On April 12, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson called upon Americans on the home front to help fight what would become known as World War I. In response, many Minnesotans turned to backyard gardening to increase their food supply. Homegrown vegetables filled pantries and stomachs and allowed “citizen soldiers” to conserve wheat, meat, sugar, and fats that were essential for U.S. troops and their European allies.
On May 1, 1917, nearly a month after the U.S. Congress declared war against Germany, patriotic parades filled the streets of large and small communities across Minnesota. During this “Wake Up America” event, marchers portrayed patriotic characters like Uncle Sam. They showed off Red Cross committees and suggested ways to get involved in the war effort. In Crookston, Northwest School of Agriculture students marched with garden tools in hand to show their desire and willingness to feed the Allied armies.
Liberty gardens, as homegrown plots became known in 1918, were a crucial part of food conservation efforts, since vegetables could take the place of meat- and wheat-based dishes. The group that coordinated the state’s war efforts, the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety (MCPS), wrote in their newsletter that flying a flag at the front of the house would mean little for the war effort unless there was a garden in the back yard.
Communities around the state found garden land for those who didn’t have a yard. The Iron Range city of Eveleth’s Commercial Club helped organize the use of state land. It created four acres of garden plots at St. Mary’s Lake and hired a watchman. In the southwestern town of Pipestone, the Current Events Club organized local gardening efforts by acting as a clearinghouse. Its members matched people with arable land with those who wanted to raise vegetables.
Minnesota businesses helped as well. Housing developers around the state turned empty lots into garden space. The Soo Line Railroad permitted gardening on fifty thousand acres of its land. Other lines promoted the use of rights of way for crops. Gardeners along the Northern Pacific right of way produced enough food to fill two hundred rail cars.
Finding a garden space was just the beginning. Over time, many Minnesotans who had never grown a single vegetable caught the patriotic gardening fever. They needed encouragement and information, and help was all around. The Minneapolis Garden Club, with a membership of more than eighteen hundred gardeners, supported a demonstration agent. It also distributed literature from the federal gardening commission and provided free seeds and berry bushes.
Around the state, youngsters cultivated garden plots in schoolyards during the summer under the watchful eyes of teacher-coordinators. Students filled out garden cards that tallied the hours they spent tending their crops and described how their gardens progressed.
Adult novice gardeners also found the support they needed to plan, sow, and grow their plots. In these days before radio and television, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National War Garden Commission, the University of Minnesota Extension Service, seed dealers, local garden clubs, librarians, and merchants all provided information. They published booklets, issued bulletins, and created displays in libraries and store windows using posters designed by the nation’s leading illustrators. These displays illustrated the importance of gardening, offered patriotic views of homegrown harvests, and praised the value of home-canned produce.
The gardening boom kindled public interest in pest control. Minnesota state entomologist A.G. Ruggles invited gardeners to send live insects to his office for identification. They packed the specimens in sealed wooden boxes and shipped them through the mail. Ruggles responded with advice that, as a reporter for the Minneapolis Journal wrote, “seal[ed] the doom of millions of pests.”
University of Minnesota professors wrote bulletins cheerfully extolling the health value of vegetables in the diet. They recommended sixteen foods that could be grown for everyday use and then canned, dried, or preserved as pickles or jams. They suggested putting up a two-year supply of food. Among the ideal crops were beans, beets, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, pumpkins, parsnips, squash, spinach, tomatoes, and potatoes.
Potatoes played a key role in menus as a substitute for both meat and wheat. When the United States entered the war in April 1917, potatoes were in short supply; many new gardeners saw them as a good place to start. The editor of the Mankato Ledger newspaper reported his dismay when his scarce and valuable seed potatoes were stolen before he could plant them.
Other growers were more successful. By fall 1917, bushels of potatoes were ready to take the place of bread and meat during the most restrictive days of voluntary food conservation. This period began in February 1918, when nineteen of the twenty-one weekly meals were meatless, wheatless, or both. During the spring of 1918, gardeners in St. Cloud predicted they had planted enough potatoes to fulfill the needs of the entire city by autumn.
Once the vegetables were grown, preserving them was an important part of the food conservation goal. One popular innovation was the cold-pack method, which took less time than the traditional technique. Homemakers could even use multi-gallon metal wash boilers to process many jars at one time.
Cold packing was considered so simple it was said that even a child could do it. At the Minnesota State Fair, members of the Boys and Girls Club, a precursor to the 4-H, competed with live demonstrations of the method. The 1917 winner was Elsie McNail of Sleepy Eye. She won for the speed, skill, and cleanliness of her work and the flavor, texture, and appearance of her jarred produce.
