Putting Your Civic House in Order: How the Young Members of the Family Help

Screen Shot 2017-07-07 at 9.51.39 AMToday, in its entirety, Root Simple brings you an article on a school garden program in Los Angeles by writer and German literature translator Mary Richards Gray from the June 1916 issue of The Craftsman. Some context: Los Angeles has always been a little ‘rough around the edges.’ LA was also, in the early 20th century, the wealthiest agricultural county in the US, producing high-value crops such as citrus and walnuts. This particular attempt to get LA’s “civic house in order” recalls the strategy of 4-H clubs: Adults are set in their ways so you’ve got to get to the kids to make change happen. Work your way through the rambling early 20th century prose and you’ll find some solid advice we could really use to get our present day civic house in order. You can read all of the 1916 Craftsman issues for free in Google Books.

by Mary Richards Gray
The desire for beauty, health, order is inherent in mankind, is among the deepest and most powerful forces in life. Man’s first consciousness of these desires is operative only within the narrow confines of his own personality. Then, as he grows wiser, he wishes beauty, health and happiness for his family, then for his neighbor, his city, country, until finally he is eager for the joy and the advancement of the whole world. He no longer thinks that his interests are confined only within himself, he knows that the boundary of his life extends until it touches the uttermost ends of the world. He feels that his home is the world, not just merely the corner lot in a small town upon which he has built a house. He understands that as he makes his own lot more beautiful he has increased the beauty of the world, that every improvement he makes in his own house is made for his community as well, that it is virtually impossible for him to work for himself alone, that he rises or falls with his neighbors, with his countrymen.

This larger, pleasanter, truer outlook on life has recently been reached in most interesting manner by the citizens, old and young, of Los Angeles through a widespread civic housekeeping siege. Even the children now understand that as they clean up their small corner of their yard and make flowers to blossom where weeds once bristled, they help clean up the city and become true gardeners. If every child in a town and every town in the country followed the Los Angeles plan of campaign for a more beautiful and healthful city would be the beauty spot of the world.

Prize winning school garden planted by students of the Laurel School, Los Angeles, showing the little gardeners at work and deep in a discussion of crop reports.

Prize winning school garden planted by students of the Laurel School, Los Angeles, showing the little gardeners at work and deep in a discussion of crop reports.

The putting in order of Los Angeles civic house began nineteen hundred and fifteen the cordial invitation went out to the whole world to visit California. A committee was formed whose duties were to superintend garden planning. They knew that their city had a wonderful location in the midst of a fertile plain extending from the mountains to the sea; that nestled in the foothills and scattered along the dunes to the sea were many small municipalities connected with hundreds of miles of good roads, winding in between waving fields of grain, truck gardens, orchards fruits, walnuts, plums, peaches and figs; that its schools we unexcelled and that the interest of the people in agriculture was intense yet that unsightly waste places and a woeful lack of finish and formity marred this natural beauty and showed that the best use was not being made by man of the lavish gifts of Nature to awaken people to a greater appreciation of the beauty running riot all about them, how to arouse them from an easy tole unkempt surroundings, how to interest them in creating a more perfect city was a problem to be met.

After much debating the committee decided to link civic improvement work with regular school instruction in agriculture for the reason that more people could be reached through their children in the schools than in any other way, and conduct
contest on as large a scale as possible. This general idea expanded into final form, resulted in the division of city and county schools, women’s clubs, and municipalities into six classes with an offer of cash prizes contributed by public minded citizens and placed at the disposal of the committee.

Once the project was settled upon the matter was turned over to sub-committees and the schools. Seven landscape gardeners were secured and the Department of Agriculture of the public schools was increased by assigning fifty-five teachers to part time work to assist the twenty-two regular teachers of gardening. A new feature-that of supervised home gardens–was added. This arrangement gave children not under school garden instruction an equal chance with those who were.

