Even if you don’t know Joe Stewart personally, odds are that if you’ve driven Highway 9 South you’ve admired his garden just outside the sharp curve at Sugar Hill Road. He’s known for his gardens, which were described by one family member as “picture perfect.”
At age 92, he still enjoys growing produce and sharing it with his two children and their families. Daughter Brinda Long remembers that when she was young, Joe allotted her a corner of his garden where she could grow her own vegetables. This year, some of her grandchildren helped their great-grandpa dig potatoes.
Grandson Rusty Long gave him watermelon starts for the first time this year to go along with the corn, okra, purple hull peas, green beans, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, bell peppers, and banana peppers. Joe said he has never had good luck with tomatoes, but this year his corn grew taller than ever – he suspects because he ran out of 13-13-13 fertilizer and used some 19-19-19 that his son, Terry, had on hand. Joe always plants Sweet G90 corn.
Sometimes people stop and admire his garden and ask if he will sell them some vegetables. He’s most likely to say, “No, but I’ll give you some!”
During Joe’s youth his large family grew and preserved everything they could, including blue and brown whippoorwill peas that were cooked like dried beans, he said. The second eldest of 13 children born to Walter and Mary Halpain Stewart, Joe remembers that they milked cows, churned butter and grew corn that was shelled and taken to the grist mill to make meal.
The Stewarts tilled land with horse and plow and Joe still has the gear, and could use it if necessary.
“If I had to, and I had a horse broke, I could still make a garden.”
If someone asks Joe if he “plants by the almanac” he’ll say “no, I plant mine in the ground.” He acknowledges that “signs” do have an effect on crops, but he has to plant his when he’s ready and able and it doesn’t always coincide with a moon phase or other almanac indicator.
One thing he’s noticed about his garden in recent years is a lack of honeybees.
“I feel bad because we don’t have bees to pollinate like we used to,” he said, noting that it’s now mostly bumble bees and other, smaller bees.
Asked about life on Halpain Mountain (referred to among family members as “the hill”) Joe said “it was pretty rough up there.”
The boys would go to Sam Creek when the suckers were spawning and would wade out and gig a big mess of fish. The girls were then rousted out of bed to clean them.
“It was a hard job walking down there and back,” Joe said, “I couldn’t do it now.”
Joe and his siblings attended school at East Richwoods. “I walked every day I went,” he commented. Most of the time he was bare-footed, and sometimes he’d get into seed ticks and would get to school and scratch all day.
He recalls that when the school began running bus routes, people would “bellyache” about having to walk to where the bus stopped and he had little sympathy for them.
Eventually, his younger siblings were able to catch the bus at Sam Creek. Water gates had been built with large timbers and rocks at the base to hold the gate posts. Walter modified it so that when the creek was up the children could cross the creek at the water gate in order to catch the bus. They still had to walk up and down the hill, however.
“They call them back there the ‘good ol’ days’,” Joe commented, “but I ain’t ever figured out anything good about it.”
Read the entire story in the Aug. 25, 2021 issue.