Victory Gardens: Teaching History Outside

Victory Gardens: Teaching History Outside

Years ago, when my school gardeners needed a theme, my mom introduced me to “victory gardens,” community or family gardens grown during WWI and WWII to increase food production. Much of the commercially processed food needed to be shipped overseas to military personnel fighting those wars and to European civilians going hungry. People here at home could help the war effort through sacrifice, war bonds, and gardening.

I decided I could combine a history lesson with school gardening and – bonus – possibly win money to buy more seeds and potting soil.

My students entered a school gardening contest with high hopes our victory garden would take home the top cash prize, especially since the Iraq War had just gotten started. Somewhere between the plants maturing and the students decorating with American flags, maintenance workers tromped in and removed an air conditioner from a nearby building, dragging it across our garden. That dealt the death blow to our wartime garden and the start of some bitter tears, shed by me as well as by some hardened street kids.

My mom said nobody succeeded in growing a victory garden in her hometown either, a mining city that worked around the clock producing copper for the war effort. It would be years before gardens started growing there.

Those memories came flooding back the other day as I toured a WWI exhibit at the Montana Historical Society Museum in Helena, Mont. Before entering the “Times of Trouble, Time of Change: Montana and the Great War” exhibit, visitors choose a card with a short bio and photograph of a Montanan from that era. My card introduced me to Sophie Lund, who ran a general store with her husband at the start of the war. Before you leave the exhibit, you find out what happened to your Montanan. In Sophie’s case, the woman with the jaunty hat and don’t-mess-with-me look on her face died during the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918.

The exhibit includes military equipment, a partial tail from a German WWI plane, information on the Sedition Act of 1918, and lots of other fascinating things, but the victory garden display was the most intriguing section for me. Future President Herbert Hoover was the director of the U.S. Food Administration and rationing food at home so the soldiers and civilians overseas could eat was called “hooverizing.”

The Montana Historical Society provides flyers at the exhibit with sample WWI-era recipes from sources such as the Red Cross Cookbook and the First Baptist Church (Butte)’s Ladies Aid Society Cookbook. Here’s one, taken from the Florence Hotel (Missoula)’s Red Cross Cookbook, published by the Hot Springs Red Cross Society in 1918.

  • Wheatless Chocolate Cake
  • ½ c. fat
  • 2/3 c. sugar
  • 1 c. syrup
  • 3 eggs
  • ¾ c. milk
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 c. rice flour
  • 2 c. barley flour
  • 6 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 squares chocolate

Cream the fat, sugar, and egg yolks. Add the syrup and mix well. Add alternately the liquid and dry ingredients sifted together. Add flavoring and melted chocolate. Fold in well-beaten whites. Bake one hour, starting in a moderate oven. After 20 minutes, raise the heat.

For more information on victory gardens, check out these resources.

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