This article is a part of "Roots of Tomorrow: Urbanism in our Blood," a weekly series on northwest urbanism. Start from the beginning with Parts 1, "How bikes led Seattle's first roads renaissance", Part 2, "Meet Seattle's first bike vigilantes," and Part 3, "The car that broke the back of Seattle's bike craze" here.
Seattle has been getting reacquainted with urban farming. The local food movement has ripened, helping the city gain an international reputation as a foodie town full of ravenous locavores. The Pike Place Market, preserved from the wrecking ball in the ‘70s, is a major tourist attraction and supplier of food to visitors, restaurants and downtown residents. It’s an icon of the way Seattle’s regional food and urban identity have become inextricably linked. Food is our heritage, and heritage — especially this heritage — is civic sustenance.
Demand for fresh, local produce has driven a proliferation of new farmer’s markets throughout the city. Year-round, parking lots and playgrounds are turned into hunting grounds for fresh produce and craft foodstuffs — from ginger beer and hard ciders to honey and hams. Neighborhood parking strips have been replaced with corn crops, rooftops sprout green gardens and the folks next door just might be raising chickens. Organizations like Seattle Tilth have, since the mid-1970s, pioneered a resurgent interest in local, organic and urban food sources. There are scores of neighborhood plots and urban farms throughout the city, including a new “food forest” on Beacon Hill that has gained national attention.
Cultivated foods were always critical, to the Native Americans who harvested acorns and camas roots from native oak prairies, and to the first settlers, who cut old growth timber and turned their “stump farms” into real farms on fertile lands in the temperate Puget Sound climate. The soils of the local river valleys produced generously. In his history of Seattle, Clarence Bagley tells us that Duwamish farmer L. M. Collins raised crops worth $5,000 in 1853. “He raised turnips weighing from twenty-three to thirty-five pounds each, potatoes weighing as much as four pounds each, and onions two pounds each.”
And, when the budding village of Seattle was trying to attract Rev. David Blaine and his wife Catherine to settle on Elliott Bay that same year, founder Arthur Denny offered the reverend “a lot for a first fair garden” as an enticement. No report on the size of their turnips, but Catherine did establish Seattle’s first apple orchard – fitting for the city’s first school teacher.
As Seattle grew and Puget Sound’s transportation systems (roads, boats, ferries and rail) spread, the growing city’s food supply was largely outsourced to the urban margins and surrounding countryside. Still, the city itself did keep its hand in. In the early 20th century, Seattle owned and operated a 53-acre farm in the rich Kent Valley under the supervision of the city’s Streets and Sewers Department. Crops and wheat were grown and distributed to and through various municipal entities.
City Farm Hay harvest, 1921. Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives
There was abundance to share. In 1917, the farm’s bounty went to feed people at the city hospital, the city jail and the city-run Firland tuberculosis sanatorium. According to an inventory listed in the newspaper, this bounty included 2,500 pounds of peas, 16,420 pounds of tomatoes, 800 bunches of radishes, 1,650 heads of lettuce, 1,050 bunches of green onions, 1,150 pounds of wax beans, plus 80 sacks of sweet corn, 7,500 pounds of cucumbers, 75 tons of potatoes, 50 tons of cabbage, 12 tons of rutabagas, 30 tons of carrots, 15 tons of parsnips, 2 tons of dry onions and over a ton of wheat. The crops were raised with help from the inmates of the city jail.
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