What I learned at reform school

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(Host) Recently commentator Edith Hunter found herself reflecting on a long-ago summer…spent in a reform school garden.

(Hunter) Once a day during the summer I take a walk, slowly, between my four rows of potato plants. I am looking for the yellow striped mature potato beetles, the freshly hatched larva, and, on the underside of the leaves, patches of bright orange eggs. It’s hard to miss the eggs against the rich green leaves of the potato plant. I often wonder why, if nature is so smart, some potato bug hasn’t experimented with color variations and come up with green eggs. They certainly would survive better.

Recently, when on my regular potato bug patrol, I noticed a shoot of wild mustard coming up in the middle of one of the rows. I reached over and pulled it up. As I did so I was suddenly reminded of something I learned in reform school – learned, but do not practice.

In the summer of 1938, between my freshman and sophomore years at Wellesley, I took a summer job at Sleighton Farm School for Girls outside Philadelphia. The innovative program for young girls who had run afoul of the law was conceived by two Quaker ladies. The school was organized on the cottage system, and every summer college students were hired to serve as counselors. We lived in the cottages with small groups of the girls, and ate our meals family style. In the evenings we played games, put on skits, and danced. Many of the girls came from coal mining areas of western Pennsylvania and we did a lot of polkering.

Part of the program was a two-hour stint in the farm gardens every weekday morning. Each team of girls had one counselor. Having grown up in the city, the farm experience was all new to me and I really enjoyed it. We might be sent out to transplant broccoli or cauliflower seedlings, to weed a field of onions, or by August, to pick tomatoes.

One crop we spent a lot of time working on was the potatoes. I think in those days they must have sprayed for the potato bugs, because I have no recollection of looking for bugs with the girls.

We did do a lot weeding however, but we did not pull the weeds. Before starting out, each one of us was given a small knife and we were instructed to cut the weeds out, not pull them. I think the idea was that pulling the weeds was not good for the developing tubers.

It seems a little amazing, in retrospect – giving a knife to each of the girls – and yet I don’t remember any problem with the procedure at all. And I can’t imagine how we cut those tough old weeds. And didn’t anyone cut herself?

The details are vague after 64 years. But I do know that when I pulled that mustard up out of my potato patch in Weathersfield, memories of my summer at Sleighton Farm came rushing back to me.

This is Edith Hunter on the Center Road.

Writer and historian Edith Hunter lives in Weathersfield Center, Vermont.

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