The Bean Men

By Kent Whealy

I was finally going to meet John Withee. We were both in Tucson to speak at the Seed Banks Serving People workshop. I’d had a display case built so John could display his collection at the workshop. I was going to send it to him to fill in Massachusetts, but time had gotten too short and he had brought samples of about 800 different heirloom beans to Tucson. It was the day before the Conference and Aaron and I were taking the display case to his motel to help him fill it.

John had asked me to take over the distribution of the Wanigan Associates late last fall, almost a year ago. But the transfer had never taken place because an avalanche of publicity had rolled over John like a snowball rolling downhill. For almost a year he struggled trying to get the collection straightened out enough to turn it over, but it had been a losing battle.

I had mentioned John’s problems to Dr. Richard Harwood of the Organic Gardening and Farming Research Center. Within a couple of weeks, the Rodale organization had sent a team of their people up to John’s house. They stayed for a week, threshed beans, answered all of John’s correspondence, and attempted to get the collection in a manageable order. Less than a month after I had mentioned the problem UPS delivered three boxes to my house that contained 1,185 samples of beans and the accession list for the entire collection. Samples of the entire collection are also being kept at the Organic Gardening and Farming Center in Pennsylvania.

Anyhow on the afternoon before the workshop started, Aaron and I met John in Room 23 of the Motel-6 and it wasn’t long before we were all busy filling the bean case. The following are excerpts from a cassette recording of that afternoon. John was telling about the Rodale people coming up –

John Withee

John: “Four young girls knocked on the door Sunday night. They were in a big Ford van. They brought a winnower, but I convinced them that the one I had built myself was better, so they used mine. They divided up the chores and all worked very well together. One girl was the typist. She brought up an electric typewriter and table and reams of paper and was really good at it. Two of the girls worked at thrashing…..They accepted my method of thrashing, because what I had were dry pods. Almost all of them were pole beans, and I pick the dry pods as soon as they form on the plants over a period of weeks, ripening low on the vines and progressively upwards…..The girls thrashed these on the big picnic table I had out back and then put them through my winnower. I was putting together a lot of metal shelves which they had brought up and given to me. Peggy meanwhile was working on all of the stuff that I had in my bean building which was in a variety of containers. She had five pound paper bags, one for each variety that I had. She had those laid out all over the front lawn and they even filled the whole 20 ft.-wide carport…..”

Kent: “Sounds like you were hoping for good weather.”

John: “Fortunately, we only had one light shower while they were there and that was during the night. They were all wonderful…..Skip Kauffman came down on Wednesday. The determination he made was that it would be best for them to ignore the age of the seeds. So everything is there in the bags on the new shelves regardless of the year. I still have a tremendous amount of work to do, even with all of the consolidation that they did…..And I still have the problem of not having them in good containers…..”

Kent: “Ralph Stevenson keeps his in baby juice jars. Do you want to see some pictures?…..There’s Ralph…..and there’s his set up…..The juice jars are airtight and about twice the size of baby food jars.”

John: “Now that’s the kind of storage I’d like. You need to be able to see through your storage containers.”

Kent: “Yeah. Russell Crow had his in pint and quart green plastic containers, but after he saw Ralph’s collection, he went home and bought a whole bunch of canning jars.”

John: “Those are good photos.”

Kent: “These two were taken by Craig Hopps, a young friend of Ralph’s. I took a bunch at both of their gardens this last summer just about blossom time.”

Kent: “Aaron, what does that one look like?”

Aaron: “We’ve grown that one. That’s Cliff Dweller. But the packet says “No Name”…..

John: “There are a lot of “No Names”. I don’t have access to any authority like Prof. Hepler who can identify. I was told early in the game that the only true way to identify them is by grow out tests.”

Kent: “Even though this one came to us as Cliff Dweller, isn’t its correct name Florida Speckled Lima?”

John: “Yes, it’s been called that commercially, but it’ll come to you under Speckled Lima or Florida Lima.”

John: “…..I had difficulty in obtaining space to grow out. I had a good garden spot up in Danvers which is about 8 miles away. It was on state hospital property. But 8 miles is too far. The gas crunch came and then there was some vandalism to the place up there…..”

Kent: “…..to your garden?…..”

