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Saving Seeds, Saving Stories: Sowing a New Generation of Growers: Elaine Jacobs


Elaine Jacobs moved to Ashe County eight years ago and has been growing heirloom varieties shared with her by her neighbors since 2018. She especially enjoys growing some of the many varieties of beans that flourish in mountain areas, but she grows local heirloom pumpkins and tomatoes also. On her farm near Lansing, she and her husband stay busy all summer and fall experimenting with different types of crops.

Elaine grew up in New Mexico where beans are a popular accompaniment to many daily meals. They often grew the three sisters there—corn, beans, and squash—and she began saving the seeds.

“I worked for the Park Service, and we were going out to collect seed from the native plants out in the park, because we were trying to restore some eroded areas. So, we went out and collected seeds and sent it to our extension [office], or what used to be the Soil Conservation Service, now it’s the NRCS [National Resource Conservation Service]. And they grew those out on a farm so that we could have seed to use for restoration, so by doing that I met some people. One guy had collected some bean seeds from a cave that had been in a jar in a cave or an old pot, so he gave them to me. He called them an Anasazi bean*, and my dad grew those in his garden. They were a big white lima bean, and so I got interested in beans from that. And then when I came out here, I started talking to people about beans, and I found a whole lot of different varieties of beans, and I just love growing them because they’re so pretty.”

Elaine grows both bush and pole beans. She carefully saves and dries the beans of every variety she grows, placing the beans in clear glass jars after they are thoroughly dried. Then she puts them on an open shelf in her kitchen where she (and any visitors) can enjoy their beauty during the winter. Elaine also enjoys cooking the many types of beans she grows. 

Elaine received six types of heirloom beans from Renny Gambrill, a friend of hers who lives a few miles north in Grayson County, Virginia, and has been growing them for some time. One of these, the Yin Yang, is a bush bean that has a striking black and white pattern. They are a bit smaller than most of her other beans and are slightly pointed at one end. A few are speckled with black and white, but most are almost evenly divided between light and dark, which is how the Yin Yang got its name. They are good to eat fresh but are also very good prepared as a dry bean. When cooked, they turn a solid brown color.

Another neighbor of Elaine’s, Debbie Poe, gave Elaine some heirloom beans called the Purple Koroni because she heard that Elaine loved to grow beans. She says, “I thought it was listed as a bush bean, but when I grew it, it started growing up my tomato plants, so I found out it was a pole bean, or else it was a half-runner, but it was certainly running up my tomato cages. So I went ahead and let it do that. I honestly didn’t try it as a picked bean, but maybe I should do that in the future.” The Koroni is a large, purple bean with white speckles, about the size and shape of a kidney bean. Some are almost completely purple while others are mostly white with purple speckles. The pods on the vine are long, green, and speckled with purple, and the flowers are a beautiful purple color. 

Renny Gambrill also gave Elaine four types of pole beans: Tiger Eye, Sadie’s Horses, Hidatsa Shield, and Good Mother Stallard. The Tiger Eye bean is a very attractive bean that is good either dried or fresh. It is a larger light brown bean with curved stripes of darker brownish-purple running horizontally across each seed. A few seeds in each batch are almost solid brownish-purple. Some Tiger Eye beans have a lighter background, and the stripes appear more purple, but Elaine’s were of the darker variety.

Sadie’s Horses is a runner bean that is much better when left to dry on the vine, because it has a tough, leathery pod. They are not as good to eat fresh but are easy to shell. This bean has especially beautiful flowers that attract pollinators and are lovely to look at as they grow; its deep orange blossoms are magnets for hummingbirds and butterflies. The dried beans of Sadie’s Horses are intriguing because the beans have an assortment of colors. They are a large, elongated bean that ranges from almost solid dark purple, to dark purple with very visible white splotches, to nearly even amounts of purple and white speckles, to white with very pale purple overlay that almost looks like netting, and a few of them are more brown than purple—perhaps it is their varied appearance, similar to a herd of wild horses, that earned them such a unique name. 

The Hidatsa Shield pole bean is good either fresh or dried. This bean is smaller than average and is oval in shape. It is about two-thirds white or pale gray, with a brown speckled coloring over the top third of the bean. This brown-colored area is not symmetrical. Right at the top of the bean, in the middle of each brown ‘shield,’ is a white spot where the bean seed was once attached to the pod. 

The Good Mother Stallard bean has a green pod with cranberry speckles (just like the dried beans have). Elaine hasn’t tried them fresh as they are so good to eat as a dried bean in the winter. The Good Mother Stallard is a larger off-white bean with cranberry colored speckles and stripes.

