Raising vegetables in gardens was not an easy task on the dry plains of western Kansas. Gardens at Fort Larned were abundantly successful some years, but failed miserably other years. Failure usually wasn't the result of poor care. The gardens were cared for with the best of intentions, but growing conditions on the high plains of Kansas were challenging. Just like modern gardeners, the 19th century gardeners of Fort Larned became weather watchers concerned with drought, flood, hail or hot winds. They also agonized over grasshoppers and worms ruining their gardens.
Unlike moderner gardeners who simply turn on a hose to water their gardens, gardeners at Fort Larned physically exhausted all energy making sure their plants were adequately watered. Imagine how tiring it would be to make numerous trips to and from the river to fill buckets. During a drought it was especially difficult to keep the plants alive.
The Assistant Surgeons were the fort historians and kept detailed records of the garden activity. A company commander took charge of assigning a post gardener from the pool of enlisted men. The goal was to improve the overall diet of the soldiers by supplementing the food supply with nutrition and variety. The surgeon had a keen interest in this endeavor, but the enlisted men were the labor, battling the heat, insects and lack of rain to get their prize of fresh vegetables at the end of the season.
“Private James Wainhoff Co. ‘D’ 3rd Infantry is hereby relieved from daily duty as post gardener, will report to his Company Commander for duty.” —Special Order #112, Fort Larned, August 9, 1867
Private Wainhoff may have been elated to be relieved from this assignment. Usually the gardens were tended to after work hours at the fort. There were no mechanical assistance with this chore. The tools of the trade were shovel, rake, and hoe. Good old fashioned elbow grease was essential to keeping the gardens healthy. The gardens represented the soldier’s hopes and efforts to thrive.
A Struggle With the Elements
In April 1869 Assistant Surgeon Forwood reported that gardening efforts had not been very successful at Fort Larned up to that point. The challenges to gardening that he points out in the following quote are all familiar to modern gardeners in this part of Kansas - the hot dry weather and sometimes violent thunderstorms made gardening difficult.
“An estimate has been forwarded from this post by direction of the Department commander for garden utensils & such for a post garden. The experiment of gardening has been tried here every spring since 1859 and has proved a total failure in every instance. Garden vegetables can not successfully be raised here anymore than they can in the desert of the Sahara. Early in April even in March the grass begins to spring up in the low places along the streams. Peas, beans, corn, & raddish [sic] planted in May come up rapidly and by the first of June present a most promising appearance. The June rains now come once in three or four days; short & violent gusts in which the young plants are each time nearly drowned. A little later these storms are preceded by a shower of large hail which often covers the ground. But now in the early part of July the rains cease and the few plants that are left receive their final death blow from the hot south west winds and parching sun which extract the moisture and green color from every leaf even of the hardy natural grasses and turn the prairie brown. In every direction and by the end of July the light of prairie fires skim the horizon every evening. To guard the young plants against the flood of June, high ground might be selected and irrigation resorted to when the rains cease, but no system of irrigation beyond that of hauling or carrying water from the creek could be practiced here & with the present garrison it would not be practicable to cultivate more than a very small piece of ground, not sufficient to supply the companies with more than a taste of vegetables. The bed of the creek is thirty feet below the average level of prairie and excepting at the spring flood the water is always very clean and low. The face of the bed of the creek is probably not more than ½ inch to the foot. The work therefore of irrigating by means of a drain and ditch would under the circumstances with their other duties be beyond the capacity of the men that usually garrison the post.” —Assistant Surgeon W.H. Forwood, April 1869
“Owing to repeated failures of previous years, no garden was attempted during 1869. The causes of want of success are deficient rains, intense heat, poor soil, grasshoppers, and hailstorms.” —Assistant Surgeon W. H. Forwood; Assistant Surgeon A. A. Woodhull Surgeon General’s Office “A Report on Barracks and Hospitals with Descriptions of Military Posts.” Circular No. 4. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1870.
Despite Dr. Forwood's gloomy forecast, there were some successful gardens in the years following his report. For a time the men’s diets were improved by adding vegetables to their salt beef dinners.
Any modern gardener knows that finding the right spot for your garden is very important. In 1870 Post Surgeon A.A. Woodhull described the areas selected by the different companies for their gardens. This year also seems to be the turning point for company gardens at Fort Larned. Reports by Dr. Woodhull and the post surgeons who came after him tell of successful company gardens and the happy results of adding fresh vegetables to the men's diets.
“Co. ‘C’ selected a piece of prairie on the left bank of the creek directly opposite the hospital, surrounded it with a sod wall and inserted a pump so as to irrigate it from the creek. … The sod was … thoroughly broken up but nothing was planted during the month. Co’s ‘D’ & ‘K’ took ground on the right bank—what is known as ‘the Island’ and enclosed it with a nice wooden fence. A part of this ground has been appropriated for the hospital. There Co’s began planting a few vegetables this month.” —Assistant Surgeon A. A. Woodhull, June 1870
The location we chose for our historic garden is behind the North Officers' Quarters. Not only does it allow us to talk about other people at the fort like officers and their families who would have planted gardens, but it's easily accessible to the public.
After a good start to the gardens in 1870, Dr. Woodhull did report some problems. Overall though, it seems that the men enjoyed success with their gardens this year.
“The gardens yielded radishes, lettuce, and onions … and peas, beans, cabbages, & onions … began to grow well.” —Assistant Surgeon A. A. Woodhull, June 1870
“The experience of this year fully demonstrates that gardens may be cultivated at Fort Larned with results sufficient to warrant the labor.”
