Soldiers of the Soil: A Historical Review of the United States School Garden Army
By Rose Hayden-Smith
4-H Youth Development and Master Gardener Advisor,
WINTER 2006, 20 pages
“Every boy and every girl should be a producer. Production is the first principle in education. The growing of plants and animals should therefore become an integral part of the school program. Such is the aim of the U.S. School Garden Army.”
With these words, the federal Bureau of Education (BOE) launched the United States School Garden Army (USSGA) during World War I. The USSGA represented an unprecedented governmental effort to make agricultural education a formal part of the public school curriculum throughout the United States.
While agricultural education for rural youth had been a government goal for several years, efforts to teach agricultural education to urban and suburban youth had been slower to take hold. The USSGA represented a shift in federal policy by strongly targeting urban and suburban youth.4 Using patriotic appeals (and no small degree of coercion), the government sought to enlist the aid of youth to raise food for America.
The USSGA exemplifies how Americans mediated competing urban and rural values during a period of rapid change and national transformation. Through the USSGA, positive values attributed to America’s rural past were recast and articulated in the largely urban milieu of gardening. Gardening itself offered a new synthesis of the urban and rural, as new techniques and methods pioneered by urban-led scientific agriculture blended with traditional rural folkways. The USSGA’s
curriculum reflected new educational philosophies that schooled urban youth in tasks traditionally associated with rural life.
After Armistice was signed in November of 1918, the National War Garden Commission, Food Administration, and Bureau of Education published “victory” editions of their manuals, revised posters to reflect Allied victory, and encouraged Americans to continue gardening. Gardening was needed to rebuild the world. However, despite these efforts, the USSGA was dismantled soon after Armistice was signed. Its cousins, the Liberty/Victory Garden and Woman’s Land Army programs, suffered the same fate, and quietly disappeared. Urban and rural Americans still gardened, of course, but Uncle Sam didn’t ask them to.