Orral, 94, and Joan Craig, 91, now of Fort Myers, Florida, have been members of Seed Savers Exchange for over 30 years, as well as donors of a good number of flower and vegetable varieties to SSE’s Preservation Collection. As an assistant seed historian at Seed Savers Exchange, the CORE (Collection Origins Research Effort) project brought me into contact with the Craigs, allowing me to gather stories from Orral about his upbringing and life as a gardener.
Orral Craig was born on December 4, 1921 on a farm down a dirt road. His parents were pioneer families on the Illinois prairie; who lived in a community of farm people that looked after themselves. They milked cows, churned butter, baked bread, fried potatoes, and had a garden. Orral told me stories of watching his mother prepare cold-packed tomatoes and learning how to plant “pickles” in the straw pile with his grandmother. “We did not have electricity or running water or money, but we lived like kings,” he said. This upbringing instilled in Orral a sense of self-sufficiency, community, and cultural tradition. Yet, this way of life was soon-to-be all but forgotten by future generations.
As an adult, Orral lamented the rapid changes he could see in the Illinois countryside – the fences, barns and houses being torn down to make way for industrial monoculture. Then, in the 1980s, he found out about Seed Savers Exchange’s efforts to preserve the nation’s diversity while reading his subscription to Grit magazine, a Christmas gift he received every year from his father. “Thank goodness for Seed Savers. You’re holding on to thousands of our varieties and the histories that go with them. That’s why Joan and I participated. We could see… we could just see.” he said.
And so began Orral and Joan Craig’s decades-long relationship with SSE, one that co-founder Diane Ott Whealy reflects upon with great admiration and a smile. Diane recalls,
I remember always looking forward to seeing Orral and Joan Craig each year at the campouts during the early 1990s. The Craigs saved all types of seed, but I was taken with the flowers, especially the Amish Cockscomb. Orral told me they discovered the flower growing in an Amish garden near Arthur, Illinois. The enormous velvety burgundy flower heads resemble a rooster’s comb. Orral sent me a box containing a dried slice of the Amish Cockscomb bloom with a note that read, ‘Be careful of seed spilling, as it is fine as sugar.’ Indeed the tiniest granules came from that one piece that I planted to produce several flats of strong seedlings. The plants were grown in the garden at Heritage Farm, and we harvested enough seed to offer Amish Cockscomb in the 2001 catalog.
After retirement, Orral and Joan enjoyed spending their summers as volunteer gardeners at the Lincoln Log Historic Site south of Charleston, Illinois. Each winter, they gardened in raised beds at their retirement home in Texas.
Today Orral is legally blind, but he and Joan still grow one tomato plant, eight kale plants and one orchid at their home in Florida. Though he can’t see what he types, Orral’s passion for history remains strong and he takes delight in listening to audiobooks and typing up research notes on his typewriter.
Orral and Joan truly embody the mission of Seed Savers Exchange, doing what they can to share their stories so that others may learn from them. Orral said something to me one afternoon that perfectly captured the intent of the CORE project, “History is who we are. History is who you are. History is who I am. And I’m tickled to death that you’re trying to keep some of these stories.”
Diane Ott Whealy expressed the gratitude SSE feels to have members like these by saying, “Thank you, Orral and Joan, for being great friends and supporters of Seed Savers Exchange. We look forward to receiving your letters filled with stories, recipes and love for this work we all believe so important.”
Your stories and efforts are needed. Learn more about how you can become a Seed Savers Exchange member or participate in the CORE program (below).
The CORE Program
The CORE (Collection Origins Research Effort) project is an extensive effort to gather seed stories and stewardship histories to enhance the documentation of accessions in the SSE Preservation Collection. This includes cultural history, recipes, and anecdotal stories about garden experiences. If you have ever donated a variety to the Preservation Collection, we encourage you to contact our seed historian, Sara Straate, to share your story: firstname.lastname@example.org | (563) 387-5655.