A Pure Strain of Ancient Corn, and Its Keepers
By Sarah Calley For hundreds and hundreds of year the Abenaki People lived on both sides of the Connecticut River in what are now called Vermont and New Hampshire in the United States around the villages called Haverhill and Newbury. By the time European settlers arrived in these areas, the Abenakis had been growing sweet corn on the oxbows of the river for centuries. It was very different from the sweet corn of today. Abenaki corn grew only about three feet high and produced one ear per stock, that ear being about four inches long and containing 8 to 12 rows of kernels.
The Abenakis had allied with the French during the frontier wars of the 1700's, but the British were victorious and one of the first places the English-speaking settlers headed for was the rich lands in the oxbow country. Corn was unknown in Europe. It had been developed by native peoples in South America and gradually moved north. So the settlers must have been fascinated to learn about this plant that was new to them. The Abenakis shared their corn seed with some of the first European families who settled in Newbury and Haverhill.
One family in particular was so impressed that they grew the corn every year, saved the seed, and replanted the next year, from generation to generation. This went on for more than 200 years. One descendent of this family was a man named Carroll Greene. He had moved from the area but still valued the corn and grew it every year. Sarah and Charles Calley met Mr Greene in the 1970's. They saw the corn growing in his garden and were intrigued. Mr Greene told the Calleys they could have seed but he challenged them to become the "keepers of the corn", as he was an old fellow and he wanted the corn to survive. He also told them about being the descendent of one of the early settlers in Newbury, Vt.
So the Calleys grew the corn for about 35 years, and, coincidentally, during that time, they moved to Newbury. Then, by another coincidence, Sarah Calley, the gardener in the family, met Nancy Millette of Haverhill. And Nancy Millette happened to be the chief of the Koasek Band of the Abenaki Nation. Chief Millette was astonished because the tribe had lost the corn seed many years before and were no longer growing it.
The late Chief was a very dynamic woman who appreciated corn's place in the Abenaki heritage and understood the importance of a pure strain of ancient corn in a hybridized genetically modified organism world. She saw what was needed and the Calley family agreed. Thus the corn seed was given back to the Abenaki people. Their planter, Peggy Fullerton and her family, have resumed the role of "keepers" of the corn.
Editor's Note: When Sarah Calley contacted the tribe for permission to share this article, the response was "of course" and:
Corn is one of the most sacred parts of our communities, our Green Corn Ceremony is all about our love for growing and harvest. Without you it may have been lost to us forever. --Kevin Fagnant