John: “Yes. It was a sort of community operation you see, with the state taking care of the plowing …..The trouble I have now is with rotation. There’s two theories about it. If you are in a professional situation, you’re not going to plant beans on the same plot more than once, or certainly not more than every third year. On the other hand, one of the big beliefs that I have, and I think I am correct in it, is that in most home garden situations, even in farm gardens, they still plant their garden in a plot. They tend to repeat…..I feel that a plant growing in the conditions of home garden, which pays no attention to rotation, generally, or not that much, or if they do rotate in a home garden, they are not rotating all that great a distance. A good home gardener might have 100 ft. on a side and he would consciously move his crops from here to here to here, but with the tilling and all that, he’s not getting all the cleanliness that he needs. But in the saving of seed such as beans or other homesaved seed and planting them over and over again, I believe we are getting a built in strength into those plants. I think that those plants, if they are planted year after year and they maintain themselves, you’re keeping only the best and your plant is developing a resistance to whatever might be present…..So you have a pattern where the self-saved seed is developing a strength to cope with whatever is in that neighborhood and it exhibits it year after year…..Gee this case is the most fabulous thing. Look at it building up its good looks already.”

Kent: “It’s going to be a knockout. And we haven’t even finished one page yet.”

Kent: “…..Ralph is really wanting to grow as many of Burt Berrier’s varieties as possible. But on your accession list that the Rodale people sent me, there are no sources. Will Burt’s beans be 100 or so varieties between this and that accession number?”

John: “Not really, because I was circulating with Burt before he died. There was some mixup right after his death because I had been dealing with him anyway…..After Burt passed away the National Seed Storage Lab, at his previous request, picked up his collection. But because the sample sizes were so small they decided to offer them to me. When Dr. Bass offered them to me, I assumed that they were also offering them to others. So when I made my selection from the Lab’s printout sheet, I avoided taking any of Burt’s that I already had – either ones that he and I both had or any of his that I had gotten earlier. I didn’t want to be hoggish about it…..But somewhere in my file, I think I have the printout sheet that the Lab sent me that lists his on there and I can make a copy of that and send it to Ralph.”

Kent: “That’s good, because I would especially like to get those to Ralph…. and Russell is simply fascinated with crosses…..”

John: “Oh, really? That’s the way Ernest Dana is up in New Hampshire…..He’s got one that he calls Dana’s Cross and another that is a Soldier that is crossed with something else. But when I’ve spoken with Prof. Meador about crosses, he just sort of grins…..The common Phaseolus just resists crossing…..How are you going to prove it’s a cross? I guess I just haven’t paid that much attention to them, having had the word from the expert (Prof. Meador) that’s it…”

Kent: “…..That it doesn’t happen?…..”

John: “Oh, absolutely, it happens. But the way they like to describe it is that it more often is a genetic shift than it is a real cross. The weak genes in the plant succumb of increase according to conditions or soil pH or whatever…..that sort of a shift is actually what happens more often than actual crossing due to insects or weather…..In all of the times that I have tried them, and every year I have tried some of these outcrosses or mixups or whatever you want to call them, I come up with all sorts of variable results.”

Kent: “Have you ever become so interested in one that you tried to stabilize it?”

John: “Oh yes, and I have done it on one occasion when I gave a variety a name – Lynnfield, after my town. It was out of a pole bean that Ernest Dana sent me. When I grew it I saw a difference in some of the plants and in their earliness. So I marked those, separated them and found that the difference showed up in the seed…..Prof. Meador had told me that if it would maintain that characteristic through three plantings, three growouts, then it could be called a new variety…..”And that is what happened and I gave it the name Lynnfield. But I would not be so bold as to say that definitively, because as you know, grown somewhere else, it might revert back to the other…..”

John: “I think we should have a contest and tell people – In this collection of over 800 different beans are three look alikes. If you can find them…..”

Kent: “…..we’ll give you a packet of beans that needs multiplying…..”

John: “Right. That’ll shake them up……”

Kent: “How long has it taken you to build up this collection?”

John: “…..14 years…..”

John: “Years ago I remember getting my first Wild Goose bean. It was a pole variety from Rhode Island. Then I read this article by Dixon, I think it was, up in New York who was describing his attempt at collecting heirlooms. They had a regular program for it at one time at the University. They went heavily into West Virginia. He described a person who had given him some Wild Goose beans and he described the same story as the woman had described who gave me the ones from R. I. It turned out when we got together on it that the two beans with the same name were altogether different in appearance. And over the years I have gotten a number of Wild Goose names with different seeds…..They’ve come from different states, they all have the same story – from the crop of a wild goose, and they are all different beans. Now I have gotten one that has the name Turkey Craw, the same story only with a wild turkey. I think that’s just cute as the devil. Makes a good story.”

Kent: “I got a Wild Goose bean this last year that was supposedly taken from the crop of a wild goose that had been shot by a slave.”

John: “They really went back on that one, didn’t they?”

John: “Isn’t that the most beautiful display. I just hope somebody can get a picture of it.”

Kent: “I’ll be taking as many as I can.”

John: “I’m going to be allowed to take it home?”

Kent: “Oh, certainly. But I have to list it as an asset of the SSE…..”

John: “Then let’s just call it a long term loan…..”

Kent: “Exactly.”

