Originally published February 2004 in Funke's gardening newsletter.
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If you like history or just a good story I think you'll enjoy
this issue's article.
It's something I've been wanting to re-write for years and the ice n' snow gave
me some inside time to get a start on it.
It's a history of how Funke's came to be and makes an attempt
to put a backdrop
to the dates and events :)
Part one covers the first 70 years after my Great grandpa got off the boat :)
Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I have writing it!
Without further adieu...........
They called themselves "gardeners"
In a time that may seem long ago in human terms but not even
a blink of Mother
Earth's eye a group of families who had once called Germany home in the 19th
century came to settle in an area of the mill creek valley in Cincinnati that
would later come to be called Wooden shoe hollow.
Families with names like Goetz, Wiese, Kettler, Hackemeyer,
Funke, Rahn, Howeller, Niehaus, Schumacher, Renegarbe, Friedhoff, Greber, Kissel,
Koch, Mattfeld, Tieman, and countless others who made the earth and the family
farm their new home in the new country. They provided for their families and
their livelihood farming vegetables and they called themselves "gardeners".
Though many of the names have long since disappeared from the
Gray road and Wooden shoe hollow lane a hand full remain in the 21st century.
The one on mine says "Funke".
The sign out by the street says "Funke's" and we
continue the tradition of the
family farm and although the crops have changed since that time so near and far
ago we still call ourselves "gardeners" and provide for our families and our
livelihood farming ornamentals for those of all nationalities who also love the
earth and share the mantle of "gardener".
This is the story of how that came to be .
In the waning days of the 19th century as the industrial revolution
into full swing and Darwin's "evolution of the species" was instilling a newfound
arrogance amongst the German aristocracy Friedrich Funke chose to leave the land
of his ancestors bound for the "new world". The reasons for his doing so have
been lost to history and one can only speculate if he was motivated by a sense
of the political changes taking place in his homeland, or if industry was beginning
to sprawl out Bremen driving farmers elsewhere, if competition from siblings
left little room for another son or if he was simply adventurous. The fact that
remains is that he did leave his home bound for the unknown and settled onto
a plot of ground along the mill creek off of Beekman street in what is today
The land was owned by the railroad as a right of way along
the mill creek and
leased out to the immigrant farmers settling into Cincinnati in the latter half
of the 19th century.
As is the case with bottom land along stream and riversides
thousands of years
of fertile sediment had accumulated there and made the land exceptionally well
suited for vegetable farming. Proximity to the stockyards along Spring grove
avenue added an additional convenience to the farming activity there. Manure
would often be hauled from those stockyards daily by the gardeners to their individual
plots of several acres each on which they lived and farmed. The vegetables were
grown year round in "hot" beds which consisted of wooden frames about 6' wide
and 12 - 16" tall which were covered by wooden framed glass glazed "windows"
3- 4' long and 6' wide. Some gardeners of this era would use wooden planks to
cover their beds in winter.
The growers would dig out a section of soil from these beds even in the dead
of winter since the soil in them never froze and add a layer of the fresh manure
into the bed covering it with a layer of soil into which the sowed radishes,
carrots, beets, turnips and other root crops. The heat generated from the decaying
fresh manure would rise up through the soil warming it enough to continue production
all winter. In the coldest times of subzero weather a layer of straw would be
laid on top of the frame covers for additional protection from frost. Fresh manure
piled up against the sides of the frames was a common practice as well. As the
manure decomposed over time it would be worked in with the topsoil layers in
between crops further enriching the soil. Over the course of many years of this
practice extraordinary layers of fertile topsoil were created. Some areas that
were worked in this fashion have layers of rich topsoil to this day to a depth
of 2 - 3'!
During the course of his vegetable farming he met the daughter
of another German
immigrant family, Sophie Meyer. The romantic in me would like to believe that
they fell in love, that Sophie met her prince charming and Friedrich who now
went simply by "Fred" had met the girl of his dreams, but I know that many of
these marriages formed out of duty, tradition and the necessity of bearing children
to have the farmhands necessary to perform the labor needed to survive in the
days when horsepower on the farm was measured in horses J
In the mid 1890's Cincinnati was growing up the hills and out
along it's streams.
The industrial revolution was in full swing and populations were increasing.
The grain belt of the Midwest was churning out larger and larger quantities of
corn, wheat, rye, barley, oats and other crops which needed to be stored and
transferred for shipment to markets at home and abroad. These crops were hauled
by rail and the railroad decided to build a grain terminal along the mill creek
and forced it's tenants to seek ground for their vegetables elsewhere. The year
Some of them chose to move to the farmland in what is today
A few savvy growers moved to Gray road. Fred and his wife Sophie were among them.
Fred was included in a group that realized that the much needed manure could
be pulled by a team of two horses from the stockyards on spring grove avenue
in short time whereas pulling the hill of Colerain avenue required a team of
four. Those growers would have to hitch their wagons up with two teams each morning
and park one pair at a hitching post at the base of Colerain hill continuing
on to the stockyards with one pair and then hook the other two back up to the
wagon on the return trip up the long winding hill. A process that added several
hours to job of hauling manure.
