Memories of the Asparagus House

 

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Bill Wheeler sits on the washing trough in front of the Asparagus House built by his grandfather in 1887.

For Willard Wheeler, who has lived ninety-two years at Indian Head Farm, asparagus season brings memories of times spent as a child with his grandfather, Arthur Hastings. Not long ago, he shared some of those memories as we sat at the kitchen table, looking out at the Asparagus House built by Arthur back in 1887.

The late 1800’s was the asparagus era for the farm. Acres of asparagus were harvested and bunched by family and neighbors and taken by train to Boston. It was thirty-some years later that Bill arrived on the scene, and by then the acreage in asparagus had been reduced to a just a couple, and the arrival of the automobile had made the Worcester market easily accessible. Bill remembers riding into Worcester with his father to deliver asparagus to the Protective Union store, where the big stalks wholesaled for 25 cents a bunch. The skinny stalks went to Truro’s Italian Market for 15 cents a bunch

Bill shared his grandfather’s pleasure at being outdoors growing things and doing the work of a farmer. As a young boy in grammar school, it was disappointing for him that school let out in June just after the spring asparagus season was over, and then, in September, he would be walking back down Crosby Road to the little, one-room South School just as the grape season was beginning on the farm. Thank goodness for the weekends when he could be out in the fields with the others.

Bill’s job was to take a wheelbarrow, built and adapted for the job by his grandfather, and pick up the asparagus stalks that had been cut and set on the ground in piles, just as we harvest them today. He would wheel them back to the Asparagus House, occasionally spilling a load, and park the wheelbarrow next to the cement trough that still sits under a maple tree in the back yard. The trough would be half-filled with water, and the asparagus would be floated in it and washed.

Next, the stalks would be lined up on specially designed trays and delivered to the five or six “bunchers” in the Asparagus House. These neighborhood women, including Bill’s grandmother, Emma Hastings, sat at long work benches that ran down two sides of the small room, up against the windows that gave them light, using the same bunching apparatus that we use today and tying the bunches with raffia, just as we do. Next, the bunches went across the room to a table, also uniquely designed by Bill’s grandfather, to be chopped off evenly at the bottom and the waste swept out an open window to be picked up later.

The last stop for the asparagus was long, shallow troughs, lined with zinc and filled with water, that sat on two wooden shelves that could be folded up against the wall when not on use. Here, the asparagus was kept fresh until it was transported to market. When the season was over, the Asparagus House sat empty until the farm’s Concord grape crop was ready for harvest in September. Then, come March, Arthur would fire up the wood cook stove in one corner and boil down his maple sap to make syrup, just in time for the asparagus season to begin again.

Today, the Asparagus House still sits back from the road, beside the large farmhouse, a little, one-room Victorian cottage with a special story to tell.

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Today at Indian Head Farm, we bunch asparagus for our customers with the same equipment and process used generations ago, carefully lining up each stalk , pressing down on the foot pedal to hold the bunch together and tying it with raffia.