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"Boy, That Was a Fine Bean!"
A Harvesttime Interview with an Old-Fashioned Gardener

By Gerry Milnes
Photographs by Rick Lee

[Reprinted from Volume 10, Number 3]

Gerry Milnes is a Webster County farmer who can quote poetry about his love for growing plants, and especially his passion for collecting seeds of the old handed-down varieties he calls "heirloom" vegetables. A particular favorite of his is a verse by George Starbuck Galbraith:

This was the goal of the leaf and root
For this did the blossom burn its hour
This little grain is the ultimate fruit
This is the awesome vessel of power.

Gerry thinks those four lines pretty well sum up the ultimate purpose of any plant, which is to make seed and thereby reproduce itself, and he's pleased to see it all expressed in the romantic form of poetry. But he also knows the practical side of farming and his accompanying essay, "Seed Saving," suggests he understands more of the underlying science than he generally admits to.

While there is a lot of study and experimentation in Gerry's agriculture, mostly he gets his information as well as his seeds from experienced farmers in his rural neighborhood. Many of these people are older residents, eager to pass on their knowledge as well as the plant varieties which in some cases have been treasured for generations. And some of his teachers are not so old. Ruby Morris of Braxton County is one of the latter. She keeps one of the biggest truck gardens in the area, filled largely with heirloom vegetables, and when we got after Gerry to do an article for GOLDENSEAL he at once thought of her. He caught her at a good time, after the crops were in last October. Gardeners are naturally reflective at harvesttime, it seems, so we've saved their conversation for publication this fall when perhaps you yourself are looking back on a season of gardening triumphs. – ed.

Ruby Morris. I always liked to help Mom in the garden when I was little, and as the years went by I had a garden of my own, just a small one. I got to liking farming, each year more and more. Finally I really got into big farming with this three-acre garden and I got into raising seed and collecting old ones especially. The older they was seemed like the better the taste to them. I've traced back to seeds from the early 1900's now, including the Little Red Cut Short beans, and the old-fashioned Yellow Ox Heart tomatoes.

Gerry Milnes. Where did you grow up?

RM I was born in Widen, February the 21st, 1937, in Clay County. My daddy took sick, so we moved up to a place called Two Lick Run and we stayed there until I was five. Daddy died when I was between five and six and we moved to Birch River. That was during the war times and everything was hard to get a-hold of, food and everything else. Then we moved from Birch River up on Little Birch, and then from there on down to here. I think I was between eight and nine years old when we moved down here and we've been here ever since.

Food was so hard to get back then. I can remember Mama picking berries. I didn't know the times were really so hard, but she'd feed the kids the berries and if there was any left she'd drink the juice. That was when things was rationed and you couldn't buy unless you had a stamp. You just did lucky to have food. I guess maybe something scared my mind then that makes me can all the food I can today. We can things we know we're not going to eat. It's better to know it's in the jar and never use it than to want it and not have it.

Gardener Ruby Morris
Ruby Morris keeps acres of truck gardens in Braxton County. She prefers the older vegetable varieties. "I like old furniture, old houses and old seeds."

GM Do you have any seeds that were in your family since your mother?

RM Well, as far back as 20 or 30 years ago. As far as the little Thousand-to-One beans she had when I was a lot younger. I have them, but it took me awhile to get them back. They almost got away from me but I finally got a start of them again.

I've got the black soup bean that belonged to Mommy's brother. It's been, oh, 70 years probably, since he moved from his old house. He just moved away and a few of these seeds was left behind, in a crack of the floor, and a neighbor man found ‘em. From them he got his start and then I got them off of him, but they originally belonged to Mommy's brother, Anderson Dennison. That's the original old black soup bean.

I collect seeds from everybody. If I got to somebody's house and they've got any age on them, I start inquiring about seeds. Sometimes I really come up with some good ones, like the Blue River squash pumpkins that I hadn't seen since I was little. I got a-hold of it last year, just in a bunch of seeds that a neighbor woman give me to get rid of. And then I come up with a Little Red Bunch bean in that bunch. So I really have a collection of old-fashioned seeds.

You can read the rest of this article in the Fall 1999 issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.