Once upon a time, there was actual wheat growing on a ridge in Wheat Ridge. But not a lot of it. Instead, where today new strip malls sprout up almost daily, five- and ten-acre truck farms grew tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers and lettuce. And celery -- the celery was particularly fine. To find a Wheat Ridge plot that big in this day and age, you have to find the Happiness Garden, which is no mean trick.
It claims to be located at West 42nd Avenue and Ammons Street, but you don't see an entrance from either of those, just a dirt driveway in the middle of the block, lined by corn and flowers. Taking that driveway, you arrive at a large field divided into small garden plots, backed by the playing fields of the Wilmore Davis Elementary School. To suddenly be surrounded by all of this cultivated space -- the biggest secret garden you're likely to find in metro Denver -- is exhilarating.
"Well, sure," says garden manager Don Neithercut. "You feel it in your roots."
"I come here at least every other day," says Jim Teliha, who's worked a Happiness Garden plot for the past fifteen years. "I have a backyard but no sun, and this is a matter of getting closer to the land. My folks had a farm, and that's how I grew up."
"I would say most people's grandparents were farmers," Neithercut adds. "It's where we come from."
Well, it's where they come from: Even if I had just turned eighty, as Neithercut recently did, I would have to look far up my family tree to find anything more agricultural than the celery in the Dr. Brown's tonic served at my great-grandfather's deli. But still, at some point I would hit a potato patch in the shtetl, and standing in the middle of the ten-acre Happiness Garden, I realize I feel my farming roots just as much as Neithercut and Teliha do. We're happy, if a little sad that we're two days away from frost. We're interested in anything that will keep the three of us standing around out here a little while longer, talking about growing things.
Giant pumpkins, for instance. Joe Scherber, a local dentist, has just arrived with his extra-long measuring tape to check on the progress of the giant pumpkin he's training for an Iowa contest.
"The man's a champion," Neithercut says. "He's won the grand prize two out of three years."
"Never won the nationals, though," Scherber says modestly. His pumpkin, an Atlantic Giant currently about half the size of a Volkswagen bug, is gaining twenty pounds per day. (His calculations are made with the help of a chart supplied by the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth.) "I have the only known pumpkin hoist in Colorado, and this has been my obsession, or whatever you want to call it, for the past eight years. It was all because of this patient who kept bringing me pictures of himself with these huge pumpkins -- actually sitting in a pumpkin, a bathtub-sized pumpkin."
The next plot over, Neithercut grows average-sized jack-o-lantern pumpkins for the city of Wheat Ridge, which distributes them to residents who are very young or very old. Teliha is more of a generalist -- he grows all the basic household vegetables, with an emphasis on tomatoes. (There is nothing like a Big Boy, he says.) All three men are members of the former Wheat Ridge Men's Garden Club, now known as the Wheat Ridge Gardeners of America. For the past 46 years, the Wheat Ridge Gardeners have met the fourth Tuesday of each month to discuss a gardening subject.
"And we decided to allow gals in '93 or '94," Teliha says. "It was a good idea. The gals that joined contributed a lot of humorous moments to the meetings."
"It was an excellent addition," Neithercut says firmly. "I believe we did the right thing."
In fact, Paula DiYorio, a woman, has been club president for the past two years. But it's the gardening men who planted the seed. What did they talk about all those years? As I leave the Happiness Garden, another manly conversation is starting up.
"Do those big pumpkins make good eating?" Teliha is asking.
"Well, yeah, but it's hard to know what to do with the remaining 700 pounds," Scherber answers.
"And what about the seed?" Neithercut asks. "Where do you get it?"
"You try to get seed from a champion. But you know what? Last year the world-record pumpkin had no seeds at all."
"Well, I would say!" remarks Neithercut. "That's unusual!"
In 1954, the year the Wheat Ridge Men's Garden Club was founded, there were more than half a dozen men's garden clubs in the metro area, all official chapters of the national Men's Garden Club. That organization had formed in 1932, four years after Leo W. Nack of Chicago won a citywide ornamental gardening contest and decided to start a club that would inspire other men to try for similar honors.
"I seem to remember that a few men had been going to a women's club and didn't feel entirely welcome, either," recalls Mary Grandgeorge, bookkeeper at the Des Moines-based national Men's Garden Club office. "And I guess our mission is different than most women's clubs. We stress gardening education, horticulture therapy and civic beautification, not so much flower shows and judging."
The civic beautification concept took hold, and the men's-group membership continued to grow until the mid-'70s, when there were 250 clubs nationwide. But after that came a decline, for reasons members either can't or don't want to remember. So in 1992, the national organization decided to officially admit women -- "although there were unofficial women around before that, this much we know," Grandgeorge says -- as a potential way to attract more members; clubs were given the option of changing from a Men's Garden Club to a Gardeners of America chapter. As of last week, about half of the 109 remaining clubs had elected to make the switch, inviting the conclusion that a club is more likely to survive if it consists of Gardeners than of Men.
"Although there are pockets," Grandgeorge hints. "The Southwest region will never do it, the women thing. They are very strong and hardfast. They will never change."
It is rumored -- but only rumored -- that the Des Moines chapter, the granddaddy of them all, will have a contentious vote on the woman question this very October.
Meanwhile, peace reigns in Wheat Ridge, as it generally has for decades. Having taken over the management of the Happiness Garden in the early '70s, the club continues to oversee the annual renting of plots -- to members and non-members alike -- and to meet monthly for a serious meeting, except in December, when a more festive party atmosphere prevails. But while the Men of Wheat Ridge have been gracious to the female newcomers, an era is gradually drawing to a close.
