By Richard D. Parker, circa 1964
[The following is a brief history of the establishment and first roughly twenty years of the Fenway Victory Gardens by one of its founding members, Richard D. Parker.]
The history of the Fenway Gardens dates back to the advent of World War II when it became evident that our national capacity for food production would be insufficient to supply both our armed services and the general public. In common with many other communities the heads of city government and those closest to the agricultural needs of our people worked out ways and means to cope with the situation. The Boston Victory Garden Committee secured areas in various parts of Boston where land was available for cultivation. In 1943 there were 49 areas assigned to this program. Much of the land was part of city park areas supplemented by land donated by industry and public service organizations. A large part of the Boston Common was utilized for this purpose.
Included was a large piece of land bordered by the Muddy River, Boylston Street and Park Drive. Employees of the Parks and Recreation Department and teacher from the Boston School Department assumed the responsibility of supervision of all the various areas, including the Fenway. This supervision included surveying the land, laying it out in plots, marking them and assigning plots to members of the community as applications were received. Instruction was available to the novices; informative pamphlets were available to all.
A model garden located in the area, to the rear and slightly north of the grove, was established by the Boston Globe and directed by Professor Paul Dempsey to show how things should be done; i.e. preparing soil for planting; later, of course, proper cultivation after the plants appeared and had started to grow. It was handled with great skill, patience and understanding by Capt. Higgins, a retired sea captain, and Mrs. Gallagher, long a resident of the Fenway area.
At one time this area was wasteland several feet below the current level and what is now the Muddy River was just a meandering stream heading for the Charles River. To raise the area to its current level thousands of cubic yards of fill were required. This material came from various places, primarily from Kenmore Square during the building of the extension to the subway. There was some good soil but a substantial part was debris.
The early gardeners, therefore, had to face difficult odds not only deep rooted sod, full of weeds, but bricks by the carload, parts of boilers, large rocks, paving and various components of ancient and not-so-ancient buildings. However, it was a sturdy group, a courageous group and a patriotic group that first tilled the soil in the Fens. They persisted and under the patient guidance of the supervisors and all kinds of advice, both good and bad, they come up with growing crops.
At the outset, water was piped into various stand pipes, or water centers located conveniently near the different sections of the area. In the evening there was always a long water line, each gardener patiently awaiting his turn. A few enterprising boys would fill large galvanized barrels and distribute the water to those who were interested and wished to pay for the service. The river provided an excellent auxiliary supply to those reasonably close to it.
As an incentive toward better gardening, competitive exhibits open to all Victory Gardeners were held in the Horticultural Hall through the years 1943, ’44, and ’45. Many gardeners of the Fenway had individual exhibits; some came away with prizes. In addition, the Fenway Group as a unit had exhibits which were most successful. Without doubt this program was a substantial stimulant for better gardens. These exhibits were sponsored and promoted by the Boston Victory Garden Committee, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, The Boston Globe, and the Advertising Club of Boston.
In the earlier years, during the war and for a year or two later, the Park Department plowed the complete area in the Spring, which necessitated restaking each year as well as complete removal of all piping. Under these conditions it was not always possible to get an early start in the spring and no “all winter” root crops could be left in when cleanup time came. However, the practice of over-all plowing was abandoned which made it possible for the individual to prepare his own plot early and gave him more choice in what he planted.
Each year the water system was progressively improved; at first all of the piping was done and all the pipe furnished by the Park Department, but it was not long before all pipe and installation of the pipe lines was provided by the gardens themselves. Now, of course, we have a complete and semi-permanent system taken care of by the Pipe Supervisor with valuable and highly-appreciated assistance from some of the gardens.
As the years went by it was inevitable through soil improvement and additional knowhow gained from experience that definite improvement was made in the garden appearance and in the crop yield. Many gardeners became interested in decorative gardening, which later was developed to a high degree. Along with this development, very many of the gardeners acquired the urge and the thrill that is inevitable to anyone who is a gardener at heart but who was unaware of it when he started.
It was not surprising, therefore, that when at the end of the war and it seemed certain that the gardening in the Fens would have to be discontinued that there was a feeling of sadness and, perhaps, frustration. But all was not lost because, as always there were some individuals with enterprise, imagination and energy who saved the day. This informal group started what finally became known as the Fenway Garden Society, without which there would be no Fenway Gardens today.
The actual formation of the society was laid at a meeting at the Harvard Club late in 1944. The presiding officer was Mr. Maurice T. Ford of the Boston School Department, who had been our supervisor for several years; Mr. Brickley, also of the School Department; Mr. Andrew Jackson, Mr. Michael Twomey, Mr. Joseph Meo, Mr. Raymond Drew and Mr. Richard D. Parker.
Comprehensive plans were made to cover the organization of the Society, the holding of meetings and the adoption of a constitution and by-laws to govern its operation as a group responsible for the cooperative maintenance and operation of the Fenway Gardens.
