Why a staunch Republican saved Democratic seeds

Being a Grand Army of the Republic veteran of the Civil War, my grandfather was ipso facto a Republican, confirmed and irrevocable. The Republican Party was founded by free-thinking Mainers, and Abraham Lincoln was their patron saint and their fair-haired boy.

But something had happened in the Second Congressional District (at that time Maine had four), and an upstart Democrat had been elected, one Daniel McGillicuddy. The situation is best explained by the portraits of Lewiston mayors that hang in the city hall. Lewiston is the largest community in Grampy's old district, and swings the bell rope. The early Lewiston mayors were Yankees with English names whose stern features betray a sturdy belief in frugality, pie for breakfast, Congregationalism, and the straight Republican ticket.

The sequence of this great strength was broken when Irishmen became habitual. In this era, the Honorable Daniel McGillicuddy came to be congressman and remained so. Later, the dominant group became French-speaking Canadians down from Quebec.

The boondoggle of free garden seeds came during the Irish regime. It was without question the best boondoggle in American political history. No doubt instigated by seed-sellers, the gimmick spent great sums of government funds to buy seeds that congressmen distributed free to constituents for purposes of ingratiation. The seed-sellers were pleased, the congressmen saw nothing evil in this tax-money heist, and the folks back home got something for nothing. If you wrote to your congressman to inquire how he stood on votes for women, he might or might not reply, but you were sure to get a package of lobelia or ageratum.

My grandfather never voted for McGillicuddy, but he was not averse to free seeds, and he generously conceded that the congressman was faithful about coming every Decoration Day to deliver the patriotic oration. When Grampy came home from Decoration Day exercises he'd empty his pockets of free seeds and decide if it was too late to plant this, or if he had room to put in that.

He would stick a few nasturtiums around his mailbox post. Mostly he would have already finished his planting, and if he used free seeds, he took some of last year's supply.

He had a wooden box with hinged cover in his desk and every year he'd lay away another batch of free seeds. Grampy had told me that most seeds would germinate for several years. Tomatoes, he said, would go as much as 10 years and still sprout. Seeds they found in the tombs of the Pharaohs had still sprouted after thousands of years. Some seeds won't go that long, he said, and carrots not at all. Carrot seeds are no good the second year, Grampy said. He said, too, that those who sold seeds to the government were probably not above dumping leftover seeds in the hopper and mixing them in with new seeds. Grampy always got his carrot seeds new each spring at the Farmers' Union. Besides, the free carrot seeds were always Danvers Half Long, and he believed in full-length carrots.

Grampy showed me how to plant carrots: Arrange the soil in a long mound instead of a furrow, so you have maybe 10 inches of flat top for the seeds. Carrot seeds are small and most folks plant too many. He showed me how to put some sand in a tin can, add the carrot seeds, and shake the can briskly for a minute or so. Then plant the sand. You'll find the seeds are not too thick for proper growing, and they'll be spaced as well as a machine would do it. Grampy said, "I'm in no need of a seed planter; I've got me."

So that's the way things were, and one summer I was visiting Grampy later in the year. On a rainy afternoon we couldn't do anything outdoors, so I took down the wooden seed box in his desk and was going through his accumulated free seeds.

I was surprised at the variety, and also the packages of seeds nobody In Maine would ever plant, some of which won't do well here anyway. Okra, for instance. Grampy's box had a package of okra for each year since free seeds started, and he'd never planted okra. Didn't like it, so it spoiled a soup if he made one, and he wasn't that much on soups anyway. Another thing; He was a beekeeper, and a flower was not to be judged by its looks. Did it have nectar the bees would work? To Grampy, a field of buckwheat was better than all the posies in Burpee.

And as I sorted out the antique seeds, thinking most of them would be dumped in the stove, I found a lot of packages of carrot seed. "Now," said I to myself, "Grampy knows better than that. What possessed him to save carrot seeds? For that matter, why did he save any seeds at all? But why carrots?" "Grampy," I asked, "How come you saved all these carrot seeds?"

He looked over at me, and his expression showed he was trying to think of an answer. He said, "Johnny-boy, that's a good question!" Then he said, "I believe it deserves a good answer!

"We have a good Yankee Downeast saying that if you keep something 17 years, you'll find a use for it. Don't throw things away. Waste not; want not. Use it up, wear it out, make it do! Carrot seeds won't sprout the second year. So why keep them? I'll tell you why: If I keep them 17 years and don't find a use for them, it will make that Democrat out a liar, won't it?"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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