Monday Musings: Harry R. O’Brien, Plain Dirt Gardener

MondayMusingsIt was such a beautiful Sunday – not too hot and not too cool (or windy) – that I decided to work in the garden after church.  With the abundant rain we received last week (Thank You Lord!) I had to re-work some of the rows I had already dug after they more or less washed out.  I had several tomato and pepper plants to put in the ground … we now have 26 or 27 tomato (I lost count) plants – ‘cause we love tomatoes in our house!

I picked up another blister or two, started on my summer tan and wore myself out, but in a good way.  I love to get out and dig around, play in the dirt if you will – so relaxing and satisfying.  Not that I claim to be an expert gardener, but I give it my all.  I was thinking about what to write for today’s article and reminded of someone whose story I was introduced to recently.

I was looking for some public domain photographs that I might be able to use for some posters, specifically featuring African American farmers, for our local genealogical society to place in the downtown and branch libraries to get people thinking about their family history.  I found the perfect one and located the person who had posted it.  I emailed him because I wanted to know something about who took the picture so I could provide proper attribution.  Donald K. O’Brien replied to my email with just a little tidbit about the photograph.  It had been taken in 1914 by his father Harry R. O’Brien, and entitled “Oklahoma Sharecroppers.”  Donald found the picture in old box of his father’s photographs.


As it turns out, his father had made a name for himself as a regular monthly columnist of Better Homes and Gardens for thirty years.  Harry began keeping a diary in 1906 after receiving word he’d passed the entrance examination to enter the state university.  He joined the University Y.M.C.A. and they gave him four line-a-day diary – he made the first entry that evening and “began [his] career in the crime of diary keeping.”1

In 1933 Harry’s book, Diary of a Plain Dirt Gardner, was published by Sears Publishing Company, Inc.  He began by dedicating the book to his wife Margaret and sons Donald and David, “who have to put up with the vagaries of the Plain Dirt Gardener” and continued:

To the good Nurserymen and Seedsmen who through the years have furnished the wherewithal for dirt gardening; to the great tribe of Dirtgardenerites everywhere who have furnished the inspiration to keep this Diary going; to my good friends on the Editorial Staff of “Better Homes and Gardens” this Diary is dedicated.

By the time Harry reached his thirties he was still a “confirmed bachelor”.   He eventually found the love of his life, Margaret Kingery, and asked her to marry him.  Maggie wanted a home of her own to decorate and Harry wished for a flower and vegetable garden.  The vegetable part of the garden didn’t turn out so well that first year, but the flowers were gorgeous.  With that “the soul of the Plain Dirt Gardener was born.”2

He continued to plant both flowers and vegetables and later bought a plot of land to call is own.  He had a “feeling in [his] bones” that someday a depression of some sort would come along (and sure enough, it did).  One of the first tasks was to lay out a garden.  Although his family did fairly well during the Depression years, they were by no means rich.  Harry taught agricultural journalism part-time and wrote magazine articles and tried his hand at selling plants from his garden (to pay for more plants).

Harry wrote the Better Homes and Gardens column under the pen name Harry Doyle for the first year.  Then, the magazine discontinued it for two years until readers kept asking for it.  Thereafter, he wrote the column under his own name.  It proved to be a blessing to Harry and his family through those years of the Depression, providing reliable income, when so many were struggling.

As Harry pointed out in the book’s introduction, for twenty-five years he had daily written down not only his thoughts on gardening but his romances, secret hopes, journeys, his students, disappointments and vices (the worst of which he admitted was smoking a corncob pipe in the living room).  The longer he kept the diary, however, the more focused Harry became on gardening — or as he called it, his “expanded vision of gardening.”3  He came to realize it encompassed everything  – lawn, trees, shrubs, walks and drives — everything outside the house.  Eventually it became, in his words, “a mode of living – a philosophy of life, something akin to religion.”4

It’s an interesting book (at least what I’ve been able to read …. still working on it, so this isn’t a book review).  It’s a glimpse into family life in the 1920’s and 30’s, the ups and downs of raising a family of two boys and trying to make ends meet.  As he points out, everything in the diary is real and Harry wrote sometimes a bit tongue-in-cheek.  I’m reading it online here or you can purchase a hardcover edition from Amazon and other sources.  If you’re a gardening enthusiast or fancy yourself a “plain dirt gardener,” you might want to take a look.

Anyway, this week will be busy enough, but I will have to make time to finish planting the garden as well.  I look forward to a summer of puttering around the garden, researching and writing.  Speaking of researching and writing, look for some new blog themes.  One I’m planning to develop soon will be called “I’m Curious”.  I often run across phrases and repetitive headlines in old newspapers, and I wonder “what the heck was that about!?!”  I’ll be off on a quest to discover the historical context and meaning and then write about it.  I don’t think you’ll be bored either – some of this stuff is a real hoot!  I hope you’ll find them interesting.  If you have any subjects like that you would like researched, leave a comment and I’ll be happy to take a look.  In the meantime, have a great week!

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.



  1. Diary of a Plain Dirt Gardener, by Harry Russell O’Brien, 1933, p. 7
  2. Ibid., p. 11
  3. Ibid., p. 17
  4. Ibid., p. 17

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