Rosie the Riveter Talks Victory Gardens

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April 1, 2010 at 10:21 am

Gardeners, gardener wannabees and history buffs flocked to Lincoln Square last Sunday to watch a group of WWII re-enactors portray not the Battle of the Bulge or the D-Day invasion, but the battle on the homefront. When our servicemen and women crossed the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans to fight the Axis nations in the first half of the 1940s, American industry ramped up to supply them with munitions, arms and supplies. Millions of workers left unemployed by the Great Depression joined the armed forces and found jobs in factories building tanks, guns, boats and planes. Farms, on the other hand, were hard pressed to retain workers in rural areas and the American transportation network furiously shipped materiel to the coasts to follow our soldiers to the fronts. As a result, it was more challenging to deliver perishable produce to urban areas before it could spoil; the priority was getting food and supplies to our fighting forces.

Rosie Poses Beneath a Photo of Berlin's Famed Gate

Rosie Poses Beneath a Photo of Berlin's Famed Gate

Rather than let the market determine its own prices, inflating food costs and making it more expensive for the Defense Department to supply those fighting the war, America turned to rationing of some edible resources and Victory Gardens for the rest .

These home-based gardens were pioneered in WWI, but it was during WWII that LaManda Joy’s family raised their own Victory Garden in Oregon. With a Rosie the Riveter mom and a paratrooper dad, Joy learned to raise food from people who knew how to garden like they meant it. Joy now runs Yarden (www.theyarden.com) on of her Chicago property (really just a yard with a house attached), and aims to spread the good word about growing vegetables in the city.

Chicago Sets an Example

Like much of the country, Chicago threw its heart and soul into the movement to support our troops by conserving our resources (like sugar and scrap metal) and reducing our consumption (like fuel and silk). On March 28, LaManda and her costumed cohorts demonstrated the deep passion Chicagoans of the “Greatest Generation” invested into growing food at home. WGN Radio hosted a “Know Your Onions” show. International Harvester donated several plows to turn over soil in the community gardens. Huge swaths of the city were utterly transformed into farmland while the city was divided into 7 regions. Six of these were arable and the last of which was the unfarmable Loop.

Chicagoans didn’t just follow the trend; we led the way. Our Division 5 region boasted the largest Victory Garden plot in American in 1943. That same year, 53,000 Chicago gardens were registered with the Office of Civil Defense (OCD), although another 108,000 were unregistered. 908 acres of city—millions of square feet of land—grew radishes, lettuce, tomatoes and corn. The National Victory Garden Institute, the federal body overseeing the project, copied Chicago’s structures to better implement Gardens nationwide.

Until the end of the war, when many urban Americans lost interest in the hardship-related activity of growing their own food, up to 40 percent of the nation’s vegetables were grown in these gardens. While our national yen for growing faded as we entered an era of plentitude, the pamphlets on how to can excess produce, the photos on prized zucchini and the newspaper articles ranking the most productive urban farm plots remain.

But the patriotic enthusiasm in 1944 was evident in the actors, who began the show with an Andrews Sisters rendition of “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” and proceeded to reveal statistical data about urban farming in the guise of a community meeting set in 1944. For refreshments, the Ladies Baking Auxiliary for Victory made rationing-era cupcakes and cookies. The sugar content was reduced, but they were just as tasty.

LaManda and Her Jars

LaManda and Her Jars

Joy had noticed a correlation between 2009, when nearly 8 million Americans started edible gardens (partly in response to the Great Recession) and 1942, when the WWII Victory Gardens projects began. She proceeded to do exhaustive research not only into her own family’s involvement, but into how Chicago’s public organizations and people quickly transformed the landscape into a model of self-sufficiency.

Joy and her ensemble of six performed their skit in the Dank House German Cultural Center. There was no small irony in the oversized photo of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate behind a 1944-costumed actress portraying a patriotic Rosie the Riveter or the actors speaking at a lectern using Microsoft PowerPoint projected from a laptop. Still, the 80 or so attendees offered an enthusiastic response to the skit and Joy’s brief lecture that followed.

The Yarden can be found on Facebook (The Yarden) or Twitter (TheYarden).

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