By Lynn H. Nelson
I've not been lifting potato sacks but have been lifting the potatoes themselves into my mouth. When I was younger, stores had many more kinds of potatoes from which to choose: Idaho (now simply called Russets, the other types of Idaho spuds having vanished over time), King Edwards, Norgold Russets, Goldrushes, Norkotahs, Long Whites, La Sodas, Red La Rouges, Red Pontiacs, Red Bliss, Superiors, Kennebecs, Katahdins, Jersey Royals and so forth. These days, all I seem to see are russets, whites, new, and several foreign varieties that come in strange colors, like Easter eggs.
At one time, the Wakarusa Valley, just East of Lawrence where the Wakarusa joins the Kaw, was the home of the Wakarusa potato, a delicious variety that was harvested at about 25,000 pounds per acre and supplied the canning plants that were an important part of the Kansas (and Lawrence) economy. But they didn't travel well, and so were slowly squeezed out of the market at the same time that the truck gardens that used to lie around most cities began to be paved over into parking lots and subdivisions.
Someday, someone should write an agricultural history of that part of the Wakarusa Valley, then regarded as one of the most fertile pieces of land in America. When I came to Kansas in 1963, the area was already in decline although I didn't know it. The old highway between Lawrence and Eudora, passing through the district was known as "Dutchman's Row" because of the neat farmhouses and rows of mailboxes bearing German names that lined the road.
Some potatoes were still being raised, but there were three peach and apple orchards, a sandy stretch along the Kaw that produced some of the finest asparagus you can imagine, fields of succulent pumpkins and squash, vinyards of red and white grapes, small plots red in season with their tomatoes, and large gardens of lettuce, peas and beans, sweet corn, okra and everything else that could warm the heart of a home canner -- even some brussel sprouts for the adventurous. In addition, there were fields of alfalfa so thick and tall that they had to drag the cows out by the tails because the critters simply couldn't eat a path back home.
But it was already in decline. Some years a windstorm would come and take the limbs off the fruit trees, or floods would sometimes rot the vegetables in the ground. But I suppose that the major factor was the declining market for the Valley's produce As the selection of frozen foods in the grocery stores increased, The gardens of the Wakarusa Valley became smaller and less well-kept.
When they began building the Clinton Dam, the annual floods that laid a new layer of silt in the valley, flushed its soil and recharged its sub-surface water came to an end and the chemicals and fertilizers came to an end and the nature of the land altered considerably.
Since the establishment of the Farmers' Market in Lawrence, there has been a bit of a comeback of truck gardening in the district, but truck gardening requires more labor for less return than putting the land in soya beans.
Society has changed, too. The newer generation of folks who own family farms are able to keep their land only by having jobs in town, something that leaves no time for gardens and orchards. The folks have moved into town themselves, and the old farmhouses are used as barns, are in a state of decay, or have vanished. The only substantial homes are those that have been converted from the school houses that used to dot a rather densely populated landscape.
The had facts of the matter is that the Kaw as well as much of the land that lies along it, along with the wells that once served those farms, have been poisoned.
Times change, and not only for the good. The important role that old folks - and you never thought that I would get back to the subject of Fred's note, did you - is to remind younger people how things used to be and so, perhaps, to try to recapture a bit of the past.