—Assistant Surgeon A. A. Woodhull, June 1870
The success of any garden depends not only on the weather, but also the care and attention that the gardeners give them. Dr. Woodhull implies that it wasn't just insects and weather that caused the post gardens to decline at the end of the growing season in 1870 - he seems to think the gardeners did not give them the attention they needed to be fully successful.
“The ravages of a worm and a bug that appeared toward the end of June continued and completely destroyed the lettuce and beet leaves in the garden and did some mischief to the other plants. Beans and turnips however were gathered and with adequate care the gardens might have been made much more productive.” —Assistant Surgeon A. A. Woodhull, July 1870
Our gardeners tend the modern post garden with great care. Ranger Ellen Jones takes care of some early season plants.
The post gardeners also met with success in 1871 and 1872. The anticipation began early in the year in 1871 when the post surgeon helped the men tear down the old adobe hospital and use the site to plant spinach.
“A great step forward was taken February 17 when an order arrived from Department Headquarters, authorizing (Fort) Larned to convert the northwestern barracks into a hospital. Surgeon James Laing gleefully joined soldiers in ripping down the decaying adobe building, leveling the ground and planting it to spinach. Laing remarked that the place for once had a more respectable appearance.” —Fort Larned, Camp on the Pawnee, by Everett M. Brown, 1964
“The company gardens are looking very well and if the weather continues favorable will yield a good supply of fresh vegetables.” —Acting Assistant Surgeon J. H. Collins, June 1872
Not all the company commanders thought the men's work on the company gardens was appropriate. The need for fresh vegetables became less urgent once the Atcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe Rail Road was completed in 1872. After that it was possible to get fresh food shipped in by rail, making post gardens unnecessary, at least in Capt. Synder's estimation.
“…The Company has already expended considerable money and labor upon the garden, and the vegetables can be delivered to the Company from day to day by rail at little or no expense.” —Capt. S. Snyder; letter to Assistant Adjutant General, Department of the Missouri, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas (regarding move of Capt. Snyder's company from Fort Larned to Fort Dodge), April 1873
Gardeners past and present are always excited to see the plants sprout after planting. It's a promise of good things to come.
“The gardens plowed and hot beds made and planted.” —Acting Assistant Surgeon J. H. Collins, June 1872
“Gardens just sprouting.” —Assistant Surgeon, S.G. Cowdrey, May 1873
“The gardens yielded a good supply of radishes, lettuce, onions & spinach, some green peas, beans, & corn. The ‘Colorado bug’ destroyed the late spinach and the beets. The grasshoppers are eating the cabbage and turnips; there seems to be no remedy for these ravages. Tomato vines are very promising and so are all vines, cucumbers, melons, and squash.” —Assistant Surgeon, S.G. Cowdrey, June/July 1873
“The gardens dried up so much that nothing was obtained from them after August 1st except a few small tomatoes." —Assistant Surgeon S. G. Cowdrey, August 1873
Just like the post gardens of the active fort period, the pickings start to get slim as the summer wanes. Although there are still plenty of corn and beans to harvest its obvious the garden is winding down for the year.
“The spring opened early. Garden ploughed and planted. The officers longest at the post thinking to make sure of a crop; planted a great many onions; using the sets; with what result will be seen by and by.” —Assistant Surgeon S. G. Cowdrey, April 1874
“The gardens used were the same as last year from which a good many early vegetables were obtained in 73. The gardens near the old corral were planted by Co’s. ‘C’ & ‘F’, the gardens across the creek from the laundress’ quarters was used by Company ‘E’ and this hospital. All gardens were covered by rich loamy mulch from walls and refuse of old corral before ploughing.”
—Assistant Surgeon S. G. Cowdrey, May 1874
“The seeds have come up well in the garden and promise a good crop, especially onions – a great deal of corn has been planted in the county. Hot beds have furnished plenty of lettuce and radishes and the gardens of young beets and spinach.” —Assistant Surgeon S. G. Cowdrey, May 1874
The key to a successful garden is consistency. One problem the military gardeners had was that members of a company might have differing levels of enthusiasm for gardening. They could also be transferred at any time so that, as Assistant Surgeon Crowdey points out, the gardeners could change in the middle of the season.
“The crops looked very flourishing till the recent drought. The corn in the county on low land flourishes. The garden suffers from the dry weather. The hospital garden did not flourish very well, partly from inefficiency of gardeners and a change of gardeners during planting season.” —Assistant Surgeon S. G. Cowdrey, August 1874
“About Aug. 15th the grasshoppers came and destroyed everything left in the gardens eating even the onion tops. All the corn and vegetables in this county and several counties east were destroyed by the swarms of grasshoppers—small grains—oats, wheat, etc. escaped their ravages.” —Assistant Surgeon S. G. Cowdrey, August 1874
We haven't had the trouble with insects that the original post gardeners did, probably because area farmers keep the pest populations down in the fields around us. One problem we do have is with animals. Rabbits, deer and raccoons all seem to think our garden is there for them.
Although the railroad ensured a good supply of fresh food after 1872, the officers and men at Fort Larned continued to plant company gardens. The post closed in the summer of 1878 so the last report we have about post gardens is from 1877. By this time the area around the fort was being settled and farmed, leading Dr. Atkins to make a very accurate predition about farming in the area.
“The gardens are very promising, an abundant supply of vegetables may be looked for with certainty.” —Acting Assistant Surgeon F. H. Atkins, May 1877
“A pretty fair supply of vegetables have been obtained from the gardens this season and gardening has been a decided success. There is no doubt but that the soil in this locality is very rich and that good farming will be successfully carried on.” —Assistant Surgeon W. E. Whitehead, August 1877
We usually have an abundant harvest each summer from our garden and we share that bounty with our visitors. Look for some free samples from the Fort Larned Historic Garden the next time you come to visit.
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