There’s been a resurgence in home gardening for food during this pandemic. Observers have linked it back to the “victory gardens” of the World War II era, but the practice of gardening to achieve community self-sufficiency can really be traced back to World War I. Montpelier embraced this movement whole-heartedly at a scale that is hard to imagine today.
On April 15, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson issued an appeal to Americans to increase the production of food to meet the demands of war. “Food will win the war,” he told the country, and the residents of Montpelier responded. By August of that year The Vermonter, a state-wide magazine, reported, “It may truly be said that Montpelier is a City of Gardens; and a center of eager response to the President’s call to service and patriotism.”
The war garden effort in the United States was strongly anchored in the school system. Under the direction of the Montpelier superintendent of schools, 618 students registered to work in gardens during the spring and throughout the summer. Forty-one teachers provided instruction and guidance during the school year, followed by 23 who volunteered to be garden mentors during the summer.
The students cultivated an impressive amount of land. Thirty-one acres were cultivated by individual students while another 50 acres were gardened by parents and their children, for a total of 81 acres in the city of Montpelier. This does not count additional acreage that contained private gardens not associated with the school system.
Gardens were scattered all around the city. The Boy Scouts tended 2.5 acres on Northfield Street, while the Camp Fire Girls had an acre next to the arsenal on College Street. Twenty acres were plowed and planted on Langdon Meadow, the fertile land next to the Winooski River that is now the site of the high school, the Department of Labor, and Green Mountain Power. Other planted areas included eight acres near the water works and numerous plots of land behind the State House and in Hubbard Park, which was less forested at that time.
The city’s gardening efforts were not limited to the school system. The city government, the board of trade, churches, the woman’s club, and patriotic and fraternal societies all joined in the effort. The Vermonter reported that there were “many public-spirited men and women of means … who have furnished land and money.” The community effort was organized by a Committee of Public Safety appointed by the mayor with various subcommittees, including the all-important subcommittee on Food Production and Conservation.
Once city leaders realized how successful Montpelier’s gardens were becoming, they had to figure out a way to distribute the bounty that wasn’t consumed by the gardeners themselves. The Food Production Committee met with the City Council and established a “city public market” at the rear of city hall, which was not yet surrounded by parking lots. There was plenty of room for trucks and teams of horses to pull in and display their harvests.
The market operated on Saturdays from 9 am until 3 pm, a little longer than today’s farmers market. A policeman oversaw the operations of the market. The basement of city hall was used in inclement weather and to store fruits and produce that had not been sold, although The Vermonter reported that most producers sold out in less than an hour.
In a sentiment that is strikingly similar to those motivating today’s “buy local” movement, The Vermonter reported that “citizens have taken a lively interest [in the market] and have been in regular attendance to witness the process of bringing producers and consumers into close and mutually profitable relations.”
The Vermonter concluded: “It seems to be the universal testimony that the Montpelier Public Market is a success and an enterprise to be perpetuated.” It is not known if the magazine’s optimism was warranted and if it lasted more than the summer of “patriotic awakening” in 1917. But we do know that exactly sixty years later, in 1977, the current Capital City Farmers Market was established in the midst of an entirely different type of social reawakening, the Back to the Land movement. The current gardening craze will probably not result in enough extra produce to be taken to market in any noticeable way, but it demonstrates Vermonters’ desires for community self-sufficiency in the face of societal challenges.
Paul Carnahan is a resident of Montpelier and the librarian of the Vermont Historical Society in Barre.