Chapter One: The Legend of John Withee
“Selecting seed beans is an exercise in anticipation; in many ways it is similar to exposing a beautiful scene in a camera – you must wait a while for the result” –John Withee, 1977 i
It’s an odd pursuit, collecting old beans. And yet, if you knew him, it seems perfectly fitting that John Withee became a legend championing bean biodiversity and seeking to protect heirloom beans from extinction. It also seems fitting that John took his hobby to the extreme, building a national network of bean aficionados, amassing a collection of 1,186 varieties, and gaining national fame for his humble campaign… that is it seems fitting, if you knew the man. John Withee (1910-1993) was an adventurer, a photographer, a dedicated family man, and yes, a bean collector. He dedicated nearly two decades of his life to curating one of the largest personal collections of garden beans in the United States. In the process he organized like-minded seed savers and united a community of passionate gardeners under the Wanigan Associates. His unusual vision - that the beans he remembered growing, eating, and seeing as a child would once again be abundant - struck a chord in the 1970s and 80s, earning him folk hero status and national press. But to John, it was just another adventure.
Chapter Two: Mainer
John Earl Withee, Jr. was born October 21, 1910 in Portland, Maine to John Earl Withee (1887-1936) and Inez Maud (Daly) Withee (1886-1972). He was one of six children raised during an economic recession in rural Gorham, Maine. Since times were tough and his family was large, beans were a household staple. Saturday dinners were always the same for the Withees: baked beans. Each Friday, John’s chore was to clean out the bean hole, a dedicated pit in the yard used as an earth oven, and to start a fire. When the coals got hot, a Dutch oven full of beans was placed over the coals and the hole was filled with dirt. The beans would bake for an entire day and would be ready for the Saturday evening meal. Leftovers were reheated for Sunday meals and any that remained were served on bread with mayonnaise for school lunches throughout the week. Even though beans were a near constant meal, John “never developed a dislike for beans.” ii Instead, these childhood memories fueled his obsession with collecting beans later in life.
>>Read more about John Withee’s bean hole here.
As a youngster, John worked as a market gardener to help support his family. This was his first experience growing beans on a large scale. John preferred to grow varieties with attractive colors and patterns, and he attributed his farmer’s market success to the beauty of the beans. He stated in a 1977 interview:
“When I was a kid, we used to shell the beans and put them out in pint baskets. Most people preferred to buy them that way, and they looked a lot better than the ordinary brown or gray beans in the pod." iii
Chapter Three: Adventurer
John Withee’s adventures began long before his bean collection. As a young man during the Great Depression, he and a friend attempted to travel from Maine to Alaska looking for work and adventure. Being resourceful they took advantage of the rail system, stowing away on train cars all the way to the Alaskan border. For unknown reasons they were not granted entry into the U.S. territory so they rode the rails back to Maine.iv This one failed trip did not dissuade John’s wanderlust or his love of cross-continental travel. He took many long excursions, including a fondly remembered six week trip with his grandchildren in a van retro-fitted with a sofa and two desks for the kids. v
These cross-country trips seem mundane in comparison to some of his other feats. John Withee befriended explorers and doctors who presented him with new and perilous adventures. He was acquainted with Vilhjalmur Stefansson, an Arctic explorer, ethnographer, and eventually the Director of Polar Studies at Dartmouth College, who once taught John how to properly build an igloo. John flew a small Piper Cub airplane to the Arctic, twice, with a friend. He expanded his hobby of winter mountain climbing that began in Maine with Mt. Katahdin and eventually included scaling the Grand Tetons. His love of adventure often had him looking west and he spent time exploring the Rocky Mountains as well.vi But each year, he still made it home to plant a garden.
Chapter Four: A Pioneer in the Field of Medical Photography
John’s enthusiasm for trying new things, his amiable personality, and his drive to support his family allowed him to hold many unique jobs. He worked as a bank messenger, a night janitor, a weather observer, and a door-to-door bakery salesman. Each of these jobs added to his dynamic resume and presented their own little adventures.
In 1935, John married the love of his life, Ruth Sawyer. A few years later, he and Ruth left Maine and settled in New Hampshire, where John took advantage of a life-changing opportunity. A job opened at the Mary Hitchcock Hospital in Hanover, New Hampshire for a medical photographer. John’s good friend, Dr. Ralph Miller, who worked at the hospital and could vouch for John Withee’s work ethic and experience with photography, offered him the position. And John found a new passion to pursue in a developing new field.
