A lover of the soil and growing things: Shelburne’s best known gardener

Long before supermarkets and farmers markets, many families in Shelburne not only planted flowers, they also had vegetable gardens and berry bushes. By August, vegetables and fruits came fresh from the garden to the table—warm sun-ripened tomatoes, corn, green beans, cucumbers, yellow and green squash. Homemade raspberry, blackberry and blueberry pies were part of the evening meal.

August was also the time to can (put up in air tight jars for preservation) vegetables for the winter meals and make fruit jams and jellies that hit the spot on cold winter mornings on a piece of homemade bread toast. Residents who did not plant vegetable gardens or berry bushes could go and pick their own fresh produce and berries at John Tracy’s eight-acre garden located at the end of Village Vale Drive on the west side of the railroad tracks off Harbor Road.

When the sun is up, 88-year-old John Jay Tracy can be found cultivating his Shelburne garden.
When the sun is up, 88-year-old John Jay Tracy can be found cultivating his Shelburne garden.

A lifelong resident of Shelburne, John was the youngest boy of 13 children of Julius C. and Hannah Tracy. He was born February 10, 1884. At age 10 he planted his first garden. In 1906 he graduated from the University of Vermont with a bachelor of science degree in agriculture, when tuition was $1 a year.

After selling their farm on the shores of Lake Champlain to the Webb family in 1889, his parents bought a 196.5-acre farm on the east side of Route 7. Three years after John graduated, he took over the management of the farm until about 1947 when he retired.

He decided to start his own business raising produce as a hobby and a source of income. In his youth, he gained experience selling produce by going with his mother, Hannah, to Burlington and learned how to price and stick to that price when store owners grumbled.

April he would plow, harrow, and lime the soil using mules at the beginning, later switching to a tractor. He liked mules because they were a lot of fun.  First he planted peas in May, as they could survive a frost. He eagerly awaited when the soil was warm enough to plant 3,000 vegetable plants he had flown in from Georgia.

John was a keen reader and could quote long passages from Shakespeare. A musician, he could play the piano by ear. Jeannette O’Neil remembers John was really something. He was a tall, handsome elderly man. When I was Assistant Town Clerk from 1966–1982 and our office was in the Town Hall basement, we would hear the door open upstairs, the floors would creak and then John would play the piano for us. On his way out he would stop in and leave a still-warm, juicy tomato. My children loved John and I am glad it is one of the good memories of their childhood.

John never married and lived with his three sisters in the red brick house on Route 7 next to the gas station. He had a good sense of humor, and combined with his piano playing, he was a popular visitor and people loved to hear him talk. He was an uncomplicated, happy man. He would remark, “It’s God’s commandment to man that he shall tend a garden.” He loved the soil and growing things. He died on September 22, 1974, at age 90.
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Our next Shelburne Historical Society Living Our Legacy column: An eight-acre garden required help, and John hired many young kids to work for him to give them a source of money and to teach them how to plant, grow and harvest produce. We’ll hear the fond remembrances of one of those “kids” next time. Thanks to Judy Frazer for the research and Jeannette O’Neil for her recollections of John Tracy and his garden.

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