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Forget the snow, it's time to garden!

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Forget the snow, it's time to garden!

A look at gardening through the eyes of those for whom it was critical

It’s March. My eyes yearn for the sight of bare ground. My hands itch for the feel of crumbly topsoil sifting through my fingers. My poor nose searches in vain for the invigorating scent of freshly-turned earth. A new supply of vegetable and flower seeds, more patient than I by far, await the coming of spring in a warm, dark closet. Yes, I’m a gardener. This winter has lasted long enough.

Gardening is said to be one of the most popular, perhaps the most popular hobby in America. In hard times like these, even more people will be attempting to grow at least some of their food supply this year. Yes, there’s work involved, but it’s worth it. No taste treat in the world equals that of freshly grown veggies.

Gardening is good for one’s blood pressure, too. It can be very relaxing, and also provides mega-doses of that essential vitamin we get so little of in the Pacific Northwest—the D that’s in sunshine.

Much as I love it, though, I’m awfully glad growing my own food is not the critical, labor intensive process today that it was for our pioneer ancestors. They might not have eaten at all if they hadn’t worked hard to grow most of their table fare. An inauspicious growing season, which we occasionally get in North Idaho, must have loomed like a natural disaster. They didn’t have our modern, well-stocked supermarkets to fall back on, nor did they have all of the laborsaving devices and helpful products we have to make the work easier.

In the days when my hearing was considerably better than it is now, I did a lot of oral history interviewing around Priest River, and worked up a healthy respect for what I learned was involved in feeding the big families of yesteryear. My community’s Italian pioneers particularly were noted for their oversize families, but in some respects I think they ate more healthfully than most of us do today.

Here is what some of those old-timers shared with me in regard to how they and their families put food on the table in the early years of the 20th century:

“It was nothing for my dad to pick four hundred head of cabbage in the fall of the year,” said George A. Naccarato, whose father, Angelo, was one of the first of the Italian laborers from southern Italy who came to Priest River to work for the Great Northern Railroad. “They put them in a pit like you would potatoes to keep them through. They folded the leaves under and then set them right on top of the ground in rows about four feet wide and then covered them with dirt. They just mounded the dirt up over them and the outside would freeze but the inside didn’t.

“My family had a good acre and a half in garden, in small stuff like peppers, tomatoes, beans, peas, carrots and lettuce, and so on—they had an acre of spuds somewhere else. They pitted the potatoes, too, and the beets and carrots, and things like that. Everything they didn’t can, they pitted—everything.

“They canned a lot of things on the stove with hot water, but they salted down a lot of things, too. They would take excess green tomatoes and peppers and slice them. They would put three or four inches of sliced tomatoes and peppers at a time in three or four-gallon crocks and throw in a handful or two of salt till they came to the top. They had wooden lids that would fit inside of the crocks and they would put them on top and press them down and take a rock to keep the pressure down. Every time they wanted to use any, they’d fish them out of there and freshen them up in cold water. “They were delicious. My mother would either fry them or she’d put them in a bowl with a little oil on them and we ate them as a salad.”

Everybody worked hard, George said, but that was especially true of the women. “I can still see my mother—we’d go out in the garden, us kids, and pull weeds. We saved everything. We put the weeds in a gunnysack, and one of those sacks would weigh one hundred pounds. Every family raised from three to five pigs. My mother would come down to the garden, and all of us kids would help her put a sack of weeds on her head and she would march right up to the pig pen with it and throw it to the pigs. My mother could carry two hundred pounds on her head—with no hands or nothing—and walk just as straight as an Indian. She learned that in Italy.”

Louisa Keyser was not quite six when she came to the United States with her father and two brothers. Her father, Pete Naccarato, died of the great influenza epidemic that flared during and just after WWI, before he had a chance to bring Louisa’s mother and four sisters that he’d left behind in Italy to join them in their new home. Louisa was raised by her aunt, the first Mrs. Charles Anselmo, on the Anselmo ranch, and remembered the back-breaking labor involved in the work of clearing the land with stump puller, grubhoe, dyamite, horses and stoneboats. Louisa also described how garden produce was preserved by salting it down.

Tomatoes were salted down without blanching, she said, but pole beans were blanched in hot water. They were then drained through a colander and rinsed in cold water, then drained again, and left overnight. Layered alternately with oregano, salt, and cut-up garlic for flavor, they were stored for winter weighted down in crocks or barrels that were covered on top with a plate and a rock. The same process was used with peppers, cucumbers, and eggplant, which was cut in strips or sliced and mixed with salted peppers.

Louisa grew up to marry John Keyser. John was the son of Henry Keyser, a German immigrant to the United States who is generally considered to have been the father of Priest River. John and Louisa, like their neighbors, raised raspberries and fruit trees along with hay, grain, vegetables and fruit. Remnants of those old orchards still exist. They contained apples, pears, Italian prunes, sweet cherries and pie cherries; and the Keysers, at least, grew filberts as well. The nut trees and also grape vines came as slips by way of a priest from Colville, Washington, Louisa said.

These old folks are gone now, but I’m still grateful to them for sharing their memories. I never plant a garden but what I think about how hard they had to work and all of the privations they endured while they were taming a wilderness and transforming it into places of human habitation. In spite of the unrelenting toil, I bet they welcomed the advent of gardening season at the close of a long, hard winter every bit as much as I do a century later!

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Marylyn Cork

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