Enjoy this profile of our oldest gardener, Hazel!
In the past sixty-five years, there have been twelve different presidents. The United States has gone to war and withdrawn from conflict. The Internet now extends to all corners of the nation and cities and towns have seen accelerated development like never before. And each of these past sixty-five years, Hazel Rayburn has grown a garden. Like clockwork, in the spring beans and corn and potatoes and onions go into the ground, and for the next couple of months there is the weeding and the canning and the cooking and the harvesting. And it all began with a few chickens.
During World War II Hazel lived in Baltimore, working in an airplane factory. It was here that Hazel fulfilled the smiling all-American image of the posters: she went to work everyday, made planes for the boys overseas, and lived outside of Whitesburg and by herself for the first time in her life. It was in Baltimore that Hazel met, and fell in love with, Earl. With the end of World War II, Hazel moved back to Whitesburg, the only home she had ever known, with her new husband. The era of rationing remained, despite victory over Germany and the extension of U.S. hegemony. Rationing of food was felt particularly hard in Appalachia, a region that has long-suffered from poverty and welfare concerns. So with this context, the first winter living back in Whitesburg was fated to be a difficult one. But Hazel knew the solution.
“I’ll bet you a dollar,” Hazel said to Earl, “that if we make it through the winter, we’ll have more food than we know what to do with.”
Making it through the winter was no guarantee, but as soon as the snow and cold began to let up, even in the slightest, the chickens began. Before grass even turned green they brought chicks into the house, keeping them pushed right up against the stove so that they would stay warm. The chicks were mail order, and it turns out raising two hundred chicks gets crowded. When the ground softened and the chickens began pecking around outside, Hazel put in their first plot. The plot was huge, producing more than enough vegetables for their day to day cooking, and plenty to can: beans, cabbage for sauerkraut, cucumbers to pickle.
The value of a garden doesn’t come from some inherent value of the gardening process, but rather from the nutrition, vitality, and self-sufficiency that it lends to its gardeners and their families. You won’t find an individual who loves gardening more than Hazel Rayburn; if she could make every person living up and down Cowan grow a garden, she would. But to her, being able to stick something in the ground and see corn come out isn’t really valuable in and of itself. What she truly values is her family’s ability to eat kraut all through the winter, independent of the economy. John Paul Dejoria said that his vision for Grow Appalachia included a “return to the self-sufficiency of our grandparents,” and all you have to do is walk into Hazel’s kitchen when she’s stringing beans with her great-granddaughter Katie, or when her granddaughter Becky is canning over a hundred quarts of kraut, or when they’re eating the fruits of their labors for breakfast lunch and dinner to see that in action. The transmittance of the collective knowledge and wisdom of gardening is invaluable and yet also organic; Hazel Rayburn is living proof.