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York Presbyterian Minister Cathcart Was an Avid Gardener

From Gibson's 1886 History of York County
From Gibson’s 1886 History of York County

Robert Cathcart, long-time Presbyterian minister of York County, recorded notable occurrences in his diary, as did many others. He noted the flood that devastated much of York in 1817 and mentioned the deaths of leading citizens. He recorded the comings and goings of members of his family and some of his church activity.
Most of all, his diaries are filled with detailed information on his favorite subject–vegetables. See my previous York Sunday News column below concerning the good Reverend Dr. and his garden.

The Passion of Reverend Dr. Cathcart

Newspapers are currently full of tempting advertisements for an abundance of flowers and vegetables ready for planting. Gardening columns abound with advice for gardeners, stirring the desire for juicy sun-ripened tomatoes and tender shoots of asparagus. Robert Cathcart would have loved it.
In 1792 a joint call went out to 33-year-old Robert Cathcart to serve the Presbyterian congregations of York and Hopewell (Round Hill). Leaders of both flocks, including James Smith, signed the call. (Smith had signed a somewhat more daring political document 16 years before.) Irish-born Cathcart had come to America in 1790, bearing a degree from the University of Glasgow, to join his minister uncle in Wilmington, Delaware. He then obtained his Doctorate of Divinity from Queens College.
The two congregations agreed to pay Cathcart a total of 150 pounds a year. He was installed the following April, beginning an extremely long pastorate of 42 years at Round Hill and 46 years at York. He preached alternate Sundays at each church. Even though Round Hill was 17 miles from his home in York, a long horseback ride in any weather, he missed few Sundays.
Cathcart brought his young bride, Susanna Latimer, to York from Delaware in 1796. Sadly, Susanna died 14 years later, leaving five children. Descendants of Robert and Susanna presented Cathcart’s papers to the Historical Society of York County, now part of the York County History Center. A diary of sorts, started in January 1801, is nestled among folders of hand-written sermons and prayers. It reveals an obsession that would stay with the good parson the rest of his long life–vegetables.
The variety lovingly grown by Cathcart wipes out any ideas of our forebears subsisting on meat and potatoes, even though he did grow potatoes: Irish potatoes, red potatoes, white potatoes, blue-black potatoes, early potatoes, kidney [shaped] potatoes, and sweet potatoes. He wasn’t just content to stick a few tubers in the ground and stand back. Cathcart experimented with various ways of planting, often sprouting potatoes in a “box” (cold frame). Planting too early was not wise, as he noted June 24th 1802: “Dug potatoes–March planting, not January or February.”
In late winter he planted lettuce and radishes, and triumphed March 12, 1803 that his peas had come up in 12 days. The Cathcarts feasted on asparagus each spring. In May 1821 he wrote: “Vegetation rapid–one stalk of asparagus grew in 35 hours 16 inches and at 48 hours was 19 inches.’ On April 26, 1822, Cathcart cut 162 stalks of asparagus and 111 stalks on the 30th. It is hoped that the Cathcart children shared their father’s enthusiasm for asparagus.
Robert was quite pleased early on if the Lima beans and corn (roasting ears, as he called them) were ready by the end of July. He tried adding ashes to the hills of corn and planting kernels given by others. New strains were eventually acquired, as by 1844 they had a “mess of early corn” by June 19. He planted celery, cabbage, cantaloupes, carrots, cucumbers and curly greens; kale and kohlrabi. He sowed spinach and turnips–lots and lots of turnips. (Turnips not only kept well, they could be used for animal feed or turned under the next spring to enrich the soil.) He found room to grow beets, Brussels sprouts and bush beans; endive, egg plants and rutabagas; onions, peppers, and watermelon. In 1811 Cathcart planted cucumbers four different times from April 21 to June 3. The Cathcarts surely did not lack pickles the next winter. In a fit of recklessness July 13, 1815, Robert “planted a row of beans, cucumbers, corn and radish mixed.” Unfortunately, he left no record of the results. On another occasion he noted daringly planting some seeds against the advice of the almanac for that day.
Parsley, peppers, and pumpkins; squash, Savoy cabbage, and even sugar beets could be found growing in the Cathcart plot. Salsify, or oyster plant, whose roots can be used to make mock oyster patties or stew, was a favorite.
Most remarkable was the good Reverend’s avant-garde growing of tomatoes. Many people in the 1820s still thought tomatoes were poisonous. Not so in the Cathcart garden. He first recorded planting tomatoes on the fourth of May 1824 and grew them from then on.
In 1849 Dr. Cathcart, on three consecutive early April days, cleaned the asparagus bed, sowed “salad,” dug the garden, and planted Limas and tomato plants. That May his “asparagus bed produced more than formerly,” which he credited to treating the bed with salt water. That fall, after the end of harvest, Robert Cathcart died, just short of his ninetieth birthday. The physical exercise of digging, planting, and harvesting in the fresh air, as well eating those vitamin and fiber-laden vegetables, surely contributed to the long and active life of a well-loved York County preacher and super-gardener.

Click the links below for more on York County vegetables.
York County canning houses.
Canners use tempting graphics on labels.
York County green tomatoes to Florida.
And fruits:
Jonathan Jessop’s York Imperial apples.
The York Imperial cherry.
Figs on King Street.
More local apples.