“So, here was my grandfather, not formally educated and brought up on farms and in relative poverty, working closely with medical doctors. I can imagine that my grandfather’s friendliness and general hunger to learn about things that interested him (in this case photography and medical science) made him popular and admired by the doctors he interacted with.” –Russell Bradbury-Carlin (Grandson to John Withee) vii
John held this position for nearly 20 years until 1960 when another vacancy presented an opportunity at one of the most distinguished hospitals in the world. John was offered the position as Chief of the Photographic Laboratory at what is now Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. John’s passion for learning, his congenial personality, and his ability to produce good work made him extremely successful in the medical photography field. His career culminated in his appointment as the head of the expanding medical photography department at Brigham and Women’s hospital in Boston, Massachusetts in 1960.
Chapter Five: Bean Hole Revival
Following his appointment as chief of photography in Massachusetts, the Withee family tried to settle into their new home state. They moved from apartment to apartment without a yard of their own. Finally, they purchased a house with a large plot of land in Lynnfield, Massachusetts.
“Born and raised in Maine, with family roots in the lumbering country, I have inherited deep feelings about beans as being synonymous with lumber camps. My removal to the Boston suburbs years ago caused a sort of bean trauma. Especially severe was the temporary loss of the bean hole...” –John Withee, 1976viii
With his new garden, it became clear to John Withee that he needed to build a bean hole to revive that fondly remembered Maine tradition. This decision, to hold a simple gathering and revive the bean hole tradition with his friends and neighbors would have an unforeseen impact on the next 20 years of his life.
“His passion for beans took a new turn… when he decided to throw a bean-hole bash for a few dozen friends at his home in Massachusetts. Now the tastiest cultivar you can use for bean-hole beans, he maintains is ‘Jacob’s Cattle’.... But when he went hunting for the beans for his bean-hole bash, not a single ‘Jacob’s Cattle’ could he find within fifty miles.” ix
After substituting with less than desirable varieties, John got back to his roots. He believed that in Maine, he would easily locate a ‘Jacob’s Cattle’ bean or, at the very least, ‘Yellow Eye’ or ‘Soldier’ beans. He stated in one interview:
“’Jacob’s Cattle’ used to be a very common variety… I figured if that one was hard to find, what must be happening to some of the other less common varieties?” x
John set out on a new adventure, to find the varieties he remembered from his days keeping the family’s bean hole and market gardening. But it wasn’t ‘Jacob’s Cattle’ bean that he found. Rather he uncovered a whole new cornucopia of varieties he never knew existed. John realized that there were probably many other home-saved beans that he had never heard of before that were kept by a few old timers or held by a few close knit families. John thought these varieties were worth saving and sharing.
>>Explore the varieties John uncovered
John was inspired by those family varieties that he did find. He decided that collecting unusual home-saved beans would make a fantastic hobby. This new venture combined a little bit of all the things John loved: adventure, intrigue, discovery, travel, and the opportunity to meet new people.
Chapter Six: A New Adventure
“[John Withee] told his many relatives in Maine that he was interested in saving “Heirloom” beans. The relatives told their friends. It was all quite casual. Every now and then a few beans - including some cultivars Withee had never heard of before - arrived in the mail.”xi
John took his collecting on the road. When he wasn’t working or in his garden, he was regularly taking trips in search for forgotten varieties. He trekked around Maine and New Hampshire, stopping in every food store along the way and posting notices in free publications throughout New England. As John found beans he had never seen before, recipes he had never tried, and heard stories of unique varieties nearly lost forever, he added them to the growing collection of varieties he grew, shared, and championed. The diversity of beans, their unique seed coats, and their many preparations (from baked to candied! xii) had ignited his interest in collecting them. At the time he noted that seed companies offered very few varieties for sale and that varieties sometimes dropped out of commerce unexpectedly. If no one saved seeds of these family heirlooms, they could vanish forever.
