Heirloom Story: Spence Farm's Kickapoo Beans

Chicago Market deeply values our region's amazing farmers. They steward soil, water, and air for all of us. And, as we learn in this guest blog post from farmer Marty Travis of Spence Farm, they are also preserving flavor, crop diversity, and history through tenacious care for heirloom crops.

The story of our Kickapoo Beans starts a long time ago...somewhere around 1831. My fourth great-grandfather, Valentine Darnall, settled on our farm in 1830. He was the first white settler in Livingston County and came here with his wife, four children, and a bunch of livestock. But, there were already some people living in the area. They were the Native American tribe of the Kickapoo who had not moved to Kansas yet. The story as we heard it is thus:

The Kickapoo gave Valentine some beans, taught him how to make maple syrup, traded with him, and left some goods with him when they went south to hunt for waterfowl. These beans were a pole bean and were passed down from generation to generation along the Bentley side of our family. How did we get this bean if it went to the Bentley's?

Well, a couple of years ago we had an article written about the educational things we were doing on the farm and how we had received a grant from the State of Illinois to do them. The article was posted in numerous papers around the state and one was seen by a relative living on the eastern edge of Iowa, a Bentley relative.

Our relative called and said her husband had liked to garden and had a jar of beans that was passed through the family to him. He had passed away and when she saw the article asked if we would like some of the beans to grow on the farm again. Of course, we said of course! She sent the beans and we tried to grow them that year with no luck. They just wouldn't sprout. We tried in the ground, in pots, in damp paper towel, with a special sprouting juice, and nothing worked. We were disappointed but understanding — it was hard to tell how long they had been in the jar and what conditions it had been under.

A year later another relative wrote and said he had heard of the beans and that we hadn't had any luck growing them. He knew of another relative still growing them and would get us fresh seed if we would like it. Of course! And, he sent the seed. When the seed came we noticed some was darker like the first seed and some lighter. So, Kris planted one row of the dark and one of the light. The dark didn't come up, but the lighter colored seed did. It proved to be a pole bean with whitish flowers. The pods were long, about six to eight inches, and flat. They tasted a little different when green. Kris let them dry and now we had a nice supply of the Kickapoo Beans.

The following summer we attended the annual pow wow at the original site of the Grand Village of the Kickapoo, about an hour away from our farm. Our cousin who had supplied the viable seeds came with us and we made a presentation to the elders of the tribe. We wanted to return a portion of those bean seeds and share the story that had been passed down to our family. Those seeds are now able to be grown and shared within the Native communities. We also shared seed with Seed Savers in Iowa and also with the Svalbard Seed vault in Norway in hopes that this unique bean will live on along with the story of the path it has taken all of these years.

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