January 2009 Archives

A Familiar Squash with Surprising Origins

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Butternut Squash

Contributed by Phoebe Haberkorn and reprinted with permission of The Stow Independent.

I had the pleasure of interviewing late Stow resident Mrs. Dorothy Leggett some years ago. She shared the story of how her husband, Charles, came to develop the now ubiquitous squash we know as the butternut. Some of us love it, others can't stand it. It's a requisite side dish at many of our holiday meals, and appears on the table all winter long, but most of us don't know that the butternut squash was first grown right here in Stow.

The man who reportedly first developed the butternut squash, Charles A. Leggett, was neither a farmer nor a scientist, according to his widow, Dorothy. Leggett bought a house in Stow in the late 1930's because his father wasn't well, she said, and the doctor recommended that he spend more time outdoors. It wasn't the easiest move for Leggett, who had lived most of his life in Milton, because as an officer of the John Hancock Life Insurance Company, he had to commute into Boston every day. He hadn't planned on having as much as 94 acres of land with the house he bought, but "that was what he could find at the time. It was hard to find a house in the country," Mrs. Leggett commented.

Leggett hadn't planned on growing crops, either, but he "hated to see land lying idle," and wanted to make a little money from the property he had. Mrs. Leggett said he rented out the fields for a time, "but you don't make any money that way," and then tried growing corn. The corn didn't do too well, however, and many other growers in the area were already supplying corn to the market. Leggett cast about for a different crop, and somehow got started with squash.

According to Mrs. Leggett, it was during the mid 1940's that Leggett developed the butternut squash, after crossing the gooseneck squash with other varieties. Gooseneck squash were long and gangly, and difficult to transport because of their irregular shape. Another common squash at the time, the Hubbard squash, was very large, with a hard skin and flesh that was also hard to cut. Leggett wanted something smaller than a Hubbard squash, with a compact, regular form and flesh that was easier to prepare.

"He tried out crops in the field between the houses," a ¼-acre plot between the Leggett house on Gleasondale Road and the next house down. He first grew the butternut strain of squash there "in the little garden bed," according to Mrs. Leggett. After the trials, when he had collected enough seed, Leggett planted "the fields" – some 35 acres, which were located across Gleasondale Road from the house – all in butternut squash.

During the years of World War II, from 1942 to 1945, Leggett faced some challenges, as many farmers did. Mrs. Leggett said he had been able to get a new tractor, but had trouble getting gas, as everyone did, due to rationing. "You could get farm gas, to raise food," she added, "but one guy on the rations board came down and said, 'You're wasting too much gas, you're driving your tractor too slowly.' Charlie told him he couldn't drive it any faster, because the field was full of rocks. He said, 'This is the last tractor I could get in New England. If I wreck it, I'll be done for.'" The official let him have the gas he needed.

Eventually, Leggett took his squash to the Waltham Field Station to show them what he'd developed and ask advice. "That's how the Waltham people got into it," Mrs. Leggett said with a chuckle. "They were enchanted" with the new variety of squash, she said, though they were skeptical that the strain would hold for repeated production.

They also told Leggett he needed a name for the new squash. Saying the squash was "smooth as butter and sweet as a nut," Leggett decided to call it the butternut squash. Since then, it has sometimes been identified as the Waltham Butternut Squash, "and it really wasn't," asserted Mrs. Leggett. However, "back in those days, you didn't get any credit and there was no way to register or license something like that."

Though Leggett didn't receive credit or remuneration for the squash he originated, Mrs. Leggett said he was always proud of having developed it. He regarded it as "just a gift of the gods" since it resulted haphazardly from his experiments. Leggett enjoyed collecting and sharing butternut squash recipes, and often brought butternut squashes as gifts for people he visited. Mrs. Leggett said he also went to hotels in Boston and gave squash to the chefs to try out. "He would bring in bushels of squash" to places like the Parker House Hotel "and say, 'just save me the seeds'," she noted.

Mr. Leggett died in the late 1980's at the age of 88, while his widow, Dorothy, continued to live for many years afterward in the family farmhouse which still stands on Gleasondale Road. The view, however, has changed. When the Page family purchased a parcel of Leggett's land in the early 1990's, they developed a golf course, naming it in honor of the squash first produced there years ago. Butternut Farm Golf Club now exists on the fields that once supported a rogue new vegetable, the butternut squash.

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