Bean There, Done That: The Living legacy of the Withee collection
It’s amazing how far a seed can travel. From Washington to Massachusetts, John Withee’s collection is being honored and protected by the next generation of seed savers who carry on his legacy of growing and sharing heirloom beans. Here you can follow the plight of just a few of the varieties in the John Withee bean collection.
Burt Berrier (1893-1978) of Cañon City, Colorado started amassing an impressive collection of over 150 bean varieties while traveling cross-country as a farm machinery salesman (learn more about Burt Berrier here). He enjoyed bean collecting because it allowed him to meet people from all over the world. Around 1970, one of Burt’s international friends sent him an unnamed variety from Portugal.
In 1976, Burt became a member of Seed Savers Exchange. He was quickly recognized by other members as a resource for unique bean varieties and information about those varieties. It is believed that at this point in his life Burt began corresponding and trading seeds with Ralph Stevenson, a fellow member of Seed Savers Exchange and a bean collector from Michigan. The nameless Portuguese variety was among the many beans that Burt shared with Ralph. Both men had also exchanged beans with John Withee but, in the late 1970s, it was Ralph that passed the nameless Portuguese bean to John. John Withee finally provided this variety with the name ‘Canon City’ (pronounced “Canyon”) after Burt Berrier’s home and the location of his bean patch.
After 14 years of collecting beans and stories, John Withee began to worry about the stewardship of his collection. In 1981, to ensure the safety of his beans, John donated samples of his entire collection to Seed Savers Exchange, which was then located in Missouri. In spring 1984, Seed Savers Exchange was relocated to northeast Iowa so that the organization could have the space, irrigation systems, and fertile soils needed to maintain their ever-growing seed collection.
Recently, Seed Savers Exchange corresponded with Burt’s granddaughter Jolie Berrier, who did not have seeds of ‘Canon City’. Thankfully, the seed bank staff was able to give her back a piece of her family history. It is now back in the hands of a Berrier - a new seed steward has been inspired, and a collector’s memory lives on.
The ‘Canon City’ bean was traded, gardener to gardener, since its arrival in the United States. Sharing seeds and connecting with other like minded people has been the intention of the stewards that have preserved this unique variety. Since 1975, Seed Savers Exchange has worked to continue those legacies and maintain genetic diversity. This preservation effort is achieved through a network of seed savers facilitated by the annual Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook, a compilation of the varieties grown, stewarded, and shared by members. Through the Yearbook, ‘Canon City’ has found other homes in Iowa and Wisconsin, increasing the chances that this variety will be around for another 50 years.
Reverend Frank Abbott was a circuit minister in many rural areas in the northeast, circa 1915-1955. Shortly before 1919, busy bees in Reverend Abbott’s Connecticut garden crossed his ‘Kentucky Wonder’ wax and a ‘Cranberry’ pole beans (learn more about the ‘Connecticut Wonder’ bean here). In 1976, he passed along seeds of this favorite bean to his granddaughter, Deborah Abbott who was beginning to garden in New Hampshire. Over the course of many letters, Reverend Abbott warned of cross pollination and advised Deborah to isolate the variety from other beans.
In 1977, Yankee Magazine published a compelling article about John Withee titled “The Bean Man.” It inspired gardeners across the United States, including Deborah Abbott who realized she had an interesting bean to share. She became a member of the Wanigan Associates and provided a sample of her grandfather’s bean to John Withee. By 1981, John had collected beans and stories for over 14 years and began to worry about the stewardship of his collection. To ensure the safety of the beans, John Withee sent seeds to Seed Savers Exchange’s co founders while they were homesteading in Missouri in 1981. When Seed Savers Exchange was relocated to Iowa in 1984, the beans came too.
Deborah Abbott expressed her grandfather’s concern in a letter to John Withee “[t]he bees that pollinate don’t observe garden fence lines or differentiate between varieties...” Unfortunately in Deborah Abbott’s garden over time her Connecticut Wonder seed stock was contaminated by cross pollination and for many years the variety was lost to the family. While documenting the history of this family heirloom, Seed Savers Exchange learned of the loss of this beloved bean. However, because Deborah Abbott had shared a sample with John Withee, who then shared it with Seed Savers Exchange, the variety was preserved and a pure seed sample was sent back to Deborah in 2016.
The ‘Connecticut Wonder’ beans traveled the east coast with the Abbott family. Once the seed was donated to Seed Savers Exchange these beans were introduced to gardeners across the United States. Sharing seeds and connecting seed savers has been the core of the organization’s work since 1975. This preservation effort to maintain genetic diversity is facilitated by the annual Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook, a compilation of the varieties grown, stewarded, and shared by members. This network spans the United States and has created several other sanctuaries for the ‘Connecticut Wonder’ bean.
Born and raised in Maine, Charles Dyer Sawyer, knew baked beans. The first step was to start with good beans. And he did, growing his own ‘Jacob’s Cattle’ beans in Cumberland County, Maine. Charles also knew the importance of sharing family traditions and so he passed this tradition on to his daughter and his son-in-law, John Withee. It was important that John had the right beans too, so Charles sent him some ‘Jacob’s Cattle’ beans.
