Bruno's Celery Garden
By: Carl Helbig
Did you know that Edgewater was once known for its celery farms? My family never owned one, but we certainly were in the celery-growing business. Mr. Miller lived across the alley from us on Hermitage. He was a retired farmer, but there was nothing to indicate “farmer” in his dress. He always wore a vest and tie.
My father, Bruno Helbig, was a bricklayer, but he dressed like a farmer. Some mornings, Mr. Miller would walk through our yard and stop to talk with Bruno in his high, squeaky voice. I don’t know how much my father knew about growing celery before talking to Mr. Miller but, once he got interested, we sure grew a lot of it.
Our backyard was exceptionally large since Clark Street ran on an angle and the Northwestern Railroad ran straight, north and south. There wasn’t room enough for another street so we got a large lot. The soil was black and sandy - ideal for growing celery.
But you didn’t just plunk seeds in the garden and expect celery to grow. The plants had to be started in hotbeds to make their growing season long enough. The hotbeds had to be ready for seeding by March 15th of each year. Our four hotbeds were patches of earth covered by bottomless, boxlike structures we constructed with planks and topped with special glass windows with cedar frames. The planks were low in the front and higher in the back so that the hotbeds would be slanted toward the sun.
The ground under the boxes was dug out to make room for a layer of horse manure, then soil was relayered over that. As the manure fermented it got hot. The boxes trapped this heat as well as the heat from the sun, making the hotbeds warm enough to merit their name. There were a couple of stables within wheelbarrow distance, one at Ridge and Ravenswood and the other at Consumer’s Ice Plant, which supplied our needs very well.
Besides celery, we seeded tomatoes, lettuce, endive, cabbage, kohlrabi and radishes. The garden provided needed food for our table and my father sold the tomato plants for 25 cents a dozen. Those were Depression times and my father couldn’t find a job at his trade, so the tomato money was welcome. My mother even raised his beer money allotment. But celery was always king of the crops.
The celery plants were very fine when they first came up, but later they needed more room to grow in the hotbeds. Except for the tomatoes, the other plants had either been harvested or relocated elsewhere in the garden by the time this was necessary. Thinning out, or transplanting, was a back-breaking job, especially in hotbeds since you couldn’t get at the plants without reaching down into the boxes. Meanwhile, the area of the garden where the celery was to be planted next was being prepared with our own compost or more horse manure.
One year, when I was a milkman driving a horse and wagon, my father talked me into bringing some horse manure home from work in my ‘62 Plymouth convertible. I took the cushions out of the rumble seat and filled it with manure. I never could get it all out of the car. Trying to wash it out with a hose only drove it further into the crevices. From then on my car smelled like a stable.
Transplanting the celery from hotbed to garden was another monotonous job. A couple of weeks before Halloween, we would dig a trench a foot deep, dig up the celery, now 4 to 5 inches tall, pull off any yellow stalks and replant it in the trench, real close together. We did the same with our endive, though the trench was not as deep, and covered up both crops with burlap bags and leaves to prevent freezing. After a couple of weeks, the celery and endive would bleach and turn yellow. The celery would be real tender and the endive would no longer be bitter.
My father was very proud of the fact that we had vegetables out of the garden at our Christmas table. We had celery on the table at every evening meal and celery in the stuffing of our Christmas bird.
When I married Lorraine and brought her to my home, my father, who lived on the second floor, finally gave up on trying to make me a gardener and taught my wife what he knew about the subject. At last a reprieve! I was called upon to help, however. One year my wife decided we should gather the dead alewife fish that Lake Michigan washed ashore on the beach and use them for fertilizer. We had to spread mothballs all over the yard to keep the neighborhood cats from digging up our garden. Everything grew very well - the tomatoes, corn, even the carrots. But you couldn’t eat them; they tasted like rotten fish!
Despite the “fishy” story, my father taught my wife well. She continues to garden, although in a space one quarter the size of my father’s garden. Our garden does not have even one hotbed. We do not plant celery!
I venture to say that my father was the last one to grow celery in that large a volume in Edgewater.