A common description of the domestic landscapes of the company towns and other neighborhoods of the coal region include references to copious backyard gardens. Folks we have spoken with in the region have suggested that this home vegetable growing tradition helped miner’s wives stretch the limited resources and scant wages to feed their families. It would have also lessened a family’s dependence on the company store.
Our trip to Eckley Miner’s Village last Saturday confirmed this image of copious gardens. We spoke to our friend, George Gera, a longtime resident of Eckley at age 85½. George remembered that every inch of yard space was devoted to gardens, including both front and back yards. At one of the houses at Eckley, a demonstration garden showed some of the crops that might have been grown there. A diagram in the museum illustrated the design of a typical miner’s house garden. A placard quoted an Eckley resident as saying:
There were no yards. The yard was the garden… The whole family worked in the garden… They got enough potatoes to last through the winter, as well as enough cabbage to last until Christmas time.
Archaeologically, the remains of gardens can be difficult to observe. However, there are a few ways they can show up in the soils through careful excavation and analysis. In some contexts, remnant plants, both ornamental and food-bearing, can continue to grow in a wild state. Also, plants leave pollen and seeds in the soil that can then be viewed through careful filtering and analysis. This often requires a microscope. Also, the planting, tilling, supporting and fencing of plants can leave traces in the soils that we can identify. In our units located in the backyards we have identified some of these traces, including shallow depressions and a few possible postholes. While some of these are undoubtedly the result of rodent or root disturbance, some show signature shapes of human manipulation. Later, we will remove soil samples from the bottom depths of our units for pollen samples to determine what sorts of plants may have been grown.
Given the difficult economic conditions faced by miner’s families during times of little work, and especially during times in which they were out of work for months as a result of the extended strikes that occurred in this region, the success of gardens were central to maintenance and endurance within the lives of the residents of Lattimer Canal Street Site.