Screen Shot 2017-07-07 at 9.52.20 AMThe committee furnished the rules, prepared and supplied manuals, gave score cards, lists of plants, planting calendars, cultural directions, etc., helped with the planning of all gardens, handled and furnished plants and seeds for a nominal price, took charge of all records, did the supervising, scoring, judging and distributing of all moneys. “Continuation” teachers managed the home gardens after school hours. Their schedule called for visits to six different gardens daily between the hours of three and five. At each they gathered in as many children, parents and neighbors as possible, dis-
cussed problems, advised, instructed and worked up enthusiasm. They reported these home projects, their reports being supplemented by those of the supervisors of the department as well as of the committee. The score card used shows a clever method of bringing in many interests. Here is a copy of it:

One, photographs sent to the office; two, plans, diaries, drawings sent to the office; three, effort, general interest, intelligence shown by pupils in their work; four, neatness and freedom from weeds; five, general beauty and harmony; six, thriftiness, quality and utility; seven, growing condition of soil, irrigation and cultivation, one hundred points each; eight, results obtained in the garden, environment and improvement considered; nine, general beauty, neatness, quality, and the whole premises surrounding the home, one hundred and fifty points each-total one thousand points.

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Beauty created in a vacant lot by four little girls who are growing wise in the practical lore of making flowers bloom where weeds once flourished: Their efforts won a prize in the Los Angeles campaign for civic beauty.

Officially the Los Angeles City and County Improvement Contest began with Planting Day in September, nineteen hundred and fourteen. However, in the city during the fall and winter of nineteen hundred and thirteen and fourteen the schools had organized the Garden Soldier Movement for the purpose of getting children interested in home gardening, and had done much work rooting rose slips for school and home gardens. One nursery alone had furnished one hundred thousand choice potted roses for home use that were sold through the schools for a nominal price. In the county schools
in some places the organization of school gardens antedated the work in the city. In both city and county the curricula called for regular instruction in agriculture. After Planting Day came Clean-up Day on December thirty-first with the slogan, “Start nineteen hundred and fifteen right !”

One hundred and twenty city and two hundred and sixty-eight county schools with approximately one hundred thousand pupils, fifteen thousand home gardeners, twenty-four women’s clubs, and seven or eight municipalities entered the contest. Soon it was found impractical to put on a large enough supervising force to manage home gardening in the country, consequently between six and seven thousand contestants withdrew, only eight thousand three hundred and eighty-eight remaining in until the close. Many schools and many homes that did not directly enter the contest nevertheless enthusiastically entered into the spirit of the civic reform and helped in a practical way to create a well ordered and beautiful city, one in which they could take a personal and just pride.

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Home garden in the crowded part of Los Angeles city showing flowers blooming where once tin cans obstructed the ground: Roses cover an unsightly shed and clove pinks line the walks.

From all classes of people there came an immediate and gratifying response. Everybody understood what was being attempted because the newspapers gave their support by devoting much space to the subject. Every one became interested in growing things, Fathers and mothers worked with the children in the effort to make the home more beautiful. For the sake of the children, disorderly backyards, unsightly hencoops, sagging fences came down and new buildings, fences, pergolas, arbors, cement curbings and walks appeared in their places. Everybody encouraged the owners of vacant property to take care of it; everybody dropped seeds in waste places in an effort to cover unsightly places with a growth of some sort. With interest roused the leaders had little difficulty in furthering the movement for beauty, though it took an enormous amount of energy and enthusiasm to keep the contest going for a whole year. It is estimated that at least two hundred thousand dollars were expended on small improvements. Seedsmen say they never had such a volume of business and that in the city alone two hundred and eleven thousand people had gardens. Directly or indirectly every one was affected. Through all the contest stress was laid upon the fact that the contestants were not competing against each other, but striving to attain their ideals of home or civic beauty. The nineteen hundred and fifteen committee justified their expenditure of about thirty-six thousand dollars by giving to their work as perma.
nent a character as possible.

The first big general result of the civic improvement contest is a lovely city, in the midst of a garden stretching from the mountains to the sea, with beautiful school grounds, attractive club houses, neat, trim, well-kept homes with lawns, vegetable and flower gardens, clean vacant lots, and flowers, wild and cultivated, everywhere in greatest profusion. But of even greater value than these physical things are the effects upon the individuals who wrought the change–the teachers, children and parents–and the community at large.

To the teachers the contest gave an opportunity for carrying gardening instruction into the homes in districts where school gardens have not as yet been organized, as well as for putting into immediate practice the lessons given as part of school routine. Moreover, it proved a way of solving, in part at least, the educational problem of directing children to educate themselves.

