Preserving our Past, February: Victory gardens

March 5, 2014

By Elynn Lee Bautz:

Family vegetable gardens in local back yards and community plats have a long and proud history. During World War I, philanthropist Charles Lathrop Pack promoted the concept of growing healthy foods at home to reduce the pressure on the public food supply. Commercial food producers were enlisted to furnish provisions for American soldiers abroad, and the foods for domestic consumption were rationed. Families who grew their own food at home were proud to contribute to the war effort by cultivating “Victory Gardens.” 

The practice was so successful that it was quickly reanimated during World War II. Eleanor Roosevelt maintained a Victory Garden on the Whitehouse Grounds, just as Michelle Obama has her healthy foods White House Garden today. Government publications produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Office of Civilian Defense provided detailed instructions on planting and caring for home vegetable gardens. Seed packets could be had for pennies. By 1942, 15 million families had Victory Gardens, and in 1943, 20 million home gardens produced upward of 40% of vegetables consumed in the United States. (Statistics courtesy of the University of Wisconsin School of Agriculture library.)

Whitefish Bay joined in the national fervor with enthusiasm. Victory Gardens were extremely popular. On the street where I grew up, the 5500 block of Diversey just south of Silver Spring, people planted gardens in the vacant lots between established homes. Neat rows of tomatoes, corn, beans, peas, potatoes, carrots, radishes, lettuce, onions, cucumbers, kohlrabi and rutabagas grew and flourished. Patriotic ‘Bayites’ harvested and canned their yield. 

Elynn Bautz in her parents' Victory Garden as a young child in 1943


Victory Gardens were so beloved in Whitefish Bay that they outlasted the war by a decade and more. As the vacant lots were sold and new homes were built, gardeners began to move their vegetables to the public land that eventually developed into Cahill Square. 

In the 1940s and 1950s, Cahill Square was set aside as public land built was completely undeveloped. A creek ran thought it, and tall trees for climbing welcomed children. Huge mounds of soil were regularly dumped there from nearby foundation excavations. 

The transplanted Victory Gardens sprang up along the east side of Woodruff from Fairmount to Chateau. My dad had a rototiller and gladly helped many friends and neighbors establish their gardens. A great many people from our church, including the pastor, had a garden there. For a time, fresh vegetables again flourished and were harvested and preserved. 

The community gardens were a wonderful place to meet and socialize with neighbors, who always pitched din and helped one-another and shared crops. The as now, people realized that the food you grow yourself tastes better and is better for your.

Eventually the gardens were evicted when Cahill Square was developed as a park. My dad then bough 1-1/4 acres in Mequon to be his own land, and his many flowers and vegetables grew there until his death. But the Whitefish Bay Victory Gardens remain an important part of our history as an inspiration to civic and patriotic pride and a sustainable source of health and delicious food in time of need.


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