John Withee (1910-1993) was a medical photographer who rode freight trains cross country, flew to the Arctic in a Piper Cub, climbed mountains, won the Professional Photographers of America National Award, wrote a book, and collected beans along the way. He was an unconventional adventurer long before his 1970s bean fame.
It was John’s nostalgic search for the baked beans of his Maine childhood that led him to dedicate nearly two decades of his life to curating one of the largest personal collections of garden beans in the United States. John Withee’s passion for protecting plant diversity and preserving heirloom varieties resonated with people during 1970s and 80s, earning him the nickname, the Bean Man. In the process, he united a community of gardeners and seed savers under a nonprofit organization he called the Wanigan Associates.
In 1981, after many years of collecting and feeling the mounting pressure to maintain an ever growing collection, John Withee donated samples of his entire collection to Seed Savers Exchange. At the time, Seed Savers Exchange was not a central repository for heirloom varieties. John’s donation became the catalyst that led Seed Savers Exchange to become the largest non-governmental seed bank in the United States.
New stories about John's adventurous life and his motivation for collecting are now documented by Seed Savers Exchange. Information provided by John’s family, members of Wanigan Associates and publications from the 70s and 80s have enriched his story. With the help of a grant from The 1772 Foundation, Seed Savers Exchange conducted a wide-ranging research project to learn more about the donated beans, the Wanigan Associates, and Withee himself. This winter, Seed Savers Exchange will launch its first-ever interactive online exhibit From Maine to Main Course which will showcase the story of John and his beans.