Urban Farming for the 1900s Child

In 1902, Mrs. Henry Parsons (or Fannie Grissom Parsons, if you prefer) launched an experiment. Her idea was to find a way to city children to have the rural experience. Basically, she brought the farm to New York City.

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Our feature this week is The First Children’s Farm in New York City, from 1904. This publication is the follow-up for three years worth of work on a project. It taught city children the basics of planting, caring for, and harvesting a garden plot by creating opportunities to work in De Witt Clinton Park. The report details how the project started (by inviting children to participate), covers what children learned, and, to some extent, documents the effect it had on participants and the neighborhood.

Based on Mrs. Parsons’ report, we can surmise that she had some success in the endeavor. She was even awarded a medal at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. In addition to recounting the how of things, her report includes a section titled, “Farm School Work in Aid to Schools, Hospitals and Asylums.” What follows is an account of where such programs are needed, the disconnect between city and rural settings in the start of a new century, and the benefits of teaching children about the environment, essentially. The report also contains a number of photographs (I’m partial to the before and after shots above).

While I don’t know how, more than 100 years, we can necessarily judge the effectiveness of Mrs. Parsons’ program, I think it does convey a message that still has bearing: finding a connection to what we eat. We might argue Mrs. Parsons’ work is a precursor to urban gardening and local food movements today. Our campus was host to a 4-H camp last week, and that has me thinking about what we are still teaching children today, whether in school, camp, or at home. The good news is that we haven’t lost sight of work that began over a century ago.

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