Picturing PA highlights moments in Pennsylvania history through photographs in the extensive collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

In 1916, as battles raged across Europe, farmers in Entente countries exchanged sickles for rifles, leaving their ground untended. Poor harvests worldwide and increased U-boat activity in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean exacerbated an already depleted food supply. The need for additional production became increasingly apparent as the United States continued its support for France and Great Britain, edging away from neutrality and calling its own labor force to arms.

The National War Garden Commission was formed in March 1917 to employ resources not previously devoted to the production of food. Through mass distribution of instructional pamphlets and striking propaganda posters, the commission instilled a patriotic fervor for Americans to cultivate gardens on vacant lands, preserve yields and conserve food – not only so that labor, transportation and provisions could be devoted to the war effort, but also to help offset the increased price of home front necessities.

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson sought a congressional declaration of war on Germany. The same day, farming authorities from Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture began a tour to 12 of the state’s penal and charitable institutions – comprising 6,564 acres of agricultural land – to counsel superintendents on maximizing agrarian production.

After visiting the Industrial Reformatory in Huntingdon County  and the Pennsylvania Reform School in Washington County, farm management, dairy and soil specialist L.W. Lighty and garden and orchard expert Sheldon Funk arrived on April 4 at the State Institution for Feeble-Minded of Western Pennsylvania (now Polk Center) in Polk, Venango County.

The center had opened in the spring of 1897 to provide training and vocation for those who exhibited mental disabilities from a young age. Residents received schooling and industrial training and participated in recreational activities. Selected for its abundant natural resources, the site afforded the active pursuit of agriculture – one of the residents’ primary endeavors.

At a meeting of the trustees and superintendents of state mental institutions on May 12, 1917, state hospitals were urged to plant the maximum acreage of land, raise the greatest amount of food products, supply their own needs as far as possible by the work of residents, and encourage patients to knit and sew to provide clothing and supplies for soldiers and the Red Cross.

The photograph accompanying this article shows female residents at Polk tending to a war garden behind the Terrace Group for Girls – a cottage consisting of dormitories, dayrooms, staff bedrooms, a kitchen and a dining room – centrally located on the southern tier of the campus. Reports indicate that the gardens conducted by various groups of residents were deemed successful, materially augmenting the supply of vegetables and providing valuable training and healthful occupation.

Garden produce included beans, beets, berries, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, lettuce, onions, parsley, parsnips, peas, peppers, pumpkins, radishes, rhubarb, sage, spinach, squash, tomatoes and turnips, several thousand dollars’ worth of which was canned by female residents under staff supervision. Polk’s overall agricultural production in 1918, including farm, garden and livestock, had expanded 86 percent from just six years prior. Gardening alone increased by 62 percent.

War Garden Commission president Charles Lathrop Peck estimated that there were 5,285,000 war gardens on the home front by 1918, yielding a crop valued at more than $500 million.

Recently the Pennsylvania State Archives worked with Polk Center in the preservation of its historic administrative and patient records, as well as several thousand glass plate negatives. The Polk images are held at the archives in Record Group 23.989. Digital copies can be accessed online at the POWER Library: PA Photos and Documents website.


The author would like to thank Mary Sauer of Polk Center for her feedback on this article.


Josh Stahlman is an archivist at the Pennsylvania State Archives.