Elaine also grows the Cherokee Trail of Tears bean, which she got from the Ashe Seed Library. She says, “I have grown that as a pole bean, and it grows kind of a purple bean, and it is really tasty fresh. I was out of town when the fresh beans were coming in, so I have saved a whole bunch of the dried beans and I am going to try them dried.” These beans have a dark pink to purple flower and long purple pods as they are growing. The beans themselves are a striking dark color that appears almost black.

When asked to name her favorite of all the beans she grows, Elaine chooses a bean that is well-loved by many heirloom growersthe pink tip. According to Elaine, it is a pole bean that “makes a nice yellow bean pod, and you know when it’s ripe because the ends turn a pretty little pink color. And you can eat them when they’re just yellow, but when they get the pink tip on them, they’re really tasty as a fresh bean, and ours grew all the way into October. [...] And I save the beans for the seeds, but I don’t eat them. I guess I did make leather britches with them, which somebody up in Whitetop taught me how to do that. You cut them up and you let them dry and then you put them in a jar. Then supposedly you can put them in soup, but I haven’t done it yet because I don’t really know what the process is. So, I’ll have to have my neighbor come back over and show me that.” 

Folks would make leather britches by threading the beans on a string and then hanging them from the porch or another protected spot. When she tried this, not all of the beans dried out as thoroughly as they needed to. According to Elaine, some folks used to dry beans by placing them on their wood stove with a very small fire built in it—even in the summertime. Elaine describes a dried pink tip this way, “They kind of look like a little coffee bean. They’re a little bit lighter colored. They almost have a touch of green in them, or something. They’re not a very exciting-looking bean, but they make a good bean to eat. [...] They’re a little smaller than a pinto.”

Elaine says locals generally don’t dry this bean, perhaps because of the high levels of humidity here. Elaine is a Master Gardener and often helps with the Ashe Victory Garden behind the Museum of Ashe County History. There, they are very precise about picking beans to dry. She says, “You really want them to be completely dry before you pick them and then even after that you put them out on a screen and you let them dry for a couple more weeks before you shell them. And then once you shell them, you let them sit out on a screen for a couple more weeks before you package them up.” They store them upstairs at the museum, but of course, most people don’t have that kind of space. In Elaine’s experience, “If they’re going to save them, they save them as the leather britches. [...] If they save the beans, they seem to can them, which has surprised me, because you can dry them, why can them? But I guess maybe it’s because of the mildew.” Elaine’s own process is to pick beans that have dried on the pod and then put them out on screens inside her house for a few weeks. Her house has a dehumidifier, which helps. 

“I grow about nine different kinds of beans, and I kind of need to cut back. […] The nice thing about beans in the garden is that they fix nitrogen in the soil. [...] The beans are helping my other plants, because they’re attracting the pollinators to the garden, they’re making the soil better, and they’re easy to grow. […] It’s hard to get yourself to cut back on growing beans.” And, of course, she loves to look at how pretty many of the bean plants are when they bloom. 

Aside from growing beans, Elaine also has a special affection for the heirloom Winter Luxury Pie Pumpkin that she got from the Ashe Seed Library. Elaine describes the pumpkin like this, “…it’s got this little bit of a rough net on the skin, and it makes this nice little round pumpkin that has this sort of melony skin on it. […] It cooks down to this beautiful thick pulp. I’ve made a pumpkin pie from that Winter Luxury Pie Pumpkin, and it was the best pumpkin pie I’ve ever had.” She took her pumpkin pie to holiday events, and everyone agreed it was the best pumpkin pie they had ever had. “It’s that pumpkin,” says Elaine. “I use the same recipe; it’s the pumpkin. So, I’m growing it forevermore.” 

Since moving to Ashe County, Elaine’s longtime interests in heirlooms and seed saving have continued to grow, in part due to the many varieties shared with her by friends and neighbors. She enjoys having a role in keeping these seeds and their stories alive in this part of the world, and of course, as other heirloom growers would also attest, she knows these varieties taste better than any you could buy in the grocery store.

*Anasazi beans are more commonly known to be a variety of dried bush bean with a distinctive white and maroon pattern.

Interview with Elaine Jacobs by Brenda Smith 1/10/23

Elaine Jacobs's Interview Transcript



This project is funded in part by a grant from South Arts’ In These Mountains, Central Appalachian Folk Arts and Culture initiative.

Photographer: Jay Wild

Interviewer: Brenda Smith