Springfield's Rising Star: The Dickinson Pumpkin
Aug. 27, 2017
by Jennifer Breckner
photos by Jennifer Breckner and Alana Reynolds
Turn the corner on almost any street in Springfield, Illinois, the state’s capital, and you’ll run into some place of historical prestige. Springfield is most famously known as the place where Abraham Lincoln opened a law practice and served in the Illinois House of Representatives. It is also the site of Cozy Dog Drive In, touted as “the birthplace of hot dog on a stick.” So it is fitting that Butler Elementary School, located on historic Route 66 and five minutes from a park on the National Register of Historic Places, ended up with a packet of Dickinson pumpkin seeds. No one envisioned how these humble seeds would connect and engage the entire school with a long-forgotten history.
A Shaky Start
The story begins in 2014, when a store manager at Springfield Hy-Vee—an employee-owned Midwestern grocery store chain—reached out to Butler’s principal, Tracy Gage, to encourage her to apply for a grant to start a school garden. Gage turned to Alana Reynolds, a parent who had volunteered to help on any landscaping or beautification projects. Once they received the $750 grant, Reynolds paired up with Lynn McMenamin, a retired teacher, and they started directing a small group of volunteers to install 16 three-square-foot plots on the playground.
The garden had a shaky start. Each Butler class was invited to help plant heirloom seeds, but so many children gardening at the same time was overwhelming. Some teachers were resistant to the project and worried about their students getting messy. Principal Gage also worried that students would run through the beds. Then how would they maintain the plots over the summer? It fell to volunteers to maintain the beds when school was out of session. The future stability of the garden was uncertain and Reynolds and McMenamin wondered how to move forward.
When the kids left for summer break, the beds were placid and uniform. But when they returned in August, the garden was completely transformed into a colorful and vibrant space. That was the moment that the program gained momentum.
“They saw the garden and were like ‘what is that?’,” says Principal Gage. “Some of them had never seen a cucumber or tomato before, and they were excited. That’s when I knew we were on to something good.”
The principal suggested that an after-school club might help. Forty students signed up for the weekly club and they covered all things garden: the purpose of compost, the installation of rain barrels to collect water, and the stories associated with heirloom varieties. Most students had never experienced gardening before.
“We grew an heirloom butter crunch lettuce that they planted by seed, harvested, and then rinsed and tore up into a salad,” Reynolds says. “When parents picked their kids up and saw them eating from the garden, they were shocked. The kids were trying new things and that was encouraging.”
It was this enthusiasm that convinced administrators to keep working. The joy of gardening spread to the adults too, including McMenamin, who got a kick out of watching growth over the seasons and picked up seed saving skills from Reynolds.
“I’m your basic Midwestern baby boomer,” she says. “My parents farmed. My grandparents did also, but I grew up in town. We didn’t garden that much, so it was new to me. Alana taught me that you could let the green beans dry on the vine and save those pods and harvest the seeds. I had no idea about any of that. I’m learning as much as the kids. It’s very exciting.”
Grow and Nominate
In early 2016, Slow Food USA hosted a webinar to talk about the “grow and nominate” project, which invites classes to become biodiversity champions by growing endangered foods and writing a nomination for the Ark of Taste. Slow Food would match a school to a variety in the Seed Savers Exchange collection that has a history in the school’s region and is a good candidate for the Ark of Taste.
Reynolds joined the webinar and saw the potential for collaboration. She connected with Sara Straate, seed historian at Seed Savers Exchange, who searched their seed bank and found a variety whose early history was tied to Eureka, just north of Springfield: the Dickinson pumpkin.
Pumpkin Capital of the World
Though the origins of the squash are murky, it is thought that Elijah Dickinson brought the seeds to Eureka from Kentucky in 1835. About 60 years later, Roger Dickinson and his two sons acquired Eureka’s first canning factory. They started producing canned pumpkin and featured the Dickinson. As the company grew, they added factories — one in Washington, Illinois in 1909, and one in Morton, Illinois in 1925. They sold their holdings to Libby, McNeil and Libby Cannery in 1929, which was then purchased by Nestlé in the 1970s.