After several years of collecting beans and stories, John’s bean collecting had taken off. He had over 200 bean varieties by 1975. His collection had grown beyond a part time hobby and its maintenance verged on impossible for one person. Every variety had to be grown periodically to produce new healthy seeds. And every new variety was a new commitment to the cycle of growing, harvesting, cleaning, storing, and growing. His little hobby was requiring more time, space, and money to maintain.
Chapter Seven: The Wanigan Associates
As in the past, a solution presented itself. John’s time constraint was resolved when he chose to retire from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in December 1976. This meant he could now devote himself full time to his precious beans. But he was still short on space and resources and he went looking for help.
“Lack of space for a healthy rotation (three years) has made the cooperation of other growers most welcome.” –John Withee, 1976 xiii
As beans, recipes, stories, facts, statistics, and all bean-related information poured in. John found the answer to his resource limitations. Through his collection expeditions, he had discovered a community of like-minded seed savers who were also concerned that beans were disappearing; he just needed to bring them all together.
In 1976, he devised a plan to help with space and funding by founding a non-profit organization he named Wanigan Associates. John had many goals for the Wanigan Associates, but he described his non-profit concisely:
“Wanigan Associates Inc. is the legal name for a one man bean hobby – collecting, propagating and distributing seeds of heirloom beans.” xiv
The term “Wanigan” was taken from John’s Maine heritage. During early logging operations in Maine, logs were floated down streams and rivers by logging companies in the spring. Moving along the drive, on a barge or raft, was a cook shack, called a Wanigan, an Abenaki word meaning “that into which something strays.” In those days of log drives, a Wanigan undoubtedly provided hungry loggers with a bounty of hearty bean dishes.
The Wanigan Associates project was a membership organization that John envisioned would grow and share seeds of home grown bean varieties. Membership cost $5 a year, the equivalent of $22 in 2016. John used the money to keep members up to speed with his bean adventure, to offset the costs of growing out his collection, and, naturally, to fund his bean hunting excursions. Members received The Wanigan Newsletter, the most recent Heirloom Beans catalog, two heirloom bean varieties of the member’s choice, and two more of John’s choosing.
John’s selections went out with a hope that members would send him back a bit of the harvest and cut down on the number of varieties John needed to grow himself. He stated in 1976 that he had sent out over 90 bean varieties to 132 Maine gardeners. This was how he hoped to continue this vast preservation effort, by involving interested gardeners and spreading the workload of this immense project between them.
Wanigan Associates was a hit! Its near-immediate success meant that more and more people knew about John’s little hobby. The more people learned about the project, the more varieties were discovered. And the more John’s celebrity grew.
Chapter Eight: Fame
“As it was with his becoming a medical photographer, I am sure he had no plans to become The Bean Man. He just followed a passion and it led him in that direction…” –Russell Bradbury-Carlin (John Withee’s grandson) xviii
John’s efforts to uncover old bean varieties by talking to friends, canvassing neighborhoods, placing bills in grocery stores, and advertising in local newspaper was earning him local notoriety. However, his voice reached a national audience with the publication of an article that he wrote for Farmstead Magazine in 1976 called “Heirloom Beans.” Here, he recruited new Wanigan Associates members and asked for help in finding old bean varieties.
Yet the article that truly elevated John’s project was published in a 1977 edition of Yankee Magazine. The article titled, “The Bean Man”, bestowed John with his nickname. Tales of the Bean Man spread as other venues picked up on the story and as John continued to author more articles himself.
“My main awareness of his bean collecting actually came when he became a bit more “famous” about it… I remember when he was on the game show To Tell the Truth. We all went to New York and was [sic] there when they taped the show. Three men came out, including my grandfather and each declared, “I am John Withee”. The show host described who The Bean Man was. Then a group of celebrities each asked question of the three men and had to guess which one was John Withee.” –Russell Bradbury-Carlin (John Withee’s grandson) xix
John Withee wrote in his 1976 Farmstead Magazine article that his collection consisted of 210 varieties, and John’s hobby was only gaining momentum. In 1979, when he was recognized in a Seed Savers Exchange publication, John’s collection had more than tripled in size to 680 varieties. In the next two years, it would nearly double again to 1,186 varieties.
