DescriptionToday our grandkids might think planting vegetables in a cemetery smacks of the gothic and macabre and perhaps such a garden hints at vestiges of the Addams Family somewhere in our genealogy tree. But they need to examine the circumstances and the necessity during World War II for a garden in an urban environment, to understand why the abode of the dead was an ideal site for nurturing tasty veggies.
Of course, our Victory Garden wasn’t actually spaded and hoed in the midst of granite tombstones and over the cold bones below. With the federal appeal to U.S. citizens to pitch in to the war effort in 1942, plots were provided for individual gardens in the unused portion of the St. Joseph Cemetery at the border between the city of Duquesne and the borough of West Mifflin in western Pennsylvania. With the plots came convenient water taps for our hose connections along with free water. The grassy cemetery soil had been leveled, fertilized, watered and tended for years so it was a ready and nourishing medium for our packets of trusty Burpee’s seeds. There would be little fear of city dogs whizzing on the sprouts or urban deer munching the tender shoots. All that was needed was the labor and skill of the wartime gardeners.
Our parents had all the necessary experience and gardening skills, both having been raised in the farming environment of a small town, Strazke, in what is now the Slovak Republic. Although our father was born in Pennsylvania while his father was working in the coal mines, Dad continued the family tradition of working in America, traveling back and forth across the ocean five times to buy up cheap land in Slovakia, finding a wife, and expecting to retire there or in the U.S. early and handsomely. In the midst of the Great Depression he married a beautiful young Slovak woman, replete with a dowry of handmade linens she had colorfully woven and embroidered, so he returned to the States once more to earn more money as a machinist in a bustling steel mill, leaving his new wife temporarily with her mother.
Needless to say, all those plans went awry as the Nazi regime began to threaten its neighbors including Czechoslovakia. Our father’s mother-in-law was a widow because of the First World War and she had experienced the horrors of being occupied by both German and Russian soldiers. With another world war impending in 1936 she hustled off her married daughter to her husband in Pennsylvania, a fortunate move for us, born in subsequent years.
When America was plunged into a global war on two fronts in 1941, the country mobilized for a massive war effort that included mobilization from civilian production to almost total military production. That abrupt shift and acceleration brought significant changes to the steel town of Duquesne. With the Carnegie-Illinois plant working twenty-four hours, seven days a week to meet the demand of steel for armaments, the need for steel workers and housing soared. Our father was too old for the draft but as a steel worker with two young toddlers he qualified for an apartment in the newly constructed Burns Heights housing project, a barracks style development originally designed for military housing. The long, narrow buildings were aligned in rows facing each other across a street which also served as a parking lot. (See picture 1).
Not that there were many cars around the apartments during the war. As a foreman in the mill, our next-door neighbor had the only car in the block, a 1936 Ford sedan, but with gasoline and especially rubber tires strictly rationed, that vehicle spent many months perched on concrete blocks in the street, its naked steel wheels and brakes shorn of rubber, shining uselessly in the sun. As toddlers we were relatively as safe playing in the streets as in the project community playground which consisted mainly of a rough softball field and a few chain swings.
Note the Cape Cod style gray tiles used as siding on the apartment buildings in the photo. Actually, those thin tiles were imbedded with asbestos fibers. While that seems inconceivable today, back then it was the latest in fireproofing technology. And the buildings did have a very real threat of fire with a coal burning furnace in each apartment for heat. Coal bins to store the sooty, bituminous, locally mined coal were located next to the front door. (You can see the rectangular bins on the apartment building behind Frosty the Snowman in picture 2.) As children, we discovered that broken pieces of the asbestos siding tile made for crude chalk crayons, good enough to scratch out Hop Scotch games on the concrete sidewalks and parking lots. Needless to say, the asbestos siding was replaced in later years as the environmental hazards of asbestos were discovered.
The United States had relied mostly on advertising campaigns during WW1 to encourage citizens to cut down on food consumption but that changed drastically during WWII. The Office of Price Administration (OPA) began with rationing sugar to half a pound per person per week, followed by coffee rationing as German submarines devastated shipping from South America. By the end of 1942, meat, lard, shortening, food oils, cheese, butter, margarine, processed foods, including bottled, canned and frozen food along with canned milk and dried fruits were on the rationing list and required ration stamps along with cash for a civilian purchase.
With food rationing, the U.S. Department of Agriculture pumped up a “Victory Garden” campaign encouraging citizens to grow at least a portion of their own food and hopefully even dry, can or freeze a good portion of the harvest. Boosted by pamphlets, posters, newspaper and magazine articles on gardening, even urban dwellers began to plant seeds in community gardens.
