By the time a young Tom Hardman started working at his family-owned business in Spencer in 1972, the Hardman Supply Company’s happenstance relationship with a very specific green bean had already been long established.
“It was the most popular seed variety we had,” Hardman said. “It turned out to be really, really good for business.”
Somewhere in the mid-1930s or so, “this lady from Sand Ridge in Calhoun County” would come to town for shopping, as was the habit for a lot of folks back then — Spencer was located at the end of the railroad line and became a trading center of sorts for dozens of surrounding communities.
According to a 2007 article in The Hur Herald, the customer’s name was Euna Poling Hall, and she was “an 11th generation Poling living in America,” her ancestors having arrived in 1642.
“She talked about this bean that had been in her family for many generations,” he said. “It had come over from the old country, which was probably Germany.”
Her ancestors brought the seeds with them, planted them in their new land, then saved the seeds from year to year to replenish the next season’s garden.
“She was coming in talking about how great this bean was year after year,” Hardman said.
There’s a good chance the bean — which came to be known as the Early White Half Runner — is alive and well today because of Hall’s pride and the curiosity of Hardman’s grandfather, Owen Ruby “O.R.” Hardman, who founded the business in 1907.
“Eventually my grandfather said, ‘Let’s see what this is all about,’ so she came in and gave my grandfather some samples, brought some seeds, and my grandfather sent ’em on to the McCullough Seed Company, and they said, ‘Yes, this is a different type of bean.’”
For starters, there are typically either bush beans or pole beans. Bush beans, as you might guess, grow on a bush. Pole beans grow on a stalk like the one in the fairytale about a boy named Jack, though usually not that tall. Most reach somewhere between 6 and 10 feet and need a trellis — even a corn plant — to support it.
“This variety was somewhere in between, so they called it a half runner,” Hardman said.
The “early” part of the Early White Half Runner’s name likely referred to the short gestation period, which meant it was ready for picking ahead of other beans. And the seed inside was white.
The McCullough Seed Company developed the seed, began to market it around the region, and it caught on in West Virginia.
“By the time the war began in 1941 it was a popular variety,” Hardman said. “Most people used that as a staple in their garden.”
But the war changed a lot of things, including the population of West Virginia.
“A lot of GIs came back. They had seen the world and didn’t want to work on dad’s farm,” Hardman said. “They picked up their families and moved to Northeast Ohio. That’s where the jobs were, a lot of industrial jobs.”
But they longed for a taste of home. The McCullough Seed Company didn’t sell directly to consumers, and the Early White Half Runner wasn’t commercially canned, so it couldn’t just be bought in a grocery store.
“As they were raising families in Ohio they couldn’t find this particular variety, so they would ask their parents to come into our store and they would buy it and ship it, or we would ship it,” Hardman said. “The vast majority went up to Northeast Ohio.”
A fall, 1954 contract between McCullough’s and Hardman’s shows an order for a number of seed varieties, most of them 30, 60, even 100 pounds. The order for Early White Half Runners, at 27 cents per pound, was 6,000 pounds.
McCullough’s is out of business now, but Hardman’s still sells the Early White Half Runners, purchased from the Caudill Seed Company in Louisville, Kentucky.
“People around here still know ’em and love ’em,” Hardman said.
It’s a tale of perseverance mixed with a bit of luck. Without that combination, who knows where the Early White Half Runner would be today? But the winding history of the bean itself underscores the concern about just what happens to those special varieties as seed savers like Euna Poling Hall pass on ... and there’s no one to save the seeds.
“My mission is to make sure these varieties are not lost,” said Mehmet Oztan, an assistant professor of geology at West Virginia University, a seed saver and co-owner of Two Seeds in a Pod.
Initially, his company focused on seeds from his native land.
His story may sound familiar to seed savers and connoisseurs across West Virginia — small farmers and growers like Lou Maiuri, whose story was featured in Part 1 of this series last week.
“I was wanting to prevent the Turkish heirloom seeds from becoming extinct because some of these varieties are not even known in Turkey,” Oztan said.
Part of the problem is bureaucratic, he said. Part of it is political. And part of it is just the evolution of life.
“Some of the old seed stewards like everywhere else are passing away, and if the kids do not take over the seed saving, then there is no one else left to steward the seeds.”
He found soon after moving to West Virginia that his new state shared a common agricultural tradition with his homeland.
“I knew prior to coming here that Appalachia was very rich in culinary traditions and seed varieties, but I didn’t know that it was this rich. I can see a very rich gene pool that contributed hand in hand to the culinary traditions here,” he said.
“Immigrants came, and they were Italian, Irish, Germans and they brought their own seeds,” he said. “Everyone brought their traditional cuisine and the seeds they want to use in specific recipes.”
Some of those seeds have been saved from year to year and passed down through the generations.
“If you go into these small communities you inevitably find out this tomato has been grown for the last hundred years for a few generations,” he said.
“You grow it, you save the seed, you pass on the tradition and the story of the seed, and the flavor of the seed,” he said, “and you know that you need to preserve it, because if you eat something else, it’s not going to taste the same, and taste is a very significant thing. Sometimes if I bite into a tomato it literally takes me back to my childhood.”
But the growing terrain in West Virginia is challenging, and the majority of farms here are small. So many of those saved varieties are at risk.
A few years ago, Oztan expanded his focus to include Appalachian seeds, planting, growing and saving seeds on his six-acre farm near Morgantown. He also began working and partnering with other local growers.
Earlier this year, he established and launched the Morgantown Seed Preservation Library in conjunction with the Morgantown Public Library, WVU Public Libraries and the WVU Food Justice Lab. It is housed at the Morgantown Public Library.
“I personally donated some seeds and then I requested some seed donations,” Oztan said. “And then we created — like books — we created a collection, to make it possible for people to check out seeds just like they check out books.”
It works similar to a library, except guests aren’t supposed to return the seeds they check out. The hope is they’ll return new seeds.
“When they check out the seed from the seed collection, people should be able to take them to grow in their own gardens,” Oztan said.
“We want to make sure they will be able to bring more seeds — that they grow — back to the library, so that the seeds stay in circulation.”
They are creating a badge system to identify people who are already familiar and successful at seed saving so beginners can get training and support.
The hope is to develop an entire community — an entire state — of seed savers who continue, plot by plot, acre by acre, the long-standing tradition of saving the carefully curated flavors of the past.
“Seed saving is a people’s moment and it relies on people taking over and making sure these seeds don’t go extinct,” Oztan said.
The public is invited to the Morgantown Seed Preservation Library Speaker Series, “Seedy Talks.” The next installment is set for Oct. 7 at 6 p.m. and will feature Ken Green, who founded the first seed library in the United States. He will share seed stories from various ethnic backgrounds with a focus on how traditions shape our food sources and lifestyles.
For more information on the speaker series or seed preservation in West Virginia, visit the Morgantown Seed Preservation Library’s Facebook page or contact Mehmet Oztan at email@example.com.