vegetables.”
In the Tribune’s letters column, a gardener pleaded his case for more water, claiming that the “plot at Foster and St. Louis avenues … is considered to cover more ground than any other community garden in the country.” (Full disclosure: I had a victory garden there on land that later became Northeastern Illinois University’s campus.)
The Tribune put its imprimatur on the homegrown campaign with sagas of gardening heroes, like Ruth Eckert. She was a widow and former nurse in ill heath. Her 11-year-old son, Allen, spent the last summer before World War II on a farm and wanted to contribute his newfound skills to the war effort. So Eckert accepted a Melrose Park family’s offer of a victory garden plot, despite living 13 miles away in the Lathrop housing project on the North Side.
Through the 1942 growing season Eckert, Allen and another son commuted to their garden — by streetcar for 8 miles, by foot for another 5 miles. In the fall, they carried back to Chicago baskets filled with tomatoes, corn, cucumbers and rutabagas. Eckert canned at least 200 quarts of vegetables.
“A summer in the fresh air and working in the soil has made her strong again and able to tackle almost any task,” the Tribune reported. “Victory gardening is a new lease on life, Mrs. Eckert says.”
The Eckert family’s patriotism wasn’t universal, sad to say. Some saw victory gardens as an opportunity to reap what others had sown. On July 25, 1942, the Tribune reported that the police commissioner decreed a crackdown on lowlifes stealing the produce of Chicago’s vegetable plots. The City Council had instituted fines up to $200 (about $3,170 in today’s dollars) for pilferage. “Enforce the ordinance and prosecute the violators,” the commissioner ordered his district commanders.
Jessie Lloyd of North Lake Village filed for divorce because, as the Tribune reported, her husband, Rolland, ”took the produce from their war garden and traded it for beer.”
Fortunately, the bad guys were far outnumbered by the gardeners. Just as in an army, those who carried shovels and rakes were supported by rear-guard battalions.
Block captains advised amateur gardeners, recruited residents to take up trowels and passed out literature in support of the city’s victory gardens. Half a million square feet of lots on the Northwest and Southwest sides were plowed with tractors furnished by the International Harvester Co.
Boy Scouts sawed and hammered wooden traps to catch rabbits that fed on vegetable gardens. Horticulturists and master gardeners lectured novices. Housewives took lessons in home canning so commercially canned vegetables could be sent to the armed forces.
Service organizations and businesses sponsored garden competitions and awarded prize ribbons — homefront analogues of the military’s campaign ribbons.
In 1945, John Crowhurst won a contest for grade schoolers run by the Southwest Side Kiwanis Club and the Beverly YMCA. George Tysl and his wife took home nine ribbons from Commonwealth Edison’s harvest festival, and Bernice Pardo won the W.F. Hall Printing company’s contest
By that November, the war was over, but members of the Palos Heights Community Club dug one more garden. They had recently won a victory garden competition sponsored by the Chicago Horticultural Society.
This time they didn’t plant vegetables, but trees and shrubs in a plot at Harlem Avenue and 126th Street. The winding walkways of the veterans’ memorial garden they established were bordered with petunias, a community favorite.
Carrying on their commitment, a municipal park was created where plaques dedicated to those who served in subsequent wars encircle a striking modernist memorial. It is inscribed with the words of the Athenian historian Thucydides:
“The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them. Glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.”
©2020 the Chicago Tribune
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