Meet the Growers: Violet Bullock

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Mrs. Bullock at her home in Dardanelle. All images by Saira Khan for the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources.

If you’re a regular reader of this column, you know that for the past year the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action has been working on something we’re calling the Garden Book Project. This book will feature the stories of area growers both old and young. More than just a directory or a how-to-garden book, this publication focuses on the people behind the gardens, illuminating the power of living traditions and sustainable living, the importance of teaching young people, and the diversity of growing traditions in the region.

We put out a call to readers of the column asking for their suggestions on who should be included in book. One of the many emails we received was from Greg Jones who suggested we speak to his grandmother, Violet Bullock. Growing up in Dardanelle, I’ve known Mrs. Bullock all my life and have often admired her beautiful petunia-filled garden. We had the chance to go and meet with her and her daughter, Norma Bishop, at Mrs. Violet’s house in Dardanelle to learn more about how she learned to grow and why she’s kept at it all these years.

The morning before we arrived, Mrs. Bullock had been out picking poke salad, a native, wild plant she cultivates in her garden. In her nineties, she’s had to cut back on her gardening tasks and doesn’t grow quite as much as she used to even a few years ago. Still yet her garden takes up a large portion of her side yard plot in Dardanelle. Gardening has never been simply a hobby Mrs. Bullock. It’s the way she’s provided food for her family, ensuring they always had plenty to eat even during the hardest of times.

For many years Mrs. Bullock worked in the cotton fields outside of Dardanelle and took on part-time holidays shifts selling merchandise at Jack Boyce department store in downtown Dardanelle. She was chopping cotton in the Cardon Bottom area when she first heard there might be might a chicken processing plant coming to town. People in the fields were talking about the better pay and the steady work that such plant could bring to the town, she recalls.

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Poke sallet/poke salad cultivated in her home garden.

Knowing she needed a steady income to support her three children, she put in her name for employment at the plant. “I didn’t put my name in until five weeks until they were going to be opening,” she explains. She reached out to Mr. Mobley of Mobley Construction who sat on the board of the Dardanelle Chamber of Commerce asking if he could put in a good word with the bosses at the new plant. “So in about a week or ten days I got a thing to be interviewed,” she explains. She told the bosses about her days working in the downtown store and her hard work picking cotton. She explained how she learned to pick and weigh the cotton, skills she knew would come in handy on the chicken lines. Soon she had a steady job at Dardanelle’s first chicken plant, known in those days as Janet Davis Kitchens.

Over the years she worked weighing, packing and rolling giblets, often working with three other women on the giblet line. “Regardless of whatever I done,” she says recalling her years of hard work, “I give it the best I had.” For a while she even served as a union steward in the chicken plant. All the while she kept a large garden to ensure everyone had plenty to eat. She taught her kids how to raise and prepare the food which they canned for the winters. When asked how she learned to garden she replies, “the Lord give me knowledge.”

As we took a walk around her garden she points to the poke salad, onions, and vining cascade of petunias that dominate much of the yard. Her daughter Norma Bishop says that over the years her mother’s petunias have become locally famous. “People would stop and be out here with a camera,” she says. The huge patch of purple, pink, and white flowers all started with just a few seeds, Mrs. Bullock explains. Over the years they have reseeded to cover the entire yard. For years she’s given them away to friends and neighbors, allowing offspring of those original seed to take root in gardens throughout the city and beyond.

Our print version of the Garden Book will be complete later this spring and will feature more information about Mrs. Bullock and many other gardeners in our community. Thanks so much for reading and thanks to everyone who has been supporting our work with your suggestions, encouragement, and ideas! We deeply appreciate it.


The Seed and the Story is a partnership with the Courier newspapers in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.

 

 

More on the Garden Book Project: