From Liberty Gardens to Victory Gardens

By PATRICIA SANDERS

As I was researching my article on the 1918 – 1919 influenza pandemic in Montavilla, I came across a news item about Victory Gardens in 1919. Why, I wondered, would they still be growing Victory Gardens months after World War I had ended in 1918?

With some investigation, I discovered this was intended was to help alleviate the food shortages in war-ravaged Europe. The gardens planted during the war were actually called Liberty or War Gardens. When Congress voted to declare war on Germany on April 4th, 1917, food was already in short supply in the United States due to crop failures and the Allied nations’ needs.

On April 11th, President Woodrow Wilson called on farmers to increase production. Retired businessman Charles Lathrop Pack said America would win the war “by fighting it with food…” and wanted to enlist civilians in this battle.

Pack believed urban gardens could contribute substantially. In March 1917, on the eve of America’s entry into the war, he founded the National Emergency Food Garden Commission (later called the National War Garden Commission) to advocate and educate the public on the importance of vegetable gardens. Backyards, schoolyards, and vacant lots needed to be brought into production. 

By the end of 1917, nearly 3 million war gardens (1,150,000 acres) were under cultivation in cities and towns. In 1918, that number grew to an estimated 5,285,000. Not only did this increase the food supply, it also freed up trains for war-related purposes. Adults and children on the home front were significant contributors to the war effort.

Source: Charles Lathrop Pack, “The War Garden Victorious”, 1919 (artist J. N. Darling); Google Books

On March 3rd, 1918, when Portland held a war rally at the downtown Auditorium, it became an official proponent of the movement. Supporters, of course, recognized that amateur gardeners would need assistance in orde to succeed.

Help came in a variety of ways. Local newspapers ran how-to articles on food gardening. Pamphlets, demonstrations, lectures, and classes were also available. Then the federal government provided an extra hour for after-work gardening by initiating Daylight Saving Time on March 31st, 1918.

“How to Succeed with the War Garden”, planting table
Source: The Sunday Oregonian, April 14, 1918 (Historic Oregon Newspapers)

Montavilla School was an important contributor to the preparedness campaign. Montavilla students already knew how to grow food. The school had joined the national school garden movement in 1914, by making gardening a part of the curriculum. A committee of teachers, with the assistance of Parent-Teacher Association gardening committee members, helped to supervise gardens both at pupils’ homes and on the school grounds.

Garden at Montavilla School with Mt. Tabor in the background
Source: The Sunday Oregonian, May 31, 1914 (Historic Oregon Newspapers)

During the war, the Montavilla school garden was transformed into a Liberty garden and then into a Victory garden in 1919. (For more on Montavilla School, read about efforts to improve students’ physical fitness with a playground during that era.)

Montavilla School Garden (Note the Montavilla United Methodist Church center, back)
Source: The Sunday Oregonian, March 23, 1919 (Historic Oregon Newspapers)

Nationally, urban gardeners were urged to preserve excess produce by canning or drying processes. Again, Montavilla students were trained and ready.

In 1915, the school canning club provided vegetables for school lunches. In 1918, at the Multnomah County Fair in Gresham, members of the club, supervised by Mrs. C. A. Williamson of the Montavilla PTA, took part in competitive canning demonstrations. Montavilla students also raised chickens and rabbits— another aspect of the food preparedness effort— winning prizes at the fair.

“Canning Club at Montavilla School Is Practical Delight.” Both boys and girls were members.
Source: The Sunday Oregonian, October 10, 1915 (Historic Oregon Newspapers)

The Montavilla schoolyard and family backyards were not the only places where war gardens flourished in Montavilla.

Vacant farmland belonging to Alfred Curtis Ruby, then vice-president (later president) of the Montavilla Savings Bank, also came into production in 1918. Ruby granted permission to the Portland chapter of the Girls’ Honor Guard, a national organization of volunteers committed to war-relief work, to plant five acres of his property in beans.

The volunteers met on Memorial Day, May 29th, at the corner of 82nd Avenue and East Glisan Street, so likely they used the Ruby property that later became Montavilla Park and Multnomah University. (For more on the Park and University, see “Montavilla Gets a Playground” and “What Are Those Old Buildings?” )

Honor Girls Plant Beans in Five Acres”
Source: The Morning Oregonian, May 31, 1917 (Historic Oregon Newspapers
)

American citizens also helped augment the national food supply by harvesting farm crops. With so many men engaged in the war, there was, not surprisingly, a shortage of farm labor. Women, girls, and boys were encouraged to help pick crops like berries and cherries that might otherwise spoil.

Although my research did not uncover specific individuals in Montavilla who did such work, I know from other accounts that summer picking was customary here. (For more on this topic, see “Berry-Picking Time” ). Surely Montavillans heeded the call to this patriotic duty and would welcome some extra money at a time of high food prices. Some enjoyed work holidays at farm camps, others, like mothers with families, did day labor at nearby farms.

Several organizations organized the farm labor pool. Women could contact the Oregon Women’s Farm Reserve, an affiliate of the Women’s Land Army of America, with headquarters in downtown Portland. Boys were assigned by the US Boys’ Working Reserve, the Catholic Boys’ Working Reserve, and the Boy Scouts. Additionally, teachers, like Emily B. Johnston of Franklin High School, organized teams of girls to work at farm camps.

Oregon Women’s Farm Reserve members in their new uniforms called feminalls
Source: The Oregon Daily Journal, July 5, 1918 (Historic Oregon Newspapers)

Besides gardening, harvesting, and preserving, Americans were also urged to eat less, to minimize food waste and to reduce their consumption of foods in short supply, such as wheat, potatoes, and meat. 

Source: The Morning Oregonian, April 4, 1918; Historic Oregon Newspapers

On January 26th, 1918, Herbert Hoover, head of the US Food Administration, called on American women to follow new rules regarding food consumption. For example, when baking, they were encouraged to replace a percentage of wheat with other flours or, if buying commercial products, like bread and pasta, to select items with lower wheat content. Mondays and Wednesdays were declared wheatless days, Tuesdays meatless days. Ideally, one meal every day should be meatless. 

With fanfare, The Oregon Daily Journal reported on April 30th, 1918, that the perfect “war loaf” had finally been perfecteded by a committee of bakers. This used only 40% wheat flour, supplemented with barley flour, corn flour and potatoes.

Newspapers ran recipes to help housewives cope with the new rules. Here’s an example:

Recipe for Rice and Cheese Fondu
Source: The Oregon Daily Journal, October 20, 1917

For fun, I tried this recipe (see photo below). My advice: don’t make it! It’s bland and has way too much liquid. After removing the excess liquid with a baster, it had the consistency of rice pudding, but without the flavor. 

Rice and Cheese Fondu made in Montavilla by Patricia Sanders
Photo by Thomas Tilton

Bland food was but a small part of the sacrifices made by American families during and after World War l. In Montavilla, as in other communities across America, patriotic citizens grew gardens, picked crops, preserved foods, and, in a myriad of ways, rose to the call to combat starvation in Europe, and to support our troops.

Acknowledgment:

I want to thank Jerry Lynne Treinen and Peg DeVries for proofreading my article and making many valuable suggestions.

***

Historical story ideas? Questions about Montavilla’s past? Also share a love for neighborhood history? 

Comment on the article at the link in the heading. Or you can reach out to Pat Sanders at pat.montavilla.history@gmail.com.

Read all of the “Montavilla Memories” articles by Pat Sanders here

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