Thursday, January 25, 2018

Saving the Community Gardens

by Mary Wallis Gutmann (was Whiting in 1968)

 I’m not very Web-savvy, but every now and then someone who is calls to say, “Mary, listen to what I read on Facebook. . ."  This time it was my son, Paul, reporting that Wendy Waczek was writing about the [Zinsser] gardens.  So thank you, Wendy – your post made me remember with pleasure all your 4-H kids and working to save the Zinsser Gardens. -Mary Wallis Gutmann

Arthur Langmuir's 1933 photo showing  the site of 
World War I and II Victory Gardens.
Owned by Colonel Frederick Zinsser.

We [The Whiting Family] moved to an apartment in Hastings in 1968 and got to know the village. Paul and I were walking on the Old Croton Aqueduct and paused to look down into a low-gardened area. We were puzzled. Who owns this space? I thought. Along came another walker, who introduced himself as Charlie Callison. He was, I learned later, Vice President of the Audubon Society and an expert at saving land. “Are those community gardens?” I asked him. 

“Sort of,” Charlie said. “That garden belonged to the Zinsser family. The village bought it and the land next to it,” pointing above at a larger area along the Aqueduct. “The gardens have been here since the Zinsser Chemical Company decided to give their workers garden plots years ago. During the war they were Victory Gardens. Hastings had many Russian escapees [refugees]. They mostly grew cabbages, onions and tomatoes. Some still do,” he said, pointing out rows of neatly lined up plantings with onion tops tramped over in classic fashion.

 “What about the gardens now?” I asked. They seemed only partly used.

“The gardens now may be lost, ploughed under a grassy lawn,” Charlie answered. I winced.

“You’d better join our group. We call ourselves, the Nature Program Committee."

“What programs do you do?” I asked.

Charlie said, “Come to the next meeting and see.” A neighbor, Carol Ettlinger, was also a member of the group. The members were all concerned about the possible loss of the gardens. 

Charlie announced: “Here’s what we need to do. We’ll keep this low-key. First, we need a name. 'Zinsser Gardens' is one the Historical Society likes and it has been used for a long time. Next, we have to get more gardeners. Unfortunately it’s barely used: I’d say 20% tilled is a generous number; the rest is left to weeds and marsh. Mr. Ruggero has had a garden down there for years and we could get Pat Dugan, Director of Parks and Recreation, to assign him more space – Mrs. Ravinsky and other gardeners, too. We need a 4-H Club. Carol and Mary, you’ve got young kids, how about it?”

We had no choice but to nod.

“Now we need more activities there. Mary, how about if you do a watercolor rendering of the area?” Charlie spread his arms wide to indicate the size. His ideas were beginning to sound like work. “Pretend you’re in a helicopter. Your drawing should show the Aqueduct and all the way out to Broadway, including the parking lot. Now, sketch in garden spots. You’ll have to make them up, of course. Pretend there are about 20. Include the grassy area between the gardens and the parking lot, the space with the two magnificent oaks. Sketch in a bocce court and a climbing play place made of logs for the kids.”

“But who will play bocce?” someone said. I had never heard of bocce.

“We’re not making either of those, it just shows that we could. No promises – we’re creating interest and possible uses, and a story in the local newspaper,” Charlie smiled broadly at everyone.

We went to the next Village Board meeting armed with the sketch. I discovered that Mayor Sheldon Wagner [Mayor of Hastings-on-Hudson from 1961–75] had long ago dubbed us ‘the Nature Nuts.’ We could tell the Board was counting heads. We were more than 15 voters, joined by others who had come with different petitions or just because Sheldon’s meetings were often entertaining. Everyone sided with us. Since the board remembered an election where the Mayor had won by 29 votes, they took our numbers seriously. So did Sheldon.

Charlie made a little speech in which he called the gardens “a long tradition in Hastings” and said how the children would benefit from the educational aspects of the 4-H program (he didn’t mention that it did not yet exist). He went on to talk about the expert, long-term gardeners who worked there – Mr. Ruggero and Mrs. Ravinsky, for example – and the benefit gardening was to families and all ages learning together. By the time he finished, he had Board members calling the garden a tradition and we could see we’d won.

4-H Club:
Dawn Taylor tending her garden c.1974
We never put in the bocce court, but somebody assembled logs for a sort-of playground that is probably now humus. Carol and I liked the idea of a 4-H Club. Both our daughters were more or less enthusiastic and both sons not wild about it, but they all did some work every now and then. At the end of the first summer, we piled the kids in Carol’s big station wagon to take part in the Yorktown Heights Grange Fair. Our kids won prizes; Wendy Waczek remembers hers with delight and Paul won for the biggest tomato. 

Another of Charlie’s promotional ideas for the garden was to have our own 'Country Fair.' Pat Dugan liked the idea. He and I worked with different groups to set up a day at Zinsser Park with a pony ride in the upper field, a baby pig from the Andrus Children’s Home on display, and produce from the gardens. There was a cake, pie, bread baking, and corn-husking contest, and tables of fund-raising items for the local non-profits. The piglet got away, creating some delighted excitement.

Six women examining the preserve table a the Country Fair on September 15,1979. The fair was part of Hastings Centennial, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the incorporation of the village. From the Left: 2nd is Mary Callas, the former Village Clerk, Polly Carpenter, Carolyn Armour, Emmy Crosby, flatly on the right, Blanche Marchetti, the original owner  of Food for Thought.

After it was over, I said to Pat, “I am exhausted. How can we manage that again next year?” 

He said, “We won’t. We’ll hold it every other year.”

“Every other year? But they’ll be hounding us, some told me they’re already planning their part in next year’s.” 

Pat grinned, “We’ll tell them, when they ask what happened to the fair, that they missed it. They won’t know the difference.” 

No one caught on. We had six or seven fairs over 12 or 14 years. (to read more on the fairs Pat really understood people; that’s how he survived in a demanding little village. He used to say under his breath, no matter how mad they were at him for something he would or wouldn’t do, “Keep those cards and letters coming. . .” And they did.

Three girls, one in a Girl Scout uniform, 
standing in front of the sheep pen at the Country Fair. 
One of the events of fair was a sheep shearing exhibition. 
Do you recognize any of the girls? Let us know!

We all played a part in saving the gardens: Charlie Callison, Carol Ettlinger, Pat Dugan, Betty Waczek, other committee members, and me. One of the things I loved was the slightly ragged look of the area. This remained as more gardeners moved in. Some fenced their garden with chicken wire that sagged in places; others with cast-off pickets found at the dump. Mrs. Ravinsky had wooden boxes to hold her tillers and her planted rows were perfectly straight, while other gardeners gave up after spring harvest, and let their spot go to weeds and wildflowers.  It was a good place to hang out when the kids were playing ball in the upper field and to talk with other gardeners. 

Mrs. Ravinsky showing her garden to her great grandson Patrick. c.1975

Everyone loved to pass on seeds and advice, and whatever kind of garden keeper you were didn’t matter – a bit seedy or pristine, all were okay. I hear all the garden plots are fully tilled now and that’s great.


Other write-ups on the Zinsser Gardens: 

County's Landless Farmers Cultivate Community Gardens
Published: July 22, 1990

A New Garden Pest: Pilferers in the Produce
July 26, 1992

In Community Plots, the Gardening Is Organic
August 16, 1992

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