Minnesota’s accomplishments led the nation. The secretary of the Minneapolis Garden Club noted that the city’s residents grew ten thousand war gardens—almost 30 percent more than the next most productive city surveyed. By July 1918, those gardens (twenty-one hundred acres in total) had produced nearly half a million dollars of garden goods, or an average of $238 per acre. This was no small sum. At the time, ten pounds of barley flour cost sixty-five cents. Homemakers could buy seven pounds of coffee for a dollar; a new Ford motor touring car was $360.
National statistics reveal the broad impact of home gardening on the war effort. The produce from more than eight million new gardens across the country provided the nutritional equivalent of meat for a million soldiers for 302 days and bread for 248 days, or an entire ration for 142 days.
Data describing home food production after the war ended in 1919 are scarce. Anecdotal information suggests that the passion for gardening did not continue into the 1920s. However, the privations of the Great Depression prompted some households to grow their own food in the 1930s. During World War II, nearly a generation after the first modern wartime gardening efforts, liberty gardens reappeared as victory gardens and became much-promoted home-front resources.
“Community Gardens Grow Well.” Eveleth News, May 17, 1917.
“Developers donate land for gardens.” Minneapolis Journal, April 15, 1917.
“Editor’s Potato Garden.” Mankato Ledger, May 9, 1917.
Eighmey, Rae Katherine. Food Will Win the War: Minnesota Crops, Cooks, and Conservation During World War I. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010.
Hasselberg, A.W., ed. and comp. Vegetable Gardening in Minneapolis. Minneapolis: Minneapolis Garden Club, 1914.
“Large Awake America Parade.” Crookston Daily Times, May 2, 1917.
Mackintosh, R.S. “A Garden for Every Home.” University of Minnesota Agricultural Extension Division Special Bulletin, no. 11 (May 1917).
Minnesota Federal Food Administration and State Food Conservation Committee records, 1917–1919
Minnesota Federal Food Administration and State Food Conservation Committee
State Archives Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: The collection contains the files of Mildred Weigley, home economics director of the Minnesota Federal Food Administration and chairman of the State Food Conservation Committee.
Main files, 1917–1919
Minnesota Commission of Public Safety
State Archives Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: The food conservation bulletins folder contains posters, pamphlets, issues of Minnesota Farm Review, circulars, etc., distributed by the Committee of Food Production and Conservation.
"Northern Pacific Gardens.” Crookston Times, April 28, 1917.
“School Garden.” Crookston Times, May 5, 1917.
“School Gardens.” St. Cloud Daily Journal Press, April 15, 1917.
University of Minnesota Extension records, 1858–1996, 2003 (bulk 1917–1985)
University Archives, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
Description: The collection contains the letters of A.D. Wilson, the Extension Service’s director from 1912 until 1920.
“Value of Crops in Home Gardens.” St. Paul University Farm Press News, December 5, 1917.
“Walker Offers 7,000 Lots to Gardeners.” Minneapolis Journal, April 15, 1917.
“War Garden Crops Grown on Railroad Rights of Way.” Bemidji Daily Record, November 9, 1917.
In summer 1917, wheat crops fail in Minnesota and across the Midwestern United States. Citizens turn to conservation solutions like home gardening to shift food from home tables to overseas Allies and soldiers fighting World War I.
World War I begins in Europe.
Minnesota farmers bring in a meager potato crop—only half of a typical harvest.
Congress declares war against Germany.
President Woodrow Wilson calls for all Americans to become citizen soldiers. He challenges the nation to supply abundant food for citizens and our armies as well as for overseas Allies.
Communities and businesses across Minnesota provide land for war gardens.
The State Committee of Food Production and Conservation releases a bulletin instructing Minnesotans to plant home gardens.
Minnesota’s winter-wheat crop fails to produce a large yield.
University of Minnesota Extension Service and University Farms faculty write planting, growing, harvesting, and storage guides for vegetables and send out news releases and columns to local papers.
University of Minnesota home economics demonstrators conduct food-training sessions featuring the new cold-pack canning method. Members of the Boys’ and Girls’ Agriculture Club showcase the technique at the Minnesota State Fair.
Great Northern Railway president Louis W. Hill reports that gardens planted on his company’s right of way have yielded enough vegetables to fill two hundred train cars.
The introduction of Daylight Saving Time provides Minnesota growers with more hours of daylight for gardening.
Restrictions begin to lift on specific food measures, but Americans are urged to continue to reduce food waste.
With no end to the war in sight, Minnesota citizens and communities rededicate themselves to growing even more food in what are now being called “liberty gardens.”
A Community Food Center opens in St. Paul. It serves as a venue for canning demonstrations, food processing, and gardening education.
France, England, the United States, and Germany sign an armistice that ends the fighting in Europe.