Back in the 1980s, the Eastham Historical Society started an oral history project. Interviewers recorded dozens of old timers—people who had been in town since the early 1900s. Some were early summer people, others had been here for generations. In almost every single interview, the people from Eastham mention asparagus. Asparagus was a big industry in town in the 1920s and 1930s. This week’s piece weaves local voices together, to tell the story of what asparagus season during this time was like.
“There was an awful lot of asparagus, oh the place was covered in asparagus!” Craigin Bartlett said. Like so many of the voices on these tapes, he remembers acres and acres of asparagus.
There were very few trees in Eastham in the early 1900s—almost all the land had been cleared for agriculture or building materials or firewood. Arthur Benner’s father had twelve acres. He grew asparagus from seed to sell to other farmers as two-year-old plants or crowns.
“As a kid that was the most disagreeable thing in the world to work on because they were delicate things and they were planted like you would plant turnip seed in a planter and they would come up very delicate little things and they had to be hand-weeded and so forth on your hands and knees,” Arthur Benner said. He added, “your hands would get sore and your knees would get sore and the gnat flies would be thick and you’d like to be anywhere but there.”
When the plants were two years old Arthur Benner’s father would dig them up and sell them to other farms. Benner says his dad made more money with the asparagus seedlings than he ever did with cutting beds. Of course, to grow well the asparagus needed to be fertilized. Isabelle Brackett’s family ran the general store.
“People in those days depended on their asparagus and their turnip crop. They would place their order for fertilizer with my father in law in the fall for their turnips and asparagus when the fertilizer came they would say now when we sell our crop we will pay the bill. They used to call it “I’ll carry him through the winter,” Isabelle Brackett said.
Isabelle Brackett never worked in her father-in-law’s store, she had kids and a household to take care of. But she says everyone helped out in the fields during asparagus season.
“The ladies used to bunch asparagus and my aunt Martha worked bunching asparagus and she used to say well I’m going to start bunching grass pretty soon so I won’t be able to do this or that or the other thing. And I said ‘What do you mean, “bunch grass?”’ ‘Oh the asparagus, they have to cut the asparagus and we bunch it and we get paid so much for bunching grass.’ So I took my children with me and I learned to bunch grass, and I got paid for it,” Isabelle said.
John Ullman also worked in the asparagus fields, from about 1913 to 1920.
“I bunched asparagus as a kid, saving the culls and the crooks and so on which I put in a separate basket, and that was my pay. And all through the asparagus season asparagus cooked in milk and butter was pretty apt to be a major meal in our house.”
Ullman was a summer resident, like Esther Handel.
“In asparagus season our neighbors picked and bunched asparagus and they had to be over there at the railroad station at half past four, four o’clock. To catch the train and put the stuff on.”
The asparagus was shipped to Boston, first on the train, and in later years on trucks. But after the Depression, Isabelle Bracket says the asparagus industry started to decline.
“They couldn’t pay for the fertilizer to put on the asparagus and there was just no money, oh it was such a depressing time.”
The transcripts say there’s a second side to this tape, but I can’t find the audio. Isabelle Brackett goes on to say that the Depression was the beginning of the end for the asparagus industry in Eastham. Places like Florida started growing asparagus and shipping it north in refrigerated trucks, which were unheard of before. “When our asparagus was ready,” she says, people had already had all the asparagus they wanted from Florida.”
In the interview with John Ullman, the interviewer, Don Sparrow jumps in at the end. He must be about the same age, because the two men share a final memory before the tape ends.
“My mother saved the tips the broken tips because you can’t sell ‘em so that was our evening meal, asparagus tips on toast, “ Don Sparrow said.
“Oh toast, oh yeah,” Ullman said.
Sparrow added, “Yes indeed! But it’s gone now, it’s all gone.”
Not quite all of it. If you drive around Eastham today you can still find little patches of once cultivated asparagus gone wild, hiding in plain sight on the side of the road. And if you close your eyes, you can almost imagine the town as it once was this time of year: people of every age out in the fields, cutting those first green spears from a treeless soil.
Thank you to the Eastham Historical Society for granting Elspeth permission to use this audio and to the interviewers who put so much time into the recordings and transcripts—which by the way are available online and through the Eastham Public Library, in the archives room. Here's the link to listen online.
This piece first aired in May, 2009.