Company towns are strange holdovers from the middle ages. In my mom’s hometown of Ware Shoals, the bank, church, clothing store, housing and, of course, work—all were owned by the textile mill. Money didn’t matter—whatever the company paid out, it got back in profits and rents. Step out of line and you better move along. However, no vagrants welcome, no strangers looking for a job. This paradox put the entire region into a deep freeze. My mother was fortunate to have had the opportunity to get out, in the form of my dad, a young pilot who had stopped in Greenwood, South Carolina, to visit his friendly competitors at Park, while flying huge bales of bare root tomato transplants in a small cargo plane from a greenhouse in Indiana to a farmers coop in southern Georgia. It was one of his first jobs out of college and before the war, the spring of 1941. Every time I meet George Park, Jr., whose brother I might have been, we have a drink. Burpee and Park remain fierce but friendly rivals.
But here’s the weird part: our current plant production nursery—where, coincidentally, we grow mostly tomato transplants—is a newly built greenhouse complex in tiny Metal Township, in the mountains of western Pennsylvania. At our dedication ceremony last winter, a local resident, Maureen Shook, asked me if I knew the local history: Park Seed had started within walking distance of our greenhouses. I could just make out the original Park residence, where Ms. Shook lives, across the small valley. Mr. Park had started out in 1868 selling flower seed to local farmers, and his business exploded nationwide, so he moved first to Florida and finally to South Carolina.
Ware Shoals has a celebrated high school football program, and its stadium can be seen in the current movie, “Leatherheads”. I used to visit my grandmother, “Mama Ann”, and my aunts, uncles and cousins in the summers when I was a child. She ran The Ware Shoals Inn, a pleasant traveler’s hotel and boarding house with a large dining room and typical veranda overlooking the town’s only lighted intersection. Uncle Lee lived out of town on a little farm that backed into woods, where John Pratt, Little Lelion, Ann Bethey, Little Tracy and I would play in the ponds. At night they’d scare the daylights out of me with ghost stories. There was no television or radio, just a screened porch. Aunt Doris kept a freezer case in the kitchen which we were allowed to raid once each sweltering evening. On Sunday, we’d pile into the car to go into town to see Mama Ann. A big, gorgeous woman, she’d stand at the inn’s stove frying chicken in a skillet. Biscuits, iced tea, watermelon, and then I would nearly pass out in the middle of the afternoon. She’d let me crawl up on her big bed next to the air conditioner. I’d cool off and fall asleep. The boarding house served a widow as well as the town deputy, who had the first aquarium I ever saw. A relative lived on the top floor, George Earle, who was in his twenties and had a confederate flag on his bedroom wall and a 1951 Mercury with which he cruised around town in his jeans and white t-shirt. Even he joined in on the ghost stories, which were the big pastime.
Everyone had a double first name. Mine was “B.G.”, for “Baby George”, since I was the youngest in the family. I used a stick to poke at the cottonmouth snake that lived in one of the ponds. Later my mother told me it was very dangerous, but we used to play with it anyway. My cousin Lelion worked at the Piggly Wiggly as a bagger and dated a girl that cashiered. John Pratt was a “ladies man” who later married and moved to Atlanta where he worked as a mechanic for Delta. They were all much older than I, but I still felt very close to them, which is a bit of a southern phenomenon.
Back to Queens: the armory is gone, the population is very thinly German, there are many diverse ethnic communities, and yet the pastoral feeling remains, due mainly to the familiar flatness of the topography and the proximity of large and beautiful parks. It is one of the few places on the east coast that reminds me of Chicago. I got so busy poking around for lost ancestral sites that I failed to stop at the rejuvenated Queens Botanical Garden. I drove by the impressive entrance. I can’t wait to make another trip and take in the new environmental exhibits that have received so much press.