John: “Right after I get home I get to speak to the Historical Society in my town and this will be the perfect thing…..it’s heavenly…..just beautiful…..”
Kent: “You know a person can read about a collection of 1,200 different beans, but that’s just a number. I figured that the visual impact of seeing 800 different beans displayed would be incredible…..What better way to spread the word…..”

(John’s bean case is on display for the winter at the Peabody Museum at Salem, Massachusetts. For more about the Wanigan Associates collection, see also – “The Growers Network” and John’s speech at the Seed Banks Serving People Workshop).

Ralph Stevenson & Russell Crow

During July of last summer, I took a trip to meet two bean collectors – Ralph Stevenson and Russell Crow. My family drove up to Diane’s folks in Festina, Iowa which is in the extreme NE corner of Iowa, just 30 miles from Minnesota and 50 miles from the Mississippi. From there I drove over to Russell Crow’s in Woodstock, Illinois which is NW of Chicago.

Russ was in his garden when I got there. I’d never seen such a garden. I thought we had a good sized garden at home, but this one was huge and except for a couple of rows, it was all beans. The soil was black and Russ had it worked up really fine. I was really fascinated by the differences you could see in the varieties when they are grown side by side like that. There were leaves of all shapes and sizes and textures and shades of green. There were many beans with runners of different lengths that didn’t climb.

Then we went inside to see his seeds. There were metal shelves filled with different containers. There were shallow flat boxes with row upon row of seed packets. The ones to be planted next season were already lined up. There were new treasures that had come too late to be planted this season. I got my first look at Butterfly Runner – the most beautiful bean I’ve ever seen.

Russ works night shift at a Chrysler plant and he had to go to work in the middle of the afternoon. I went through his packets and containers of beans for hours and went back out three times to walk some more in his garden. Russ got off work for the weekend late that night and we left right then for Ralph Stevenson’s.

By early morning we were there, tired but excited. Ralph and his wife Clara, live just outside of Tekonsha, Mich. in a lovely farmhouse surrounded by big trees and barns. Clara has flowers everywhere, really beautiful. The flowerbeds outside their backdoor contained an incredible collection of hen-and-chicks. And out behind the house was Ralph’s bean garden. It was a little bigger that Russ’ and neither one of their gardens had a weed in them. The following are from tapes of that day –

Ralph: “This used to be a bean center here in southern Michigan. They used to ship carloads of beans out of here every fall. They had two thrashers around here all fall thrashing beans into the winter. We’d pull the plants, load them into a wagon and store them in the barn until the thrasher came. Now there isn’t hardly a bean raised around here. It’s all up around Bad Axe in the thumb of Michigan. The last two years up there they have been raising the Black Mexican Bean and they’re all being shipped to Mexico.”

Kent: “I’ve heard there’s quite a bean center on the west slope of the Rockies near Grand Junction, Colorado where farmers are still planting and combining fields of dry beans. Do you think there are many dry beans that are still grown in field conditions like that?”
Ralph: “The Northerns are still being grown in Minnesota that way.”

Russ: “Navys, kidneys, pinto, the common ones you see in the grocery stores are being grown that way, but I doubt that many others are.”

Kent: “This seed was sent to me by an 80 year old woman in Arkansas who said that it was the really rare Ice Bean, but it’s nothing like the Ice Bean that Ralph showed me.”

Russ: “That looks like Ramshorn.”

Ralph: “Sure does.”

Kent: “Do people tend to call anything that has a whitish pod and Ice Bean? Are there different Ice Beans?”

Ralph: “No. The true Ice Bean has a greenish pod that doesn’t have too much color. It’s the color of ice – just a light-colored frosty looking bean.”

Kent: “Are Ice Bean and Icicle Bean and White Cabbage Bean all the same?”

Ralph: “I’d say so.”

Russ: “In Beans of New York, the variety name was originally Cabbage Bean and it’s grouped with the wax pods and Ice Bean was one of its synonyms.”

Kent: “Someone wrote me that white cabbage is the same color as its pod.”

Russ: “What amazes me is that this far down the road in this century, that there is still even this much. That people have bothered to keep this much alive.”

Ralph: “The way people are getting now days, I’m just afraid that there will be a lot more available this century than there will be next.”

Russ: “If we could just get more young people excited about gardening and helping keep older varieties alive.”

Kent: “I think that may already be happening. The people who are in the SSE right now are mainly either in their 20’s and 30’s or in their 60’s and 70’s. There is a tremendous amount of interest right now. So many more people are writing that they have this, or that they are looking for that, or that they are willing to grow varieties that need multiplying. And that’s totally different than it was even two years ago. Maybe it’s because I have finally built it to the point where I am really contacting them. Or maybe people’s awareness has changed and they realize that there is a real problem and they are willing to work for it.”

