By Kathy Kullberg
With summer here and most of us itching to get rid of cabin fever, some of our residents are able to get their hands dirty and create green space with visions of ripe tomatoes, peppers, and lettuces dancing in their dreams. They will plant a Victory Garden. When the world achieves a victory over COVID-19 -- what a sweet taste that victory would also be.
Victory gardens, however, are nothing new. With the world at war in the 1940s and all manufactured goods dedicated to the war effort, factories and farms were put on high alert to deliver their production for the boys overseas. Gasoline, electricity, and food were in short supply at home and oftentimes rationed. This made it imperative for those at home to plant and share what they could with family, friends, and neighbors.
Going further back in time in our city, the first Great War forced additional sacrifices. The Victory Garden was officially born as a result of severe shortages during this war and exacerbated during the flu pandemic of 1918. Families were challenged to grow produce for themselves and others. Many raised chickens for eggs and meat in backyards.
One of our own Wedge women became the face of the original Victory Garden project through the public school system. In the late nineteenth century, while school gardens as a medium of education were a very old idea throughout Europe, in America, the idea of gardens as a vehicle of dispensing knowledge and food never took hold. At least not until a Minneapolis school principal, Mary Delia LaRue, formulated a project for the Pierce school located at Fillmore Avenue and Broadway.
LaRue led the way, beginning in 1899, for Minneapolis schools to cultivate gardens for the purpose of teaching the principles of horticulture. Beyond that goal, the children learned about the interdependence of man, plants, insects, and birds in the cycle of life. The program was so successful that soon the school board expanded the project throughout the district. This garden model concept, developed by LaRue, soon spread throughout the United States. But the Pierce School became the first in the country to claim recognition for the program. By 1910, the Minneapolis schools project was going strong, with Mrs. LaRue still at the helm. It continued to serve as a model for school and homegrown gardens throughout WWI as well.
Mary LaRue was recognized not only for her gardening achievements throughout her lifetime. Foremost an educator, she also founded and served as President of the Society of Citizenship, an organization that taught the principles of good government and patriotism to native and foreign-born groups. She took an active part in the Americanization work of women’s clubs, churches, and schools. Up until her death in 1942, she lectured throughout the country, sharing her love of the land and her values for education.
When she lived in Lowry Hill East, her home was shared with her daughters at 2710-16 Girard Avenue South. She was born as Mary Delia Woodruff in 1858 in Elgin, Minnesota. She married George S. LaRue, a noted speaker and educator, in 1879, but was widowed in 1888 when her husband suddenly died from pneumonia while on a speaking tour in Iowa. The couple had three daughters, Blanche, Beth, and Isabelle, who were raised in Minneapolis while their mother became a beloved schoolteacher and principal. Mary Delia LaRue died on August 27, 1942 and is buried in her hometown of Plainview, Minnesota, alongside her husband. But LaRue’s Victory Garden legacy lives on. Once again, we are in a new era and challenged to find new sources for sustenance. Plant a Victory Garden this year and remember, it all started with Mary LaRue at an elementary school in Minneapolis.