After 14 years of collecting beans and stories, John Withee began to worry about the stewardship of his collection. John realized that if his collection was not passed on the varieties he had worked to unearth and preserve would be lost. John began corresponding with the co founders of Seed Savers Exchange and in 1981, John sent samples of his entire collection to their homestead in Missouri. In spring 1984, Seed Savers Exchange relocated to northeast Iowa so that they could have the space, irrigation systems, and fertile soil needed to maintain their ever-growing seed collection.
In 2016, John Withee’s grandson, Russell Bradbury-Carlin, told Seed Savers Exchange “I am interested in growing beans to make baked beans (in a bean-hole)...” and he concluded “...I imagine starting with Jacob's Cattle is the best.” In 2017, a sample of this bean will be sent to John Withee’s grandson so that he can continue the bean hole tradition with his family bean in Massachusetts.
After returning from overseas service in World War II, Edwin ‘Stub’ Coffey returned to his hometown with his new wife, Magel ‘Willie’ Willingham. They began to garden alongside his father, Arthur Coffey. When Arthur could no longer garden, he made sure to pass on his ‘Scipio’ bean to the next generation. Edwin and Magel continued to grow and save this bean in his father’s well established garden. This was always a family favorite bean and became known as ‘Stub’s Mammoth Scipios.’ In the late 1970s, Edwin sent a sample of his beloved bean to John Withee.
After several years of collecting beans and stories, John Withee had the foresight to realize it would soon be time to locate a new caretaker for his collection. The selection became clear after he began corresponding with Diane and Kent Whealy, co founders of Seed Savers Exchange. In 1981, John donated samples of his entire collection to Seed Savers Exchange and the beans traveled by mail to the co founders’ home in Missouri. In spring 1984, Seed Savers Exchange relocated to northeast Iowa so that they could have the space, irrigation systems, and fertile soil needed to maintain their ever-growing seed collection.
Seed Savers Exchange contacted Edwin and Mabel’s daughters to document the story of this bean when it was then discovered that the beans were no longer being grown by the family. However, the sharing that took place over 30 years ago kept the beans viable and a sample of this bean will soon be returned to the Coffey daughters. The Coffey garden plot is now tended by family friends and these seeds will be planted in Connecticut soil once again. The Coffey’s will again enjoy these toothsome beans in their mother’s recipe for succotash.
During his life, Clarence Holliday (1886-1980) witnessed massive change, from the invention of the Model T in 1908 to the first man on the moon in 1969. But through it all he gardened extensively and for at least five decades he maintained his namesake wax bean ‘Uncle Clarence Holliday.’ In the mid-1970s he shared a sample of this bean with a fellow gardener and his nephew’s father-in-law, Paul Swearingen Sr. This sample had a short initial journey from Clarence’s farm in Jasper, Missouri to Paul who lived in Carthage, Missouri.
Mr. Swearingen was interested in the preservation of heirloom beans and in the late 1970s he sent a sample to a man he felt shared that interest, John Withee. Years into this hobby, John Withee began to worry about the stewardship of his collection. To ensure the safety of the collection, John donated samples of his entire collection to Seed Savers Exchange in 1981. The beans traveled by mail from Massachusetts to the co founders’ home in Princeton, Missouri, just 250 miles from where it was originally cultivated by Clarence Holliday. In spring 1984, Seed Savers Exchange relocated to northeast Iowa so that they could have the space, irrigation systems, and fertile soil needed to maintain their ever-growing seed collection.
In 2016, the family of Paul Swearingen and Clarence Holliday expressed an interest in growing and saving the ‘Uncle Clarence Holliday’ bean. Seed Savers Exchange will be able to send them a seed sample because Clarence Holliday saved his seeds and Paul’s interest in preserving heirloom beans.
Paul Swearingen had preservation in mind when he sent the ‘Uncle Clarence Holliday’ bean to John Withee. Today, seeds savers have continued this legacy of saving and sharing facilitated by a network established by Seed Savers Exchange in 1975. Sharing seeds and connecting seed savers has been the core of the organization’s work to maintain genetic diversity. It is facilitated by the annual Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook, a compilation of the varieties grown, stewarded, and shared by members. This network spans the United States and has sustained a tradition of sharing the ‘Uncle Clarence Holliday’ bean.
In addition to sharing seed with gardeners and supporting the continual planting and replanting of heirloom seeds, Seed Savers Exchange practices an additional type of seed protection known as ex situ conservation. It is defined as “off-site” or out of its natural habitat. To make sure that the collection is safe from a catastrophe, seed inventory is placed into three different seed vaults. Every variety is stored in the seed vault in Decorah, Iowa. Then, as seeds are regenerated, high quality seed is also sent to the USDA’s National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation seed vault in Ft. Collins, Colorado and to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Spitsbergen, Norway. The seeds remain the property of Seed Savers Exchange and only Seed Savers Exchange can recall a seed.