By Steve Cichon
In 1895, Buffalo Mayor Edgar Jewett floated a novel idea to help feed the city’s growing number of poor.
He called upon the landowners and real estate barons of Buffalo to offer up unused plots of land within the city boundaries to be divided into small plots for the mostly immigrant poor to farm potato patches to feed themselves and their families.
In arguing for the plan, Buffalo’s Poormaster, John Arnold, corroborated that there were at least 300 Polish women who walked 5, 6 or 7 miles to farming jobs just outside of Buffalo for 5 cents a day. Most of the Polish, it was written, had food “absolutely unfit to eat.” Only about one in 10 had work.
Clay Rose variety potatoes, it was decided, would grow plentifully even with little attention. They were planted in nooks and crannies all over the city. One plot was at Seneca and Dole streets – an intersection that no longer exists. It’s now the site of the I-190 on-ramp near Seneca and Bailey Avenue.
There were also plots on Delavan Avenue and on a plot owned by George Urban at Genesee and Doat streets. In Black Rock, the Germania Land Co. offered up land near O’Neill and Tonawanda streets, right at the city line.
The largest tract, however was 90 acres of the old Twitchell Farm in South Buffalo, which was bounded by Cazenovia Creek, Cazenovia Street and Abbott Road.
Mayor Jewett supervised “digging day” along the “shores of placid Cazenovia Creek.”
“Italians from Mechanic Street, Poles from Sobieski Street, Mr. and Mrs. Heine and all the little Heines from the rear houses on Jefferson Street” were there, wrote a News reporter, each of them taking advantage of the “opportunity afforded them to work out their own salvation from a vegetarian standpoint.”
There were also two Jewish families, “along with a handful of Americans.”
Of the 215 plots along Cazenovia Creek in 1896, the average yield was about 30 bushels of potatoes. The farm plots were set up along an imaginary street grid, with small signs placed among the plants.
The dirt streets — named Cumberland, Meridan, Tamarack and others — began giving way to real streets with homes built upon them. The program continued on whatever plots could be found across the city.
In 1899, the mayor’s office reported that the $3,000 spent on the program yielded more than $6,000 worth of food for Buffalo’s poor. But in 1900, a new mayor was elected, and Conrad Diehl thought the job of feeding of the poor belonged to Poormaster Arnold. Diehl abandoned the potato patches program.
A group of philanthropists revived the project again in 1908 with planting in the areas still undeveloped along Cazenovia Creek and in Black Rock.
In 1910, potato bugs invaded Western New York, making the farming of potatoes far more difficult and less cost-effective. The program once again died out, this time for good, but not before thousands of bushels of potatoes staved off hunger for tens of thousands of Buffalo’s most impoverished citizens.