Bozeman, Montana Offers Connection to Growers Past and Present

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A native American squash growing in lush green vegetable garden.
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John Austin shows off a pumpkin in his vegetable garden.
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Painted Mountain Corn from Hank Will's collection.

Early this fall, I visited Bozeman, Montana, and saw my friends John Austin, Dave Christensen and a few others. John and Dave share my passion for old, open-pollinated corns, as well as other hardy, well-adapted vegetable varieties. John is an avid gardener and has selected many vegetable varieties to perform in his mile-high, 90-day-frost-free growing environment. And Dave has devoted the better part of the past 40 years to developing Painted Mountain corn from early native varieties. This remarkable corn thrives in extreme environments.

When I arrived in Bozeman, John gave me tours of a couple of his vegetable gardens — ripe with juicy red tomatoes, colorful peppers, broccoli, sweet corn, ancient flour corns, squashes, beans, you name it. And all of it was in full fruit only 75 days from planting! Perhaps the most compelling among John’s gardens were the two he planted at the Tinsley Homestead, a living history exhibit at the Museum of the Rockies.

The first garden was an 1890s kitchen garden planted with authentic varieties first listed in seed catalogs pre-1900. As we walked among the rows and beds of Great Northern Beans, Will’s Early June sweet corn, tomatoes, squashes, kales, chards, lettuces, peppers, and so much more, John noted that the garden consisted of 150 vegetable varieties that were listed in the 1907 Oscar H. Will & Co. catalog put out by my great-grandfather. I was stunned.

The second garden was patterned after the design and practices communicated by Maxi’diwiac (Buffalo Bird Woman), a Hidatsa farmer, and first published in 1917 as Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians: An Indian Interpretation by Gilbert Wilson. This Ph.D. thesis has been reprinted many times as Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden and is still available. As a special treat, Lisa H. Lone Flight, Maxi’diwiac’s great-granddaughter, stopped by to walk the garden with me. Her family and my family were connected several generations back through Dakota Territory agriculture and mutual respect. Lisa and I feel the same way today.

The visit was too brief, and since I plan to write about open-pollinated corn in the magazine next year, I’ll save most of the details of time spent with Dave Christensen until then. Dave is one of those special human beings who committed to following his passion at a young age and let the business of staking out a life take care of itself. Suffice it to say that both Dave and John reminded me yet again that gardening under any conditions offers up special challenges and changing rewards. What Dave and John lack in insect pests, they gain in cold climate accommodations and wild spring storms.

Whether it’s planning your first garden, sorting your home-raised seed corn, or building your first pasture gate, we’d love to know what you’re up to. If you keep a homeplace journal and would like to share it through a blog on the GRIT website, just let me know (hwill@grit.com).

See you in January,


Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper’s Farmer magazines. Connect with him on .

Published on Oct 9, 2013

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