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THE REAL DIRT ON: Francis Griscom Parsons: Mother of School Gardens

DeWitt Clinton Park 1906

By Susan Starr.

This is the last column in our series, The Real Dirt on…. In February we launch a new series, on gardening with children. Fittingly, we conclude the Real Dirt on. with the story of one of the founders of the School Garden movement, Fannie Griscom Parsons.

After having seven children, what could I do for the world?

The daughter and granddaughter of prominent New York City reformers, Fannie Parsons created the “Children’s School Farm” on a plot of land on the west side of Manhattan in 1902. Parsons had no training in gardening or landscaping; her interest was in helping the underprivileged in New York. In an interview to the New York Times in 1910, she explained that she started the farm after attending the Mothers Conference in Washington, D.C.

Parsons had just turned 50 at the time and her mother was 84. She realized that if she was going to be like her mother, she had “forty years to do something in. The question was, having brought up seven children, what could I do for the world.” She decided, she said, to start the farm in order to “mother the children, to teach them, protect them, love them and help them to have joyous, happy, ‘children’ times.” The children, most of them from poor immigrant families, each had individual plots where they were taught to grow vegetables.

Parsons emphasized that she did not start the farm simply to supply the children with fruits and vegetables and fresh air. She believed that gardening would teach children values and skills that would be applicable to their lives in the city, specifically, “brotherhood, cooperation, self-respect, and the dignity of labor.” She received the support of the Parks Department, which prepared the land, and of civic groups, who felt the Farm was an antidote to the crime and violence in the surrounding neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen.

The idea takes hold

By 1910, there were 80 school farms in New York City. The largest was at Public School 54 at Amsterdam and 104th Street and the smallest, only 20 x20, was at East 4th St. and Avenue A. Teachers were so interested in Parson’s efforts that they flocked to the nature study classes she provided during in the summer. Parsons became an active promoter and advocate for school gardens and the Children’s School Farm became a nationally recognized model for children’s gardening.

In 1906, the City of New York proposed to appoint her Director of School Farms and Playgrounds, a position created especially for her. However, the appointment was controversial. She was a woman and, according to the City Controller, “The idea of a woman supervising the building and grounds where young fellows exercise and bathe is repugnant.” In 1910 the Department of Parks appointed Fannie Parsons the director of the newly created Bureau of School Farms, making her the first woman to hold a high level position in the department. She went on to create new farms in parks throughout the city.

World War I intervenes

With the advent of World War I, the government began promoting gardening as a way to supplement local food production and inspire patriotism. However, after the war, interest and support declined. Parsons died in 1923, but others carried on her work and many of the gardens in New York City parks existed until the 1950s. In 1932, the city destroyed the Children’s School Farm to expand Twelfth Avenue and construct the Miller Elevated Highway.

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