Kent: “Tom Knoche, the squash collector, was at the Campout Convention. He told me, “I’ve got a real funny story to tell you. This magazine writer was interviewing me over the phone and asked me ‘Why are you growing all this?’ I told her, “I just like to see them grow.” She went on for awhile and then asked me the same question again. And again I told her, “I just like to see them grow.” She came back and asked me that same question four different times…..”

Ralph: “She asked me the same thing.”

Kent: “What’d you tell her?”

Ralph: “Just like he did – I just like to see them grow.”

Ralph: “I thought Aaron was going to come up with you?”

Kent: “He was going to, but his grandpa is combining oats. I wish he had come because he would have been fascinated with your collections. This next generation we’re teaching is really going to be something. I think he knows more about gardening at age 9 than I knew at 25. He really loves it. I’ll be sitting at my desk typing and he’ll come up and start tugging at my arm and say “Come on, let’s go look at the garden…..come on, let’s go look at the garden…..”

Russ: “I’ve got a really good name for the next bean cross that I stabilize.”

Ralph: “What’s that?”

Russ: “I’m going to call it – Your Guess Is As Good As Mine.”

Ralph: “That’ll about cover it.”

Kent: “Is there anything that either of you are trying to find?”

Ralph: “I’m looking for a large red lima bean the size of Christmas Lima. And of course any out of this world bean is always welcome.”

Russ: “I’d like to find a lot of those that are in Beans of New York.”

Kent: “How big a list of those did you send to Dr. Bass and how many did he have?”

Russ: “Probably 80 and he sent me 6 of them.”

Clara Stevenson: “How do you find time to keep a garden that size clean and work full time too?”

Russ: “I work at night and spend 3 hours or more a day in the garden. I work at it in sections.”

Clara: “Ralph just about lives in the garden.”

Russ: “One time this spring I had some really heavy weeding to do and I just disappeared into the garden for the whole weekend. But now the rows have closed in so much that I can’t till anymore.”

Ralph: “When they start blooming and setting pods, you want to stop your cultivating. Oh maybe a little weeding and hoeing. But mainly you want to leave them alone.”

Kent: “You don’t fertilize, or you didn’t this year?”

Russ: “No. Beans aren’t heavy feeders.”

Ralph: “I tried some 5-10-5 on about a third of a row of the navy beans, but I can’t tell where I started and where I left off. What kind of tiller have you got?”

Russ: “It’s a Troy-Bilt. I’ve found that you’ve got to till about 6” deep and soft and fluffy if you want to get things off to a good growing start. I had a patch in a garden that was rough one year and the beans were stunted and didn’t grow right.”

Kent: “I’ve heard people talk about planting some beans eye down. Do you ever do that?”

Ralph: “It’s good to plant all of your larger beans, especially the limas, with the eye down. The root comes out of the eye of the bean and starts pushing the bean up out of the ground. In some cases if the ground gets hard, if you can’t keep it loose or wet, a large bean planted eye up will be in such a bind that it will actually break itself off. With the little beans, it doesn’t matter.”

Ralph: “I was really sorry to hear that John Withee was having trouble. I always loved hearing from him. I really enjoyed reading his newsletters. And he’s always been real fair in his exchanges.”

Russ: “I love getting letters from him too. They’re always really interesting and his sense of humor invariably comes through.”

How to Plant and Tend for 250 Varieties of Beans

Ralph fall plows and works his soil up in the spring. He lays open 2” deep rows with a large hoe. Then he spaces and drops the seeds with one of those hand pushed seeding machines, putting in numbered metal tags on metal stakes as he goes. Then he covers the seeds with about an inch of dirt and firms it. He has a little garden tractor with a spring tooth cultivator bolted on its back end. It has seven teeth and he removes the middle one. He cultivates right over the top of the plants two different times until they are too tall to pass under the tractor. Then he switches to a couple of contraptions like I had never seen before. They were really old manufactured jobs that he’d fixed up. They reminded me of push cultivators with the big front metal tires that many people use in their gardens. The teeth and the handles were the same, but they each had a small rubber tire up front and a gasoline motor. One was larger than the other and he used it until the rows closed in so much that he had to switch to the smaller one. When the rows closed in so much that he couldn’t use the smaller one, he went to his hoe.

(From Russell’s Letters) – “People should always wait until the weather and soil are both warm when planting beans. Don’t try to rush it. Beans planted two or three weeks later will often do better and mature just as fast as those that have been struggling during that period to overcome cold weather…..The biggest problem for the bean grower is wet weather during harvest. If it is raining when the pods should be drying, the beans just sprout in the pods. It can really be a mess. A week of rain at the wrong time can take you from having a good crop to just hoping you get seed back…..”