Statewide farm tour promotional material states that the Magyar Garden in East Toledo’s Birmingham neighborhood is over 60-years-old.
Lucas County Administrator and longtime Birmingham resident Peter Ujvagi says the community garden’s roots can be traced back over a century.
The Magyar Garden is once again becoming a popular gathering place for gardening with 37 families putting down plots. Gardeners are arriving from as far away as Genoa and other East Toledo neighborhoods.
“Magyar Garden is basically a rebirth,” Ujvagi said. “All of that land for over 100 years had community gardens on it. It actually goes back to more than 100, because when the Birmingham neighborhood was first settled, basically a steel mill came and located on the Maumee River. The owner sent agents to Slovakia, Hungary, and Italy to recruit workers.
“Well, when they got to this neighborhood, their land was a 35-foot plot with a little house on it. So, the tradition in Central Europe is to have your farmland out in the country and you lived in a village. So, those folks then started what was called the Furnace Lands and the Railroad Lands. The Furnace Lands were York Street and the Railroad Lands were along Woodford. Some people started gardening there — they were squatters, and along there were hundreds of gardens.
“Five years ago, there were still three families who were still gardening there. When you ask them why do they do it?’ (They would say) ‘I don’t know. My parents did it, my grandparents did it, and so we do it.’ Basically, what we did was to reenergize the century-old tradition of gardening around the community.”
An elderly gardener named “S.T.” has been gardening there for over 60 years. Ujvagi is not sure of S.T.’s real name. The chairman of the Birmingham Development Corporation’s garden committee, Carl Peatee, estimates S.T.’s age at 87 and believes he has been farming the Magyar Garden since 1935.
“He is an urban farmer and he actually sells down at the Farmer’s Market,” Peatee said. “He just had an aortic valve replaced over the winter and I thought maybe he was going to back off a little bit. He came out in the spring, and said, ‘Nope, nope, I’m going to do everything I did before.’ (We said), ‘The more power to you, Guy.’
Another family who has maintained an interest is the Brewers, relatives of the late well-known singer Theresa Brewer from East Toledo. However, most of the other families there are new.
The garden’s growth has been ongoing. Ten new families were added this year, increasing the demand for more plots. Other gardeners with lead roles include Julianne Emerson and Chris Strayer.
“It’s an offshoot of the Birmingham Development Corporation. We kind of started this project as a means to develop some community spirit and get people to take a little pride in their neighborhood and clean things up a little bit, and we’ve been doing it for about six years now,” Peatee said.
“Every year we try to make a few more improvements to the garden as different opportunities present themselves. One year, we got some water lines put in because the first year we had to bring water from home for the garden,” Peatee continued.
“We probably occupy three to four acres and there are probably 17 acres available, but we lose our logistics if we move away from our water sources.”
The improvements keep coming.
The group received a $17,400 grant from the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, $5,000 from The Andersons, and a woman who gardened there left $10,000 to the Birmingham Development Corporation in her will.
A certified monarch butterfly and bird way-station was added in 2012 and the facility is planning to join the Cornell University urban bird study project. The way station is a place for birds and monarchs to rest when they migrate.
“I think that it’s amazing — this renaissance of what’s basically a victory garden,” said master gardener Karen Wood of the Black Swamp Conservancy. “I’m really proud of the east side and the people in Birmingham.
“We started this with virtually no money. We paid for feed and we paid for plants, and we got plants from Toledo Grows in the very beginning and they helped us with drainage problems. You don’t ever do great things in life by yourself. Everything is a village. It’s a group effort.”
The gardens are sponsored by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, which will highlight Magyar Garden as part of the Ohio Sustainable Farm Tour and Workshop Series on August 17.
Postage stamp yards
Peatee moved to Birmingham from Toledo’s south side with his wife soon after they were married. Like other city dwellers, there is no room in his “postage-stamp” yard for gardening, so the community garden is ideal.
“I’ve been pretty much gardening all my life,” Peatee, 50, said. “I grow all sorts of vegetables and I can and freeze stuff, and I eat out of the garden all year long. For me, it’s just a way of surviving. I live on a very limited income and every little bit helps-kind of thing.”
Its vegetables for Peatee, but for others it is about creating beauty with florals. It just depends on taste.
“Some of them plant sunflowers, which is good for the bees. It’s primarily a vegetable garden, I would say,” Peatee said.
“Everybody grows what they want to grow. We have a little rule, if they have any excess, we have a little table there that they can set it on, and if somebody wants it they are welcome to help themselves. Once or twice a week we’ll take stuff down to the food bank with any excess. Last year or the year before, I think we ended up taking 800 pounds of food down to the food bank.
“We’re hoping to stay there. Our project this year is a greenhouse that we are going to be putting up. And, we’re hoping from that to start a lot of our own seeds in the spring and hopefully extend our growing season in the fall with some crops. Who knows where that will lead?
“One of the thoughts we’re thinking is we can probably start a lot of flower-kind of seeds and make those available to people in the neighborhood. There again, as a means to try and beautify the neighborhood. When you get people gardening like that, they take interest in their neighborhood and maybe they take a little more pride, too.”
Peatee and Wood believe the garden is another step toward revitalizing the neighborhood.
“The neighborhood is an old neighborhood and it’s got some problems in terms of a lot of rental property issues. Everybody knows renters. They don’t really care and they just beat everything up and sometimes it shows in the neighborhood. It’s not a bad neighborhood,” Peatee said.
“It’s unfortunate that all the business and industry in the area have cut back here. Years ago when you had the shipyards here, the Gulf Refinery that was there, the coking plant that was there, most of the people that lived in the neighborhood worked in those places and when those places shut down that’s when the neighborhood started going down.
“A lot of those people walked to work. There was a good stock of workers for the businesses. It’s a shame that the city can’t get more interest in that area. We went through that urban renewal stuff back in the ‘60s and they tore down all sorts of areas out there to build up stuff, and there it sits empty all these years later.”
Wood says she is the garden’s No. 2 person behind Peatee, even though she will lead farm tour groups.
“This is my biggest project because I love the east side and I want something there to be really successful that people can hang their hats on,” Wood said.
“This garden is amazing. I really like the spirit of the community toward this whole community garden kind of thing. People there know their neighbors. They know the people on the next street, so if someone is breaking your house you don’t say, ‘Oh, well, I guess someone should call the cops.’ Instead, you say, ‘Oh, wow, so-and-so’s house is being broken into. We need to call the cops.’
“It’s a really tight neighborhood. There are people in our community garden who would give me the shirt off their back. If I needed five bucks, everybody there would give me five bucks. I’m not just the talking head — there are lots of people involved.”
Those interested in becoming involved with the Magyar Garden can contact Wood at 419-699-5037 or Peatee at 419-490-0176.