John Withee’s bean collection of 1,186 varieties started with a bean hole.
Throughout his childhood, Friday afternoons consisted of John and his family digging a hole, building a fire in that hole, and lowering a pot of beans into it. They placed hot coals and earth over the pot and filled the hole. The following Saturday night the family dug up the pot and ate the beans. John was one of six kids in a poor family that lived off of beans – and luckily for him, John loved beans.
John reminisced about beans and his childhood in 1976:
“Born and raised in Maine, with family roots in the lumbering country, I have inherited deep feelings about beans as being synonymous with lumber camps. My removal to the Boston suburbs years ago caused a sort of bean trauma. Especially severe was the temporary loss of the beanhole … and the absence of Jacob’s Cattle beans in the local markets.”
When John purchased land in Lynnfield, Massachusetts he decided to revive his family’s tradition of cooking beans in the ground. However, he could not find any traditional beans at the grocery store. If John wanted to eat the beans of his childhood, he was going to have to find and grow them himself. As so began John Withee’s bean collection.
John searched for beans by writing to friends and family in Maine. He followed any leads with extensive correspondence. He began to travel around Maine and New Hampshire, stopping in every food store along the way and posting notices in free publications throughout New England. As John found beans he had never seen before and heard stories of nearly losing unique varieties, he realized “this is an important project ... it seems that only through this kind of effort will the favorite, home garden kind of bean be kept alive.”
After several years of collecting beans and stories, John began to worry about the stewardship of his collection. The beans John collected needed to be re-grown every few years, and his garden demanded more time than he could give it. Upon retiring from a long career as a medical photographer, John began working with his beans full time.
With such an impressive assortment of beans and a passion to match its size, John shared his collection in a catalog that thoroughly described each variety. John offered seed packets at a low price and sent anyone who ordered beans a few extra with a request to increase seed for him. This group of seed savers became known as The Wanigan Associates. The non-profit organization of 200 members, helped maintain the bean collection through an extensive member grow-out network, and John was able to continue collecting unique heirloom bean varieties.
According to John, wanigan is an Abnaki word meaning ‘that into which something strays.’ In Maine, the word was associated with the cook shacks on rafts used during spring lumber drives that fed the woodsmen. The name tied into John’s ancestral association with Maine lumber camps, and at the same time described how John found himself a bean collector.
The success of John’s organization was due to the personal connection he maintained with each member and bean lover. He enjoyed listening to the stories people told about the beans, and made sure to respond to each inquiry with a handwritten note.
Keeping up with the collection became harder as John aged. In 1980 John asked Seed Savers Exchange to take over the collection. It was in desperate need of organization after publicity of the Wanigan Associates “rolled over John like a snowball rolling downhill” (Seed Savers Exchange Harvest Edition 1981). So in 1981 a small task force from the Organic Gardening and Farming Research Center spent a week threshing seed, answering correspondence, and organizing the collection for John. Once completed, he was able to ship the collection to Seed Savers Exchange, and by 1983 the organization became the new stewards of all 1,186 varieties John had collected.
John Withee died on May 29, 1993, but his legacy lives on in the Seed Savers Exchange collection and through his writings. To John, the stories were a favorite part of bean collecting. It didn’t matter if a unique variety from a family in Maine looked just the same as a bean from Texas, but rather that each bean had a unique story to tell and a special importance to the family. The stories John collected are archived in the Seed Savers Exchange library.
Interested in growing Withee beans? ‘Good Mother Stallard’ beans are currently available in the Seed Savers Exchange commercial catalog and the 'Mostoller Wild Goose' bean will be available in the 2017 catalog. Several varieties are available in the Seed Savers Exchange’s annual Yearbook.