At Burns Heights, a family could coax a few flowers around the front entrance of the apartments but everything else was strictly grass and shrubs maintained by the development so there was no chance of individual victory gardens for a family.
Tending those front entrance flowers was a fun chore for toddler sister Frances. Unfortunately, one day, attired in her prettiest baby doll dress with its puffed short sleeves, she carried one of those old glass milk bottles to water those flowers. She tripped and fell, the milk bottle shattered and badly cut her arm. Fortunately, our neighbor with the ‘36 Ford quickly drove her to the steel mill clinic where they stitched the wound. To this day, Sis still vividly recalls seeing the nurse waving a big pair of scissors around those sleeves and fearing that they would cut off her arm!
With a background and tradition of farming, our parents jumped at the opportunity to tend and nurture a garden in the cemetery site, ready to “grow our own and can our own” as the popular war slogan prompted. The planted crop was typical of Eastern European families: carrots, cucumbers, onions, parsley, tomatoes, squash, peas and beans. Oddly, we didn’t grow potatoes even though it was a staple in the dinner menu, particularly in Slovak “pirogi” (pee-ro-he) and potato pancakes. Perhaps because potatoes require lots of spacing, e.g., three feet between rows and each plot in the victory garden was limited to about the size of a large, long basement room.
The walk to the cemetery was about a mile, (as measured now on Google Earth), undertaken every day after our Dad came home from work and on weekends. Certainly, there was an air of adventure for the two Fraikor toddlers who weren’t that much help with the gardening but quickly learned the difference between precious vegetable sprouts and undesirable weeds and how to gingerly walk carefully between the straight rows of seeds without mashing the young plants. We later learned that the tomato “worms” we picked from the leaves were ugly and squishy but really were caterpillars that turned into Sphinx moth chrysalis that we found later the next spring when we dug up the thawed ground for the garden once again. We also learned that helping Mom with the process of canning all those vegetables meant lots of boiling water and tedious peeling of vegetables.
But the best memory of our cemetery Victory Garden was piling a portion of the harvested carrots, cucumbers, etc. into a red steel wagon, marching around the apartment buildings and selling the vegetables for a penny for a carrot or even a nickel for a large cucumber. We could buy a lot of scrumptious candy and chewing gum (“chung’ gum” in Pittsburghese) for a nickel! Who could resist a little boy and his cute sister peddling fresh veggies at your door? This was long before supermarkets and home delivery… instead, toddler entrepreneurship won the day.
By 1944, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that the harvest from these home and community gardens equaled the production of commercial farming in the U.S. and long lists of literature and records are still available attesting to the success of Victory Gardens in Allied Countries during the war.
Our dad had a great sense of humor and interspersed a few cemetery jokes as we toiled in that garden about the “quiet residents” who wouldn’t disturb the garden while we were away at work and school. In fact, it was a sincere testimony to the community spirit and dedication among the gardeners and the many nearby residents that we never experienced a single theft of vegetables during the years of tending that Victory Garden in the Cemetery.
With the end of the war and with enough savings, our parents built their dream brick home in the suburbs with a large backyard, big enough for a significant garden with peach, apple, cherry and pear trees about a half mile from that old cemetery and on the same boundary street between the two cities. The land my father had purchased in Czechoslovakia over many years and trips there was promptly confiscated when the Communists took over the government and with the advent of the Cold War there was no hope of even traveling to visit relatives.
The Carnegie-Illinois plant eventually succumbed to an economic crisis in the steel industry and the city of Duquesne crashed with it. The city collapsed down to a third of the population during its boom years. The massive, old Victorian Carnegie Library was razed, Duquesne High School closed and the old blighted Burns Heights apartments were leveled. All that was left were memories of the good times.
Nonetheless, it was heartening to see a recent web post noting that Duquesne once again has a community Victory Garden (picture 4). It isn’t in a cemetery but it has a group of substantial sponsors and hopefully is the beginning of a new generation of urban victory gardeners.
-Story contributed by Fred Fraikor and Frances McInroy.
Fred Fraikor is a retired research professor and R&D manager who lives and fly fishes in Colorado and spends his time writing and gardening. He currently has four novels published on Amazon.
Frances McInroy is a retired elementary school teacher living in Colorado who tutors students who are too ill to attend school. She has carried on her mother’s skill with embroidery, quilting and crafts. She and my wife, Judy Jones, also continue to tend and successfully grow vegetables and flowers in their groomed gardens but avoid watering with glass milk bottles.