You can see this -- you can practically hear it -- when you peruse a copy of Wheat Ridge Men's Garden Club Minutes, 1951-1991, compiled by now-deceased club member Jack Bennett. Bennett, who was present at the club's first meeting in 1954 -- not 1951, as his book claims -- was not known for his reportorial accuracy or his tact. For example, he billed the club $350 for publishing expenses after presenting each member with a "complimentary" copy. "It made the hair stand up at the back of my neck," Neithercut remembers, "but I wrote the check, and I have a copy of the book around somewhere." Actually, the book is dedicated to him.
That dedication includes the book's only words that are not literal transcriptions of club minutes. In style, those minutes are terse to the point of being Hemingway-esque. Reading them, I could not help comparing Bennett's recording-secretary prose with that of various female garden-club publications to which I subscribe. There is none of that "your-faithful-correspondent-spied-an-entire-nest-of-darling-wrens" or "a-yummy-potluck-was-enjoyed-by-all-yes-that-means-you-Bridget" to be found anywhere in this company of men.
Instead, they got right down to business: "A talk on broad-leaf evergreens...bonsai...dwarf fruit trees was presented. It was very good. Apple pie and coffee were served. 11 men present. Mr. Mulligan showed slides. They were very fine. Refreshments were good." Any reference to cocktails being part of those refreshments does not appear until twenty years into the club's existence. References to women are not made at all, as the account ends in 1991.
First meeting, 1951 (actually 1954), attended by men either in the nursery trades or one degree removed: "George Kelly spoke. He advised planting better, slow-growing trees."
Second meeting, July 26 at John Bird's: "Tony User was the speaker. He talked about raising bulbs in Holland. They pump water away from the bulbs. Raised in sand, planted 4 inches apart. Bloom is cut off as soon as possible. The food from leaves goes down into bulb. Bull session was held, mostly on water dowsing."
1955: Guest speaker advocates soaking bulbs in "5% DDT solution" before planting.
Spring meeting, 1956: "Quite a discussion. Refreshments. Adjourned."
November 26, 1957: "Talked about lack of interest in our club. Each of us must think of something to do."
September 25, 1962: "Mr. Kramer talked on 'What's New In Spray Chemicals.'"
Sometime in 1963: "Fred passed away. Rained all day .62 of an inch."
Sometime late in 1964, while planning holiday gathering: "We will need 16 pies."
August 20, 1967: "Mr. Horner and two boys were guest speakers. They talked on winged bugs and flies."
May 28, 1968: "Good talk. Ireland is greenest place on earth."
August 1969: "Elwyn made a talk -- one part of DDT in 2 billion will affect growth of shrimp."
January 26, 1971: "Gave $1010 to Denver Botanic Garden for new row of trees."
July 25, 1972: "Ball game was on. Not much meeting."
December 7, 1974: "A good-sized crowd showed up although it snowed, and is still snowing. Had a good ham dinner. The program was very fine. Presents not so fine. 12 from Wheat Ridge attended.
July 25, 1978: "We met at Botanic Gardens at 6:30 p.m. Our president, Wilbur Haggstrom, killed himself. John Conway is now president. We had a sack lunch. It tried to rain."
October 23, 1979: "Pumpkin contest was too little, too late."
March 24, 1980: "Rust showed pictures of iris and day lilies. They were very good. We had nice refreshments of fruit and cheese. Home very late. It snowed some. Goodnight!"
December 1981: "It was reported that the national Men's Garden Club suffered a $31,000 loss through embezzling."
From 1982: "Each year new problems -- clay topsoil...manure...squirrels...coons. . .skunks, etc."
December 22, 1983: "Same officers next year as this year. Railroaded them in."
June 28, 1988: "Talked about Christmas party. Applewood Inn is out of business. Bernard's, they pack you in too tight. Ramada?"
August 23, 1988: "The squash and cukes are doing fine. The zucchinis are disappearing. Someone else is getting them. Our next meeting will be at Guy Carr's. An ice-cream social if you please."
"We generally did have ice cream," Elwyn Kiplinger remembers. "Ice cream and cake, served by the wife of the host."
At the very first Wheat Ridge Men's Garden Club meeting, Elwyn saw his father, Rete Kiplinger, elected president. After that, Elwyn continued to attend meetings, becoming the first member to worry publicly about DDT and other pesticides. His father continued as a member until 1981, when he died at 91, pruning roses from a chair until the end.
"My father lived for gardening and farming," he recalls, "and that club started right at our home. It started with men who got to saying, 'Well, we garden, too.' I had a natural interest, the same interest Dad had. He moved here in 1921 and started a truck garden. Prior to World War II it was all agriculture here, and then people started moving in and we had this big influx, and we sold our land and went to raising children instead of vegetables. So when it got to my kids -- they didn't get the same interest in gardens that I had. And then, they just didn't have the same kind of area to live in, either."
Today Kiplinger cultivates two residential lots, each 100 by 155 feet -- huge by suburban garden standards, but he considers it cutting back. "We don't eat what we used to," he explains. "I'm just celebrating my eightieth birthday, and Don [Neithercut] says the same thing: We find that we would love to go out and work in the yard all day, but we can't do what we used to."
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Before long, he realizes, he may have to choose just what he can still do. At that point, he'll probably let the corn, beans, cucumber and chard go to seed and concentrate on roses -- the old Peace, Dainty Bess and Chrysler Imperials his father left behind. "I'd still raise tomatoes, though," he adds. "One or two Early Girls. And Better Boy. Eight or ten."
Snowed one half-inch last night. Tomatoes bent but not froze. Salvage? Talk to Kiplinger? Neithercut? What of pumpkin? Still growing? Call pumpkin champion Scherber, too.
Good idea. Conversation will be fine.