The children’s part in making Los Angeles more beautiful was a business experience as well as a sane, healthful and inexpensive means of recreation. In any number of cases the parents, merely to emphasize the idea of business, bought produce from their children, while in other cases the neighbors, friends and local shopkeepers took surplus stock. One ten-year-old boy put in an acre of garden truck on vacant lots, hired boys to help him and marketed the produce, realizing well on his venture.

It developed respect for property and civic responsibility: a most unexpected exemplification of this came one day when the writer took three “bad boys,” aged respectively nine, ten and eleven, to a picnic. The way led through a part of the city in which there are beautiful gardens and parkways. Not a flower did the boys pick, not a blade of grass did they trample down. While walking along they discussed plants and plant culture after the fashion of old farmers, naming incidentally perhaps two dozen trees, shrubs and flowers. Accidentally one boy struck his foot against some lovely purple iris, half uprooting it. He turned, put the plant in place, pinched the soil up well around it and ran on as if it were nothing at all.

In tilling the soil many a child “found himself.” In one school there was an Italian boy who just naturally could not help fighting. Though punished, he had a fight almost daily. All of a sudden he got interested in the work in agriculture and asked for a garden of his own. All the good land having been apportioned he was given part of a dump heap in a mean corner of a vacant lot just being put under cultivation. After a little the principal missed him–or rather missed reports of fights on the playground–and looked around for him. To his surprise he found him with a wheelbarrow laboriously hauling soil and fertilizer to his forlorn corner patch. Toni turned “good” and through interest in gardening got interested in other phases of school work. With him, as with all children, mastery of the soil proved mastery of self.

The movement showed parents how the work of children can be made the means of contributing to the family income,
thus making it possible for them to stay in school longer. In one district two inexperienced young boys in their very first garden venture raised so much produce that they supplied the table for a family of seven for a whole year and had a good deal to sell besides. It proved the practical value of instruction in agriculture, brought about a better appreciation of it and incidentally of all school work. It gave children an absorbing home interest and created in them a desire for a beautiful home.

For the larger family, the community, the gardening contest proved the dominant factor in city improvement work of the year. To be sure, the community went ahead with the regular improvements arranged for. To these projects the efforts spent on the individual homes and waste places gave the needed finish–the final touch of beauty.

The use of non-producing land increased the community wealth. The removal of disease-breeding dump heaps and the cleaning of backyards improved hygienic conditions and therefore lessened the work of the health department. It is impossible to estimate the far-reaching beneficent effects of this civic housecleaning and garden-making campaign.

The general conclusions arrived at by the committee are: that the chief lesson of the garden-paying for things through
work-is within the understanding of even young children. A contestant, a girl of thirteen who had had three years of instruction in a school garden, when asked what she was going to put in her home garden replied: “Well, my father is out
of work, so I shall have to buy the very cheapest seeds, but that does not matter. If they are the best of their kind and I work, cultivate and irrigate well, I can have a good garden.” She won a prize, which incidentally now adorns her pretty
head in the form of a stylish new winter hat. Why not? She paid for it with her hoe and watering pot; that contests of some sort should be carried on each year to teach the special culture of such plants as peppers, tomatoes, corn, etc. ; that the organizing of garden clubs, rabbit clubs, poultry clubs, and so, on, should be encouraged and that exhibits should be arranged from time to time at the stores of local merchants, in the parks, or suitable places; that all possible aid should be
secured from parent and teacher associations, civic and improvement associations; that children should be credited at school for supervised home activities: that more attention should be given the teaching of agriculture in the intermediate schools for the purpose of unifying home and community interests with those of the school; that throughout the entire country agriculture should be made a regular part of the curriculum of every school system.


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  1. Wonderful! I was a 4-H leader when my son was in 4-H. Our club members learned responsibility and confidence beyond their years.
    When driving past some elementary schools, I have seen what appear to be raised bed gardens. All students should have the opportunity to have positive experiences, such as those discussed in this article.

  2. Thanks for bringing this fascinating old article to life, Erik and for the link to The Craftsmen. This article is almost a blueprint of resources, staff, criteria to include in such a program. It could easily translocate to modern cities the world over. Imagine!

  3. I wish we could know what happened to Toni, the boy who stopped fighting and started gardening. Did he live a long and happy life as a result?

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