Lithuanian immigrants at the turn of the 20th Century were mostly “people of the land.” No single phrase better captures the totality of their lives and identity as subsistence farmers before they were driven into new lands and new occupations, mostly industrial. It describes a thousand-year-old spiritual and practical tradition whereby the land from which they drew their existence not only belonged to them, but they to it.
How did this deep-rooted identity survive immigrants’ drastic uprooting? One answer can be found in the abundant gardens that many Lithuanians cultivated all over Springfield well through the 1950s: a proliferation of “urban agriculture” that dwarfs our modern concept of “growing local” and community gardening.
One local Lithuanian garden was particularly memorable for its diversity and scale: that of Barbara Bertha (Wallick) Stankaitis, born in Lithuania in 1886. Loving granddaughters Barb (Stankitis) Pelan and Marita (Stankitis) Brake still recall with bliss their Grandma Stankaitis’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” which covered 2.5 city lots on South 17th Street from about 1931 to 1980. (Did any readers ever see this garden?)
Barb and Marita report that their father, John Stankitis, bought the house and adjacent lots for his mother when he was about 20 years old and his mother was about 40. Grandmother Stankaitis proceeded to garden for hours every spring and summer day for the next 50 years, often in a long cotton dress with deep pockets covered by an apron, her hair coiled in a bun at the nape of her neck.
The “Garden of Earthly Delights” had everything in abundance: vegetables such as red and white radishes, spring onions, leaf lettuce, carrots, cabbage, beets, potatoes, tomatoes, corn, green beans and cucumbers. Cherry, apple, pear, peach and apricot trees. Livestock such as chickens and rabbits. Granddaughter Barb Pelan remembers Grandmother Stankaitis killing and preparing chickens for Sunday dinner, and making egg noodles from the eggs Barb collected as a child, taking great care not to rile the resident rooster.
At the back of the garden were blackberry and raspberry bushes and rows of ripe, red strawberries. A grape arbor produced plump purple grapes for grape jelly. All of the fruits and vegetables that could be preserved or canned were, making for a very busy harvest season.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like to grow up so close to the earth in the glow of such a gardener extraordinaire. Barb and Marita describe it as a life-shaping experience that nurtured in them a special kind of imagination and creativity. Marita grew up to become a published writer and composer of folk music who performed at Carnegie Hall and the 1997 Clinton inaugural. Barb writes on her blog, “Prairie Ponderings:” When I was a young child, I would wake up in the morning and look out the second floor window to the golden glow over my Lithuanian grandmother’s garden. It was like a Monet painting and seemed surreal in its beauty. I was mesmerized…”
Perhaps the most special part of the garden were the flowers: bridal wreath, hollyhocks, four-o-clocks, zinnias, daisies, orange tiger lilies, purple irises, and roses, which were especially beloved by Grandmother Stankaitis and which reined in pink, red and white in their “own private spot.” Barb recalls making dolls of all different colors from the hollyhocks, and Marita remembers “playing bride” in the white blossoms of snowball hydrangeas.
After Grandmother Stankaitis died around 1980, her son John–Barb and Marita’s father–transferred his mother’s beloved roses to his own yard on Bennington Drive and tended them in loving tribute for the rest of his life.