The Dickinson pumpkin could be considered the most widely grown heirloom in existence, but there is an important distinction between the canned pumpkin you eat at Thanksgiving and the Dickinson seeds that were sent to Reynolds. Libby’s now uses a proprietary hybrid strain—Libby’s Select—bred from the original line of Dickinson seeds. Farmers around Morton grow over 80% of the pumpkins in North America using Libby’s Select. The organic, non-GMO strain has been supplanted in large-scale commercial production.
Eureka was the first town to claim the mantle of “Pumpkin Capital of the World,” and held an annual festival from 1939-1962 that featured activities including a parade, the production of thousands of personal-sized pumpkin pies, and a contest to anoint an annual pumpkin queen. The festival was a point of celebration and pride for many years and peaked in attendance at around 100,000 people. When Libby’s moved its plant to Morton in 1960, the festival went with it.
People from Eureka mourn the loss of both the plant and the festival, and still have many fond memories. With this history in mind, Reynolds showed the school’s new Dickinson pumpkin seeds to McMenamin, and her mouth dropped open.
“Eureka is my home town,” McMenamin says. “In the 1950s, Libby’s was going strong in Eureka. My mother worked seasonally helping to run the front office. We went to the Pumpkin Festival—the parade, the rides, the cooking contest. The festival was the highlight of our year.”
Soon, a pen-pal program between Butler 5th graders and retirement residents of Apostolic Christian Home in Eureka made more connections. One respondent told Butler’s Mahleek Joy about working for Robert Dickinson on secretarial and financial tasks in his office. Another resident wrote to 5th grader Kurt Santagrose about saving the Dickinson seed from year to year and selling it after harvest. Citizens of Eureka miss the factory’s presence to this day.
Into the Classroom
With seeds in hand in May 2016, the Butler garden club built a three sisters garden by combining the Dickinson pumpkin seeds with corn and beans. Reynolds and McMenamin turned their focus to getting the garden into the school’s curriculum for the coming fall.
“Once the teachers saw how much fun the kids were having we knew they would want to get us into the classroom,” McMenamin says.
They teamed up to create garden-based lesson plans for subjects like history and science and worked to give teachers additional resources to use the garden as a teaching tool. Yet, Principal Gage still had reservations.
“I have to admit that I was nervous and slightly stressed at how the garden fit into the curriculum,” she says. “At school there is always so much you put into a day, from the time you get here to the time that you leave. But I see the advantages that my family has had from gardening and I really want to impact the kids here. There is a huge difference between fast food and slow food.”
The lesson plans fit with the science standards, and both teachers and students are enthusiastically embracing the garden—and the Dickinson—in their school days. Teachers are taking initiative to add to it when possible.
Now there are many plans for the Butler Elementary School garden program. When interviewing students in the fifth grade classes, they burst at the seams with knowledge and opinions about how cool the Dickinson pumpkin is. They have roasted and compared it to other pumpkins, researched the importance of plants to our survival, and even voted on recipes that they’d like to try with the Dickinson, like muffins.
What started as a small endeavor to implement a grant has blossomed into a vibrant ever-expanding program guided by volunteers, teachers and administrators who embrace a holistic approach to the project. The next step is for the school to submit an Ark of Taste nomination for the Dickinson pumpkin, adding all of their work to a catalog that celebrates the diversity and deliciousness of our food system.
Jennifer Breckner is a writer, educator, event producer and public speaker. She specializes in food, beer, art and culture, combining art history with her passion as an enthusiastic eater and sustainable food advocate. She has been a Slow Food leader for nearly a decade and currently serves as chair of the Midwest Ark of Taste committee. Follow her on Instagram @jenniferbreckner.
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