Very shortly the first general meeting of the gardeners was held wherein the first group of officers was elected and by-laws and constitution adopted by the membership.
For a few years the Boston park Department provided a supervisor who was responsible for the allocation of the plots and who gave advice and encouragement to the gardeners. He was responsible for the appearance and was aided by an assistant from the Garden Society.
However, after a few years the Department of Parks and Recreation found it impossible to provide a supervisor and turned the entire responsibility over to the Fenway garden Society. Currently, the Society is specifically entrusted with the administration, maintenance and appearance of the area. However the supervisor, a member of the Society and appointed by its president with the approval of the Park Department, is responsible directly to the Commissioner of Parks and Recreation of the City of Boston.
For about fifteen years the Society has maintained this control, installed and discontinued water service through a Pipe Committee Chairman, allotted the gardens each year and held meetings for the information of gardeners. In addition, it has sponsored certain activities which undoubtedly stimulate a most unusual spirit of mutual cooperation. The highlight of this social activity is the “picnic” held in the grove in July or August of each year attended by hundreds of people, many of them friends of the organization and who are interested in the success of the Fenway Gardens. Also many prominent people in public life attend as invited guests of the Society.
There have been many times in the past when the future of the Fenway Gardens has been at stake and when, were it not for the strenuous efforts of the officers of the Society and many friends in public life, this whole endeavor would have been discontinued.
Attempts were made to establish a hospital, to erect both a Boys Latin School and the English High School but, more important and vastly more threatening, were three separate attempts to use the area for an automobile parking lot. Two of these were very dangerous indeed and required concentrated and continuous efforts to defeat. Each came before the State Legislature. We are indebted to most of the Boston press, and particularly to many men in city and state politics, as well as concentrated radio support, for effective assistance. Three men, whose names should be mentioned, spearheaded our fight; the Hon. John E. Powers, then President of the Senate; and representatives William F. Otis and John W. Frenning.
From information that seems quite well-established, it is reasonable to assume that plans for the betterment of the Fenway Massachusetts Avenue area provide for the continuance of the Fenway Gardens as a municipal project.
It is crystal clear, however, that our gardens are in the center of a well-conceived modern urban redevelopment program and this means one thing: That is, that no effort be spared in maintaining the Fenway Gardens at their park and that each individual gardener must always be conscious that his best continuous individual effort is necessary.
To summarize: the gardeners in the area, the Fenway Garden Society, the Boston Department of Parks and Recreation, many outstanding and helpful articles in several of our Boston newspapers (including a widely distributed article in the Associated Press) are jointly responsible for the present and future success of what may well be the most outstanding example of adult recreation in the USA. It is particularly noteworthy that it is done at so little cost to the City of Boston and no cost to the State of Massachusetts. As far as is known, there is no identical project in this country. It is indeed an outstanding privilege to have a garden in the Fenway.
It should be easy to understand that the great amount of publicity received over the past few years, plus the enthusiasm of the gardeners passed on to their friends and neighbors, has built up a tremendous interest in the Fenway Gardens. The net result is that the demand for gardens has become overwhelming, to the point where it seems impossible to make gardens available to all who desire them. Of course every effort will be made to place every deserving applicant. Possibly some day, in some way, the City of Boston might find it possible to provide an additional area in another section of the city.
Any resident of Boston is entitled to a garden in the area if a plot is available and provided the garden is properly maintained. Prospective gardeners are reminded of the fact that to properly maintain a garden requires time and effort; a minimum of 6 to 8 hours a week is necessary. A person who cannot devote this amount of time should not attempt gardening in the area.
New applicants may be assured of complete cooperation and help in making their plots successful; constructive suggestions from the officials of the Garden Society are cheerfully offered. Information and advice may be obtained at the meetings of the Society, and neighbors are always ready to help. There is an appearance Committee which has the prime responsibility and specific duty of helping and directing gardeners toward a successful and well-kept garden. There is a member of this committee in each of six areas; each is available and can be readily located. This committee is, incidentally, primarily responsible for the appearance of all gardens in the Fenway Area.
Certain equipment and tools are essential in order to properly care for a plot; a fork or spade, a rake, a cultivator and a hoe are helpful but not entirely necessary. A 25’ or 50’ length of hose is a definite help. No garden will grow satisfactorily without fertilizer; plants need to be fed. Lime is frequently required – this can be checked.
Since having a garden in the Fenway is part of a recreational program of the City of Boston, on land belonging to the city, there can be no charge for the use of the land. However, it is desirable and well worthwhile for all gardeners to become members of the Fenway Garden Society; the present fee is $2.00 per person. All gardeners are welcome and invited to join.
The Fenway Garden Society, through its Board of Directors, wish all concerned the best of continuing success in maintaining this wonderful project, and happy gardening to ALL.