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Where were you in ’42?


The week before Thanksgiving 2008, Howard wrote a piece related to Agincourt’s wartime experience; how the war had affected people on the home front.


Victory, one tomato at a time

I don’t get out of town often enough. Except for a Minnesota Twins game in June, I haven’t been away overnight for nearly a year. Agincourt seems to be my world.

So when Bobby and Melissa Frobisher suggested hitting some estate sales in Omaha last weekend, Rowan Oakes and I were glad for the chance to tag along and, just maybe, snag some stuff that may show up in our own estate sales some time hence. Bobby found a banjo; Rowan, an Arts & Crafts area rug; Melissa some sheet music from the ‘teens. I bought a World War II uniform from the widow of Frank Ferris, a serviceman who had landed at Omaha Beach for the liberation of Europe. My conversation with Mrs Ferris turned to Tom Brockaw’s recent book The Greatest Generation, the very generation that her husband represented with such distinction.

During lunch at the Bohemian Cafe the four of us began a list of Agincourt’s war efforts on the home front; from selling war bonds and foregoing meat several times a week to knitting socks and walking—everywhere. The war was borne on the backs and feet and in the stomachs of ordinary citizens. War was a shared experience endured every day by every one. How different from the conflicts of recent experience.

Crossing the Broad Street bridge on the way home, another local effort came to mind: Agincourt’s “Victory Gardens” that once stretched half a mile west of the bridge, along the sunny north bank of Crispin Creek.

Growing up just after the war, I recall my mother’s hoard of old magazines in the attic; a stack of Your Victory Garden was among them. I was just learning to read and these had more pictures than text. Monthly issues treated topics that would find eager and appreciative audiences on HGTV today—propagation and planting; insects and blight; drying and canning—each topic aimed at spreading the burden of wartime deprivation more equitably. Mom had a plot along the creek; so did her sisters and aunts. But it wasn’t entirely women’s work.

Our “Victory Garden” had already been the scene of casual horticulture, so the county commissioners in September 1942 only made official what had been common practice for several years. Janice Mainwaring, head of the the Domestic Arts division at the Fennimore County Fair, was the genius who made it work. With paramilitary precision, Janice surveyed the area south of Milwaukee Road, between the bridge and mill raceway, dividing it into 25-by-25 foot allotments. Then, with assistance from the Department of Public Works, they installed a watering system at 100-foot intervals along the road, with several two-horsepower engines drawing water from Crispin Creek. Remarkably, some of those improvements are still working after more than sixty years.

Janice’s original notes, correspondence and drawings preserved at the historical society tell the rest of a fascinating story. A few folks had squatter’s rights, holding on to plots they had gardened for years, while everyone else waited for a Thanksgiving lottery to allocate the rest.

A quick comparison of Mainwaring’s list with our 1943 telephone directory tells me that nearly half the households in town participated. From March 15th thorugh Labor Day, the street wailway company offered free service to the creek after 6 p.m. and all day on the weekends. School groups competed for free books, movies and ice cream treats at Van Kannel’s soda fountain. It was a family affair.

Plowing, planting, pruning; watering and weeding; harvesting and canning. These shared activities strengthened our sense of community. They also reinforced the idea of continuinty through the seasons and cycles of Nature. I was too young to help but young enough to enjoy its benefits; a unity of purpose, an awareness of America as “us.” There was neither “red” nor “blue”; just “purple,” like the Purple Heart won by Frank Ferris, a stranger whose uniform fits me like a glove, but whose shoes I could never fill.

If there is an Afterlife, I suspect Ms Mainwaring and Sgt Ferris have recognized the purpose common to their lives and have become good friends.

Howard’s article is crafted and grafted from experiences I’ve had, from people I’ve known—and some I still hope to meet.

1 Comment

  1. […] and Second World War exploited the north bank of Crispin Creek as free garden plots. “Victory Gardens” supplemented diets during the war […]

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