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Saving Seeds, Saving Stories: Sowing a New Generation of Growers: Martha Howell


Martha Howell is a lifelong resident of the Helton Creek area of Ashe County, as were her parents and grandparents before her, and she enjoys growing heirloom crops and saving seeds. Although she is in her eighties now, she still grows a garden, with her son’s help, and feels she is much better for it. Martha has lots of good memories of growing up and feeling close to the earth.

“A couple of years ago, well maybe three, four, it goes fast, somebody gave us the turkey craw beans, and so we planted them. And my son helps me. And so we set up a thing for them to run on, stakes. And they growed so big and heavy that they pulled the supports down. They ended up all on the ground and just rotted. But they was a big bean, and we didn’t care for that bigger bean. We wasn’t sorry to not plant them again. We, like I said, got to like those half runners so good. We used to plant the pink tips all the time and then I had some—I think they were just, somebody called them Miss Griffy’s* beans. […] It’s a slim long green, it looks like a bean.”

Martha does not usually let the beans dry on the vine, but instead, she picks them green and cans them. “Not last year, last summer, but summer before last, I canned 75 quarts. [...] We usually have two rows of the half runners, and then two little rows of maybe the pink tips. [...] I give stuff to my neighbors because they don’t have a garden. [...] We just like the taste of them; I like to get them when they’re young and tender.”

Martha originally got her half-runner seed from her cousin, Johnny McNeill, and she has saved the seed and kept it going. The seed had been in Johnny’s family for a long time. According to Martha half runners have to be strung, and often you have to go back and take off extra strings from the beans. When Martha’s mother was young, they used to dry the beans.

“They had a little building out there and it looked kind of like a toilet, where the old people had the toilet, and that was their dry house. They had a little stove here and they had sieves, all the racks. [...] They dried the beans and then dried apples, and I think they dried a pumpkin or something like that.”

She remembers when she was young, they grew what were called market beans in Ashe County and you didn’t have to string those. “I used to pick beans when I was young; I bet I picked 13 bushel of beans one day. […] You had to move [the bushel basket] along as you went along picking it. After it got full, it was heavy. […] I did it when I was just a teenager, probably 14, 15, 16, somewhere along there. […] They pick you up in the back of a pickup, back of a truck and take you to the bean field. Sometimes there's a store close by and you could buy a little something for lunch. They didn't take you to lunch, but when somebody went to the store or something and got you a can of Vienna sausage or pork and beans or crackers, and ate right there in the field. Just out there. [...] I can't remember for sure [how much they paid us], but it was something like maybe $1 a bushel or $1.50 a bushel. If [a bean] was found with a spot on it, it wasn’t allowed to put that in the basket, so we’d throw it and hit somebody. Bother them when picking beans.”

Martha often used the money she earned picking beans to buy clothes, and she says it wasn’t just young people picking, but older people, too. “The teenage boys, they had to go and carry it when you got your basket full, they had to pick up that basket and bring a new one and then take the other out to the scales to weigh, and then they put the lid on them and loaded them on the truck to take them to the market.”

Back then the bean market was in Smethport. In those days, Martha says, Smethport “was a pretty good little stop on the railroad.” She says she thinks the beans may have gone to Boone to be canned, but the local people did not eat the same kind of bean that they were picking to sell. They liked the kinds that they always had grown.

Besides beans, they used to get money for a few other crops.

“We made money from going out and cutting mint and drying it, and catnip. They would come to the stores and buy that. […] Some people around here [sold] ginseng. There used to be some ginseng in the area, but I think it pretty well got about all depleted out. Maybe they took too much or something. [...] Another thing was elderberry flowers, and we put them on the roof of the building out here to dry. […] Then we sold them just to make money with. […] They sold them to drug companies, and they made medicine out of them.”

When she was young, Martha’s parents planted raspberry bushes. “They’re blue raspberries,” she says. “We like the blue ones. I don’t like the red ones. [...] The red ones [...] grows along the creek […] but they didn’t make as good of jam. […] We picked up the wild blackberries, and they had a barrel at the store and sold them buckets full of blackberries at the store. [...] I guess to make wine or something.”

Martha says before the Christmas tree farms started in Ashe County, people would mainly make their money from beans, tobacco, and keeping cows. “The milk truck come along and picked [the milk] up and took it to the—they had a cheese plant in Lansing and a cheese plant in West jefferson.” Martha’s aunt and uncle had registered cows that produced grade A milk. A big tanker would come and pick up their milk, which paid pretty well. Most of their cows were Guernseys and a few Jerseys. Martha had an interesting encounter with one of her uncle’s cows one day when she was cutting through the pasture on her way home from school. It chased her around the haystacks, but luckily someone came along the road and saw the cow chasing after her and scared the cow away. Of the cow Martha says, “It was just mean.”

In Martha’s experience, people “feel more close to the earth if you’re out there with growing stuff.” Certainly, Martha’s upbringing bears this out, and she has remained “close to the earth” throughout her life. Whether growing produce to eat, sell, or give away, Martha has known the value of resourcefulness and hard work, both of which continue to reap benefits for her family, her neighbors, and our community.

*She later clarifies that the proper name is ‘Griffits.’

Interview with Martha Howell by Brenda Smith 1/24/23

Martha Howell'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.

Photographers: Jay Wild & Brenda Smith

Interviewer: Brenda Smith