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York’s World War I Liberty Gardens

1918 Liberty Garden pledge card

Some of you might remember the Victory Gardens of World War II, when everyone was urged to grow as much food as they could to feed their families.  This would free up commercially grown vegetables to be canned to feed our troops fighting overseas and training here.  The movement didn’t start with World War II; it was a revival of the World War I Liberty Garden program.

Highly organized under Yorker Anna Dill Gamble, the people of York County enthusiastically embraced the World War I movement. See my recent York Sunday News column below for a recap of the 1918 activities:

 York’s World War I Liberty Gardens were a great success

Spring is the time to plant gardens. This spring also marks the 100th anniversary of the United States entry into World War I. These two things come together in documents I recently discovered at the York County History Center.

Anna Dill Gamble was extremely active in women’s causes and organizations, both locally and nationally. Besides being a leader in women’s suffrage, she was a leader in initiatives for lasting peace, attending international conferences. During World War I she was deeply involved in the administration of Liberty Gardens.

The Liberty Garden movement was a federally-sponsored program aimed at increased food production and conservation. Gardening in back yards and vacant lots was encouraged so that citizens could feed themselves and other local people, allowing commercial food processors to concentrate on producing food for the military; less food having to be shipped freed railroads to transport troops and war materiel. The gardens were seen as uniting Americans, including recent immigrants, in a common purpose.

The government provided free publications on gardening and preserving food, and local sponsors helped with donations. According to the University of California “The Victory Grower” website, in 1917 there were an estimated 3.5 million home food producing gardens, with 5.3 million in 1918. The Liberty Garden project continued, renamed Victory Garden, after the November 1918 Armistice signing, enabling more food to be shipped to Europe for troops still there and for European war relief. It was reinstated as the Victory Garden campaign during World War II.

York responded quickly. Its Garden Commission was organized immediately, with five women and five men, when the United States entered the war on April 10, 1917. Mayor E.S. Hugentugler chaired the committee, and Anna Dill Gamble was secretary. They ordered seeds and determined lots to be plowed by the city. The Civics committee of the Woman’s Club offered monetary help.

In 1918 the Garden Commission awarded vacant lots again, but with no appropriation for plowing nor free seeds. By then there was such enthusiasm that these incentives were not needed. Since the Garden Commission had not provided any supervision or advice in 1917, however, a new organization, the Food Production Division of the Woman’s Committee, Council of National Defense, took on that role for 1918. Women from the former Garden Commission formed the nucleus with five additional women. Anna Dill Gamble chaired the committee.

According to their minute book, they went into action in early May 1918, with Gamble asking the Chamber of Commerce to appropriate funds for the project. Mrs. George Schmidt was assigned to ask the school board to pledge $10 for each public school garden. Others would look after St. Patrick’s and St. Mary’s parochial school gardens.

A week later Mrs. Schmidt reported the school board was unwilling to make an appropriation, so  Miss Gamble would try to find someone to plow school gardens. Some schools were encouraging children to plant gardens in their own back yards, such as the 35 gardens already started in North York under the supervision of Principal Conway.

George Brillinger was hired as garden supervisor to advise gardeners, coordinate donated plants and labor and keep records. Brillinger had a busy summer visiting the gardens spread throughout the city and neighboring communities. At one point he supplied the gardeners with several thousand tomato and cabbage seedlings that had been thinned and would have been wasted. The September 20, 1918 minutes noted that Brillinger presented his detailed report after his taking 162 hours (including six hours of riding street cars) to secure the data.

A lengthy newspaper clipping included with the minutes summarizes the report. Total value of war garden crops under the supervision of Brillinger and the York County WCCND for 1918 was $128,682. They were grown on 13,655 plots totaling 398,692,067 square feet. Details of the report are broken down for the four quadrants of the city, as well as North York, West York and these neighborhoods: Small’s Meadow, Lightner and Mayer tracts, Erwin Place, Elmwood, Violet Hill, Grantley, Pennsylvania Avenue area, Windsor Park, Laucks Mill Road, Fairmount and Mt. Rose/Green Hill.

In addition, employees of York Railways tended 108 plots along the trolley lines: two along the Dover Line, nine on the Dallastown line and 97 on the way to Hanover. Brillinger mentioned that Assistant District Attorney J.T. Atkins and attorney Amos Hermann raised $50 worth of vegetables on a lot along the Chanceford turnpike in York Township. Brillinger also recorded his own $80 worth grown in Conewago Township. (According to city directories, Brillinger’s business was insurance, real estate and auctions, but he seems to have been respected for his garden expertise.)

The committee made plans to have participants bring produce to exhibit at the York Fair, held in October in those years. This would not come to fruition, however, as the 1918 fair was cancelled because of the great influenza outbreak.

As chairwoman of the Woman’s Committee, Gamble sent copies of the Liberty Garden report to Grier Hersh, Chairman of the Committee for Public Safety and Committee for Food Production for the area, as well as to the War History Commission of the Pennsylvania Council of National Defense and Committee of Public Safety, which was quartered at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. She also sent photos and “printed matter” to the latter.

The Woman’s Committee was disappointed that the school gardens projects did not work out as planned; due to a labor shortage no one could be found to plow most of the school lots in the spring. They were pleased that the St. Mary’s and St. Patrick’s gardens, with 50 children participating, were successful. Children all over the county also planted their own gardens, often with the encouragement of their schools.

Note that the impressive figures do not include the many thousands of gardens that were cultivated throughout the towns and countryside of the rest of the county. If they were taken into consideration, the area and value devoted to feeding York County during the war years would be multiplied many times over.

World War I Liberty Garden record card for 1918