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Before "organic" was even a notion...

Jul 9, 2014 9:00 AM | 0 comments

In an unusual confluence of the World War I centennial observation and the height of harvesting season, a small, curious cache of photographic images found its way to the Brooklyn Collection. Twenty six lantern slides and seven photographic prints, presumably from 1919, depict a group of Brooklyn youngsters and their teachers tending vegetable plots. A couple of them feature the Park Commissioner John N. Harman as well.

It was not only a tree that grew in Brooklyn, apparently, but also carrots, kohlrabi, beans, beets, radishes and corn.

The pictures were taken at the Betsy Park Playground. The park, which still exists, and the playground (since redesigned) were named after Mrs. Betsy Head, who bequeathed her considerable estate to the City of New York with the provision that one half of it would be spent on child welfare charities, and the other for the purposes of health and recreation. The Betsy Park Playground, in Brooklyn's Brownsville neighborhood, answered both requirements.

A few words about the benefactress herself; Mrs. Betsy Head was perhaps one of the most unusual cases in the history of the New York philanthropy. A British native, she was hired by a Long Island millionaire recluse, George C. Taylor, to manage his estate in Islip. She became his trusted accountant and confidante, and over the many years of her employment with Mr. Taylor, Betsy Head accumulated quite considerable wealth herself. She had come to the United States with her daughter Lena. Lena fell in love with one of the employees of Mr. Taylor and married him against the wishes of her mother and Mr. Taylor. Both were banished from the estate, and the mother and daughter became estranged. They never saw each other again. When in 1907 Mrs. Head died of illness at the age of 60, her personal assets were upwards of $200,000 (the equivalent of today’s five million dollars). She left Lena only $5 ($125 today), and the rest went to the benefit of the City of New York. As it sometimes happens, reconciliation came too late, after death. Lena was inconsolable at the funeral, and it was rumored that Mr. Taylor was moved by her grief. Through this private drama in 1907, New York City came into a windfall of cash for its charities.

The Betsy Head Park was open to the public in September of 1914. (Mrs. Frederick W. Bodley, once the wayward and lovelorn Lena, was an honored guest during the opening ceremony.) It is perhaps worth mentioning that the Betsy Head Park came into the existence not only due to the largess of the donor, but also because of the local residents’ activism. Although Mrs. Head's charitable monies were allocated, they were not being spent; it was only thanks to the pressure from the Brownsville community leaders that the park finally was designed and constructed on the stretch from Blake Ave., Dumont Ave., Livonia Ave. between. Strauss St., Hopkinson Ave. and Bristol St. It absorbed land that was formerly used as a dumping site.

Architect Henry B. Herts designed the recreational center. The park also included an athletic field and stadium which could hold up to 20,000 viewers, public baths and a swimming pool. The Children’s playground consisted of a park with wading pool and a beach; mothers’ recreation center – which also included the city milk station; a model farmhouse and, finally, the farm school and a school for nature study.

The playground farm became the largest of the four existing children’s farms in Brooklyn. The other three were in Highland Park, McCarren Park, and Fort Greene Park.

I must acknowledge that some images of very young children at work in the fields made me cringe. However, there were some laws against the child labor already in place at the time, and since each little gardener took all the produce he or she raised home to replenish the family table, it was considered beneficial on the whole.


The girls (and some boys too!) were taught canning techniques, and the canning classes were offered to local residents as well. The newspapers could not resist publishing syrupy stories about struggling families who were able to survive cold winters thanks to pickled vegetables from the children’s gardens.

There were competitions among the gardens from the different parks, with trophies for the best harvest. Here you can see Mrs. Jane C. Roth, a longtime director of the Besty Head playground garden with one of the winning student farmers.

And there were annual fall harvest festivals. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described one of these events in 1919:

Whether the gardening fever was natural or motivated by adult supervision, the little gardeners exhibited an admirable fervor in pushing for three crops during a season:

And, perhaps, it was not an unattainable goal. The young farmers grew hardy, short-season vegetables: carrots, cabbages, corn, beets, radishes, Swiss chard, turnips, peas and kohlrabi. The crops that grew more slowly – potatoes, cauliflowers, and celery – were avoided.

So, what is the World War I connection? During the Great War, such gardens became known as “Children’s War Gardens”, and the Betsy Head farm was part of the movement. New York City alone counted 100 schools with vegetable gardens and it is estimated that these children-run gardens produced as much as $5,074.28 worth of vegetables, worth nearly $100,000 in today's economy.

The children’s farm persevered and lasted through the 1920s and ‘30s and well into the World War II, when the urban gardening tradition found new life in the so-called "victory gardens" that grew throughout the city in support of the war effort.

Although the Betsy Head children’s garden survived a park redesign in 1936, when an Olympic-sized pool was added to the list of attractions, the little farm for "little farmers and farmerettes" is sadly no more. It appears that the baseball diamond now occupies the patch of land where the garden once thrived.