The growers of Gray road and wooden shoe hollow were able to
spend these hours
working their beds and tending their vegetables.
Fred and Sophie settled onto 4 acres just beyond the north
gate of Spring grove
cemetery into the house where the weaver's guild now resides. They set up housekeeping
or "farmkeeping" in the tradition of their ancestors with hogs, chickens, a milk
cow, work horses and of course vegetable beds. Children soon followed, Fred
jr., Bill, Ed, Sophie, George, Cliff, Harry, Lucy, and Carrie.
Over the course of time the gardeners saw a market for fresh
tomatoes year round.
This required a level of sophistication and technology above and beyond the manure
lined hot beds and they began to build greenhouses in the early 1900's. The greenhouse
concept was not new and had been in use in Europe for quite some time since the
first prototypes were built in Holland in the 1600's, but it was at this time
in America when they began to catch on in a big way due to application of steam
and hot water boilers made affordable by the advancements in manufacturing during
the industrial revolution. Coal was cheap and plentiful flowing by rail from
the mines in Kentucky. By river and rail countless tons of the hard black anthracite
poured into Cincinnati's homes, factories, and newly constructed greenhouses.
Although there were greenhouses in the area in the late 1800's
they began to
spring up in great numbers by the Nineteen teens. The truck had begun to replace
the horse as the common method of propulsion for carrying the loads of manure
from the stockyards and the loads of produce to market. Many of the earlier greenhouses
were built low to the ground with gutters 4-5' high and peaks of perhaps 7-8'.
The logic behind this was that a smaller air mass took less fuel to heat. In
practice the opposite is true since a larger air mass retains it's solar energy
longer into the night and once warm cools down more slowly making a larger structure
more efficient than a small one. In the early 1900's coal was cheap, crop prices
were good, and hard work from sunup to sundown was a way of life so efficiency
was not a primary consideration. The structure size and height was increased
to better grow the vine crops of tomatoes and cucumbers.
Fred and Sophie's children grew and participated in the family
farm. The girls
found husbands, Harry met an early demise to sickness in his teens. Bill and
Ed decided to strike out on their own in 1920 and purchased a property nearby.
Cliff decided not to farm but stayed nearby building his house off a corner of
the family farm. George and Fred jr. stayed at home with their parents. The house
was big enough that even when George and Fred jr. married and started to have
their own children there was room for all and always plenty to do. When the great
depression came it was handy to have plenty of hands to make sure all were fed.
Uncounted long hours were spent just to make sure the taxes were paid, meat was
on the table and coal was in the hopper for the house and the greenhouses.
The two boys down the road Bill and Ed along with their families
did their best
to make due as well. Bill being an entrepreneur at heart had a permanent stand
at Findlay market.
Many local growers did as well at that time. Their efforts were thwarted when
several local produce brokers with deep pockets resorted to what can only be
called dirty business and opened competing stands selling produce below cost
just long enough to force the local growers to sell to them leaving the retail
business in the hands of the produce "barons". Bill was one of those growers
forced into selling to the brokerage houses.
After 20 years had passed Ed was getting tired of doing the
lion's share of the
work while Bill pursued social events. Ed decided it was time to leave and got
a job driving a delivery truck. Bill on his own and not being inclined to the
long physical hours quickly went bankrupt. Back on the family farm up the street
George and Fred jr's kids were getting bigger and things were beginning to get
a little crowded so George bought Bill's place out of receivership and moved
with his wife Edna and their two children Bob, 10, and Carole, 7 to 4798 Gray
Bill spent the rest of his adult work life tending the boiler at Krohn conservatory.
George knew well what hard work was and took great pride in
his products. The
place he'd bought was in pretty run down condition and in severe need of an overhaul.
The heating system was in disrepair, the greenhouse structures themselves needed
glass fixed, bars scraped, new paint and putty and the soil in them had been
neglected. Through sheer force of will and body he tackled the task of putting
his new range back into top condition. He converted the old hot water heating
system over to low pressure steam and added a steam sterilization system in the
ground of the greenhouses.
I can remember as a small child hearing the tale of how 10,000
tiles were laid in the greenhouses in just ten days. In the early 40's there
were large groups of young black men migrating north seeking work and life away
from the oppression of the Deep South. George hired ten of these young men on
one day and set about the job of installing the steam tiles. Ten men working
ahead of him digging the trenches and following up behind him filling the soil
back in with him setting each tile perfecting aligned with the one laid before
it creating the long ceramic perforated tubes through which live steam could
be fed from the boiler that would work it's way up through the soil killing off
harmful diseases and killing any weed seeds that might have drifted in through
George was very impressed with the work ethic of one of those
young men and offered
him a job. He accepted. His name was Roosevelt Barker. Roosevelt was a bit of
a mouthful for George and George asked him if he could just call him "Roody".
Roosevelt said that was fine with him and Roody was hired.