“Because of the national exposure which has favored this unusual hobby, my retirement expectations, shop work, vacation trips, house painting, and even other garden work, has been deferred in favor of beans, beans, beans. I love it even with the Pandora’s box effect.” –John Withee, 1979 xxi
Chapter Nine: Too Many Beans, Too Many Letters, Too Little Time
The Wanigan Associates was originally founded by John to solve two problems: the problem of keeping all the beans alive and the problem of finding more varieties that needed saving. It was a rousing success and John was now drowning in his own good fortune. But he also found that his membership fees were not covering his costs.
“I’m a lousy businessman. The five-dollar membership fee barely covered the cost of the newsletter, let alone the postage to reply to all those letters and mail out the beans.” –John Withee, 1982 xxii
The national attention John had received attracted many people - who sent letters, some with seeds and some with questions or leads on bean varieties. But this was always meant to be a hobby for John. Over the years he had repeatedly stated that he was not a professional and that he was only one man facilitating the work of a larger network of gardeners.
However, the rest of the world saw it differently. John was the Bean Man, a champion of seed saving and home-saved seeds, and an authority on the subject. And this weighed on John’s resolve. In addition to keeping up with his Wanigan Associates duties, John felt a strong responsibility to reply to the numerous letters he received from non-members. But it was becoming impossible to keep up with all of the correspondence, the needs of his ever-growing bean collection, and the newsletters he had originally promised to his members. Then, at the height of his fame, John was hospitalized with an illness for several weeks… but the letters and beans continued to arrive in his mailbox.
Chapter Ten: The Next Generation
After several years of collecting beans and stories, John began to worry about the stewardship of his collection. Around this time, he had begun corresponding with a promising seed saving group called Seed Savers Exchange, which was established in 1975. John felt that the organization’s founders, Kent and Diane Whealy, shared his values and his mission. They were kindred spirits.
The Whealy’s began their own seed-saving journey after the death of Diane’s grandfather, Baptist John Ott, who had shared his own Bavarian family heirloom seeds with Diane only months before his passing in 1974.
“He gave us a few of the tiny black seeds in a white pillbox and mentioned that his morning glories came from St. Lucas when my great-grandparents emigrated from Bavaria. I could feel my imagination simmering, and soon I could see my distant relatives in Germany. They were waking up as these same purple morning glories opened to the sun… Now we would become part of that family tradition.” xxiii
Had these seeds and their history not been passed on to the Whealys, they would have been lost forever. The Whealys then pondered how many other seeds had a similar story - immigrants carrying seeds in their aprons and luggage to a strange new country, only to be abandoned by later generations. Were these varieties also in danger of being lost?
John Withee requested Kent and Diane’s help and asked that Seed Savers Exchange take over the Wanigan Associates and John’s bean collection. It was a transformative moment for both organizations. It marked the end of the Wanigan Associates and a new direction for Seed Savers Exchange. At the time, Seed Savers Exchange was not a central repository for heirloom varieties. John’s request became the catalyst that led Seed Savers Exchange to become the largest non-governmental seed bank in the United States.
Chapter Eleven: The Collection
In 1981, John donated samples of his entire bean collection, all 1,186 varieties, to Seed Savers Exchange. He saw in Seed Savers Exchange an organization that shared his ideas about the importance of diversity, seed sharing, and preserving old home-saved garden varieties.
Now freed from a hobby that had become a labor, and confident that his collection would be preserved by like-minded people, gardening and sharing seeds became enjoyable again. John Withee’s collection of 1,186 varieties had been collected over 14 years with most of the collection, 900 varieties, arriving in the last six years of his pursuit.
While he was known as the Bean Man, his collection actually contained several different types of legumes including common beans, cowpeas, lima beans, runner beans, and the arid adapted tepary beans. The diversity of this collection was made possible because of the national fame the project received.
People with an interest in beans from all across the United States donated varieties to the Wanigan Associates project. Many of these folks were home gardeners and seed savers, while others were plant breeders and horticultural professionals. Sometimes a person donated just one variety. Other times John would acquire a gardener’s entire collection. Other varieties were purchased from seed companies, farmer’s markets, and country stores, or obtained from the USDA’s National Seed Storage Lab.
In total, John’s collection was amassed from over 200 unique seed sources and around 20 commercial seed companies. The history of these beans follows family trees, local legends, and historical events. Over time, these varieties have survived the seasons, the soil, pests and diseases, and the waxing and waning interests of generations of gardeners. They have prevailed so far, and with a little help, they will continue.
