While many refer to gardening as a hobby today, gardening was a necessity for survival nearly 90 years ago during the Great Depression. And contrary to what you may think, not everyone knew how to garden back then.
By 1933, there were three large government-funded community gardens in Portsmouth as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and its nationwide subsistence gardens program, which were also known as the emergency gardens, relief gardens and welfare gardens.
Two subsistence garden plots were on city property at the New Franklin School and Atlantic Heights School. The city’s third and ultimately largest of the garden plots was on land in the West End owned by the Portsmouth Building Association. The land was part of its Westfield Park housing development off Islington Street in in the vicinity of Aldrich, Thaxter and Spinney roads. The Portsmouth Building Association was a group of businessmen and members of the Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce who desired to meet the vital needs of improving Portsmouth and its inhabitants.
Pictured are several images of the subsistence garden plots on the West End land loaned by the Portsmouth Building Association from the Athenaeum’s P0032 Marvin Peirce photograph collection. In some of these publicity photographs, the unidentified “farmers” are seen dressed in their Sunday best as they pose proudly among the crops, as if they, too, grew from the gardens. And in some ways, they had. The gardens had allowed the unemployed to feed their families and reclaim a sense of self that had been lost in the immense struggle to survive during the Great Depression.
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“I consider the gardens and the fuelwood cutting projects two of the most vital community activities of their kind,” said former Portsmouth Mayor Orel A. Dexter, chairman of the Subsistence Gardens committee, in a July 19, 1934 interview for the Portsmouth Herald. He continued, “because they help deserving men stand on their own feet and keep their individual initiative, and in the final issue, community morale depends wholly on the individual initiative developed or maintained.”
Dexter (1886-1951) was himself a self-made man at the Granite State Fire Insurance Company rising from office boy to vice president, and his repetition of individual initiative was a hallmark of FDR’s FERA programs. Along with Dexter, Mayor Robert Marvin and Charles H. Walker also served on the Subsistence Gardens committee, a subcommittee of the Portsmouth Civic Council and Chamber of Commerce.
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Through FERA, the State of New Hampshire provided vegetable seeds, tomato and cabbage plants, and fertilizer. Funds turned over to the city’s garden committee covered the cost of plowing and preparation of community fields, potato crops, sprays, supervision, and all incidental expenses associated with the subsistence gardens. Owners of home gardens were also eligible to receive seed and fertilizer assistance. In the spirit of community, private citizens were urged to contribute to the program. Championing the subsistence gardens, George C. Bishop, the assistant director of the Rural Rehabilitation, said that in 1934 for every $1 spent, there was a return of $10.60 in produce value.
In 1933, the Subsistence Gardens committee hired Raphael L. Costello (1879-1957) as the supervisor to oversee all the relief gardens. The son of Irish immigrants, Costello had been a successful Portsmouth merchant operating a seed and garden store on Market Street in the 1910s and 1920s, and he was a past president of the Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce. Costello who reportedly devoted all this time to the gardens answered questions and offered advice for many novice gardeners. He also organized invaluable free canning demonstrations for families to survive the winter.
The position of supervisor perhaps could not have come at a better time for Costello who had recently suffered great losses both privately and professionally. His wife, Bernice, died in 1931, and like many in the Great Depression, he had declared bankruptcy in 1932. His former store at 115 Market St. served as the distribution site for seeds and fertilizer.
On June 20, 1933, the garden committee provided a successful update in the Herald, reporting that 208 people had found summer work in the gardens with many family members assisting.
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“As soon as the dew is off the morning,” the committee described, “many of the unemployed are out in the field, digging out the witchgrass and other weeds. Many take pride in their work and are striving to coax their plants to grow a bit faster than their neighbors.”
After plowing and harrowing the fields, the committee spread 10 tons of fertilizer and planted 200 bushels of potatoes in the city gardens. The committee then distributed seeds to the gardeners including green beans, kidney beans, beets, swiss chard, cucumbers, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, sweet corn, lettuce, onions, parsnips, radishes, squash, turnips, and potatoes. Also distributed were 4,200 cabbage plants and 4,500 tomato plants.
The committee concluded, “Not only is this aiding them through the present crisis in their lives, but it is aiding them in their health and many are developing knowledge that they can get much of their living from a garden, and as they enjoy that sort of work are already planning to have a garden each year.”
James Smith is the Photographic Collections Manager at the Portsmouth Athenaeum.
At the Athenaeum appears the second Sunday of each month. The Athenaeum, 9 Market Square, is a nonprofit membership library and museum founded in 1817. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 1 to 4 p.m., by appointment. To schedule a visit, call 603-431-2538 or email email@example.com. For more information visit www.portsmouthathenaeum.org.