George and Roody worked hard together with Edna and the kids
and within several
years the place was in great shape, turning a profit and cranking out uncounted
tons of some of Cincinnati's finest tomatoes, leaf and bibb lettuce and cucumbers.
George was proudest of his tomatoes. Edna was no stranger to them either as she'd
been raised in the vegetable business herself. Her family, the Kissels, had a
greenhouse and truck farming operation at the intersection of Crawford and Springlawn
just across the cemetery from George and his family.
The valley where the Kissel place had been given the nickname
of the immense number of frogs in the creek that ran through that valley. In
those days it was one of the many tributaries that flowed into the mill creek.
At some point the city decided to bury it and turn it into a piped sewer as they
have with so many of the once beautiful watersheds around the area. The frogs
may have been gone, their environment having been changed into a sewer pipe,
but the name "frogtown" stuck until well into the 1980's.
George and Edna raised their children and grew their vegetables.
Fred inherited the original place and ran the greenhouses with his wife and three
sons. The post war economy was good and the demand for fresh locally grown produce
was high, coal was still cheap and plentiful and the greenhouses around the area
flourished. The growers even formed an organization they called the "truck growers"
which was formally known as the Hamilton county vegetable growers association.
George and Fred and all the descendants who carried the old family names banded
together and ran their own produce brokerage taking back some of the business
they'd lost to the large brokerage houses in the 20's and 30's.
One pioneering grower in this early post world war two era
Bill Mattfeld sr.,
whose greenhouses were located in "frogtown" had broken with vegetable production
tradition and had started raising flowering plants for garden planting and floral
use. He was the only grower of this time in this area of Cincinnati doing so.
George Funke's son Bob was inspired by this and left home at 19 to go to Columbus
and study floriculture at Ohio State where he spent much of his recreational
time playing saxophone in the Ohio state marching band. In 1953 he returned home
with dreams of beautiful gardens and greenhouses full of flowers in his mind
and in his heart. Bob persuaded his tomato loving father to give him some greenhouse
space to start growing flowers.
George reluctantly agreed to give Bob a small space in the
first greenhouse to
grow some bedding plants. George had come through the great depression and really
didn't see any practical use for flowers. Bob's retail flower customers even
had to walk through the tomato vines for the first couple of years to get to
the plants that Bob had for sale.
Bob's flower plants were a hit with the avid gardeners of Clifton
and North Avondale
who would plant thousands of annuals each year to grace their large homes and
Word quickly spread of the young man and his beautiful bedding plants. George
even allowed Bob to start using some of the hot beds previously used for winter
vegetables to plant pansies for early spring sales. The pansies were sown in
late august directly into the ground in the greenhouses and then transplanted
into the beds in September giving them time to grow on before winter set in where
they would continue to grow on under the glass "windows" until March and April
when they would be dug out bare root for the customers who would transplant them
into their gardens. This process yielded fat and healthy pansies toughened by
winter that were prized by Cincinnati's home gardeners.
During this time much of Bob's social life revolved around
his close knit group
of friends from around the greenhouse grower community and Matthew's United church
of Christ, which were virtually synonymous, and the girl next door who he'd grown
up with, Helen Goetz. In 1955 the boy and girl next door were married and settled
in with Bob's parents sharing the frame house until George and Edna's new brick
house was completed. This took time since it also involved moving one of the
greenhouses from the front of the place to the back in order to make room for
the new home. Moving an old glass greenhouse is no easy task since each pane
of glass must first be removed and stored without breakage. Then the structural
members removed and stored until finally the gutter posts are exposed and removed
and reinstalled in the new location. At that point all of the components can
be reattached in the order in which they were removed from the previous location.
George, Roody and Bob worked for months to complete the process while making
sure the crops were planted and cared for and the large family feeding vegetable
garden was planted and cared for as well.
Ornamental crops may have entered the picture but much of the
life of years past continued with the annual cycle of the seasons. The family
garden was planted and harvested, the men picking and the women cooking and canning,
hogs were no longer raised but the meat was purchased in bulk, ground by hand
and pressed into casings then tied in loops, hung on long sticks and hauled backed
to the smokehouse where George would light the annual smoldering fire of his
ancestors with wood from an apple or cherry tree cut down sometime during the
preceding year. They called it Mettwurst but it was far stronger than anything
sold by that name today. In the fall the entire area would be perfumed with the
smoke from the dozens of smokehouses on the family farms smoking the mettwurst
for their families and for the fundraiser at Matthew's UCC where they would hold
a supper open to the public and sell the mettwurst to any who wanted it. With
the large number of families of German ancestry in the surrounding neighborhoods
it was always in high demand.
Sixty years had now passed since the railroad forced the immigrant
the fertile bottom land of the mill creek but the gardeners had adapted and through
years of hard work and countless tons of manure hauled first by horse and wagon
and now by truck they had created fertile soil up one of the tributary valleys.
The wooden shoe hollow creek and Spring grove avenue had led them to a land in
which they flourished and prospered in the gardening tradition of their ancestors
and called themselves "gardeners".
'Til next time my gardening friend......
A warm and heartfelt....