Chapter Twelve: “What else?”
“What else? My grandfather always had a garden. He preferred camping to staying in hotels. He was eager to talk to anyone. He was eager to learn about just about anything. We had passionate discussions about social issues and politics at the dinner table. He went to bed early and awoke before dawn (at least toward the end of his life). He always had a project going. He didn’t seem to have any real regrets in life (except, maybe, [never] making it to Alaska). He loved his family, especially his wife, deeply.” – Russell Bradbury-Carlin (John Withee’s grandson) xxiv
In Memory of John Withee
10/21/1910 - 05/29/1993
The Bean Man, but also much more
To say John Withee’s offbeat retirement hobby resonated with people is an understatement. Varieties from his collection have been disseminated across the country since the 1970s, and John’s little hobby inspired the creation of the largest non-governmental seed bank in the United States at Seed Savers Exchange.
John’s legacy lives on in his family’s memory of him as well as each time seeds of some old bean variety are planted, shared, and talked about. Knowing the whole story, it seems inevitable that John Withee would become what he became, a champion of heirloom seeds, a horticultural treasure hunter, a dirt covered documentarian. He was the Bean Man, entrenched in history and preservation with the devotion and the foresight to plan for the future. And sure, it was an odd hobby, collecting old beans. But if you knew the man… you’d understand.
- i John Withee, “Untitled.” The Wanigan: A Newsletter – All About Beans, Sept. 1977. 1, no. 3. 4.
- ii Lawrence F Willard, “The Bean Man” Yankee Magazine , June 1977, pp. 68.
- iii Lawrence F Willard, “The Bean Man” Yankee Magazine , June 1977, pp. 155.
- iv Lianne Carlin “Re: Continuing Dad’s Story” Received by Katie Gove, Oct. 7 2016.
- v Russell Bradbury-Carlin, “Re: John Withee” Received by Katie Gove, Feb. 28 2016.
- vi Lianne Carlin “Re: Continuing Dad’s Story” Received by Katie Gove, Oct. 7 2016.
- vii Russell Bradbury-Carlin, “Re: John Withee” Received by Katie Gove, Feb. 28 2016.
- viii John Withee, “Heirloom Beans” Farmstead Magazine, [1976?], pp 46.
- ix Jack Cook, “Rounding Up ‘Jacob’s Cattle.’” Horticulture, July 1982, pp 11.
- x Jack Cook, “Rounding Up ‘Jacob’s Cattle.’” Horticulture, July 1982, pp 11.
- xi Jack Cook, “Rounding Up ‘Jacob’s Cattle.’” Horticulture, July 1982, pp 11.
- xii Cynthia B. Hanson, “An Audience With the ‘Bean King.’” Christian Science Monitor, May 23, 2016.
- xiii John Withee, “Heirloom Beans” Farmstead Magazine, [1976?], pp 47.
- xiv John Withee, “Heirloom Beans.” Third Edition. Lynnfield: John Withee, [1979?].
- xv Steve Smyser, “Reviving the Beans of America’s Past” Organic Gardening and Farming, January 1978, pp 61.
- xvi John Withee, “Heirloom Beans.” Third Edition. Lynnfield: John Withee, [1979?].
- xvii John Withee, “Heirloom Beans” Farmstead Magazine, [1976?], pp 47.
- xviii Russell Bradbury-Carlin, “Re: John Withee” Received by Katie Gove, Feb. 28 2016.
- xix Russell Bradbury-Carlin, “Re: John Withee” Received by Katie Gove, Feb. 28 2016.
- xx Kent Whealy, “Hodgepodge” In The 1979 Seed Savers Exchange, Feb. 1979, pp 32.
- xxi John Withee, “Heirloom Beans.” Third Edition. Lynnfield: John Withee, [1979?].
- xxii Jack Cook, “Rounding Up ‘Jacob’s Cattle.’” Horticulture, July 1982, pp 13.
- xxiii Diane Ott-Whealy, “Gardening in Iowa” In Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver, 23-28. Iowa: Seed Savers Exchange, 2011.
- xxiv Russell Bradbury-Carlin, “Re: John Withee” Received by Katie Gove, Feb. 28 2016.