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Harmon’s Histories: Bonner’s Community Gardens were a marvel during WWI

Bonner Community Gardens, called Victory Gardens during WWI. Bunkhouse in background. Montana Memory Project. Photo circa 1917.

It’s gardening time, at least hopefully, now that we’re past our last gasp of wintry weather!

This time of year also brings back memories of the war gardens and victory gardens of the past. During World War I, with commercial farm produce needed for the military, American households were urged to create their own backyard gardens.

“We should plant to garden every back yard in Missoula within the next 30 days!” proclaimed the Missoulian newspaper on Sunday, April 1, 1917. “This nation is entering upon the world-wide war and no man knows the full extent of our immediate needs and food necessities.”

One of the largest “community gardens” was created at Bonner, where the Anaconda Copper Mining Company (ACM) encouraged its lumber mill employees to use a huge tract of land for the purpose.

The company plowed up 25 acres of its land, including a 10-acre grass park, offering plots to “any employee of the company who desires to make a garden … sufficient to raise enough green vegetables for a family’s use during the season and enough potatoes and other tubers for the winter.”

The company also arranged for water to be piped in, and encouraged middle-school children to “have a hand in the gardening.” Charles A. Hart organized the work of 60 Bonner mill families who participated.

The guidelines were straightforward: “Each child will be required to plant and care for a 16-foot row of onions and beets, and as much more ground as they can handle.” The girls, reported the local press, “are quite as enthusiastic as the boys in the scheme.”

The Chamber of Commence joined the effort, offering prizes totaling a thousand dollars for the best gardens in a variety of categories. 

Auction to be held. Missoulian. October 6, 1917

At 9 A. M., Saturday, October 6, 1917, on a platform erected at the intersection of Higgins and Pine in downtown Missoula, “half a ton of the finest vegetables grown in the Bonner garden (were auctioned off) … pumpkins, corn, peas, strawberries” and more to benefit the Red Cross war effort.

By the following year, the Bonner Community Gardens had gained such status that its produce was featured at the Montana State Fair in Helena. Each participating family who wished to exhibited produce and competed for prizes.

According to the local paper, the gardens had also attracted visitors from all over Montana, “with the result that the gardens were favorably commented on in several widely read periodicals.”

With the record amounts of produce generated in the war years of 1917 and 1918, more records were expected as the planting season arrived in 1919.

Though the name of the Bonner gardens changed from “war gardens” to “victory gardens” the efforts did not slow.

The number of “tillable tracts” increased to 73 plots (each measuring 180 by 33 feet). The water supply had been improved and enlarged, and a “heavy coating” of fertilizer had been applied during the winter season, in hopes of doubling the number of potatoes produced.

More efforts were also expected to be made in raising additional crops of “tomatoes, celery, cucumbers and squash.”

Two men and one woman stand in the middle of the Bonner Community Garden. Circa 1919

Countless other individual, community, and school victory gardens could be found throughout Missoula.

The Willard School community garden was claimed to be the “best garden in the city,” according to Glenn Suecetti, a local leader of the Boys and Girls clubs.

The Roosevelt Gardens were also said to be in “very good condition,” although that could change if there wasn’t sufficient summer rain.

The Salvation Army joined the Missoula Nurses Association gardening on a half-block of land at Higgins and South avenues, and State University students grew “potatoes and turnips on seven acres of land on the campus.”

Today, the idea of community gardening lives on through organizations like Garden City Harvest, with its neighborhood farms, community garden plots and farm-to-school programs. Their spring “plot lottery” starts March 28th. Check it out!

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.