April 30, 2020

Digging into the Roots of South Side Gardening: Pre-World War I Immigrant Gardens and Today #TBT

BAPL is digging deep in the archives for some historical “Throwback Thursday” posts (#tbt). This one tells the story of the first beautiful gardens that first came to the South Side of Bethlehem with Pre-World War I immigrants coming to work for Bethlehem Steel who wanted to bring “bits of their homeland in the form of seeds” with them to create beautiful, lush vegetable gardens that would eventually greatly influence their new community.

Those that walk through the South Side of Bethlehem might be surprised to know that the alleyways and side lots that they see now were at one time green with full gardens that included multitude of vegetables and herbs, and tall fig, cherry, peach, plum or apple trees. “Old fashioned flower varieties” were also in the mix, bringing color and variety to these backyard gardens. These vegetables and fruits were eaten fresh or preserved and canned for the winter months.

From personal gardening came the shift to the “Depression Gardens” of the 1930s, when Mayor Robert Pfeifle acquired several lots for gardening– totaling 175 gardens. Donated seeds from community members helped create these gardens so struggling families could gather produce “without monetary charge.” Mayor Pfeifle was also responsible for launching a program to produce 10,000 processed and canned jars to be distributed to needy families during the long winter months. In the 1940s during WWII, “Victory Gardens” sprung up to boost morale, and soon, “Thrift Gardens” were created to furnish seeds for an Emergency Relief Fund. These South Side gardens represented patriotism and solidarity in a changing, turbulent time.

In the years to come, South Side corner grocery stores would begin to carry the produce, and while the elderly retained their traditions of gardening, their grandchildren would choose not to acquire those same skills and would eventually leave the neighborhoods for different homes, or rent their homes out to students, leading to the “demise and eradication of backyard gardening” with backyards and side yards being paved for parking.

Those that retain garden knowledge do so through “innate heritage or gardening publications and TV programs,” as well as internet resources and classes. People now have the support of supermarkets and nurseries providing everything necessary to make home gardening happen. Today, the Southside Garden Alliance and Penn State Master Gardeners have shared their skills at the South Side Branch of Bethlehem Area Public Library free-of-charge to provide gardening workshops of all kinds to South Side patrons, and anyone else who wants to learn more about gardening right at home to create their own “backyard paradisos!” Read the article originally published by the South Bethlehem Historical Society to learn more about this beautiful heritage of South Side Gardening and become inspired to revive some of these home gardening skills with our virtual “Home Gardens of Hope” workshops, which you can register for here: https://www.bapl.org/events/categories/virtual-events/


Janine Santoro works within Adult Services at the South Side Branch of Bethlehem Area Public Library, in Bethlehem, PA, creating curriculum and workshops that serve those in the community free of cost. Janine received her B.A. in English and Psychology from Rutgers University (NJ) and her M.Div from Drew Theological School (NJ). She is currently working with Lehigh University and the local Latinx community to create a digital oral history collection that explores the diversity of the community, the changing nature of work, and the evolving landscape for Latinx members in Bethlehem, which will shine a light on the community’s unheard stories and their contributions over the past 50 years.

Raneire, Ken. “Backyard Paradiso.” Southern Exposure (Summer 2007): 5-7.

*Southern Exposure is a quarterly newsletter published by the South Bethlehem Historical Society. * See the original articles here:

Backyard Paradiso by Ken Raniere

Backyard Paradiso – Photos – by Ken Raniere

Researched by Elizabeth Saraceno


Local History