“Say, are youse de ladies dat buy de dandylions?” — The Dandelion War 0f 1913
‘There are millions of boys and millions of dandelions. There’s dandelions to the right of me, to the left, the north, south, east and west, and it’s raining dandelions. These women are in for some job.” — These were the words of “Big Bill” Tamblyn, Aberdeen’s fire chief, when he learned of the intentions of Aberdeen’s Civic Improvement Association to eradicate the growing menace of dandelion infestation in their fair city in the summer of 1913.
Earlier that summer numerous complaints had come into city hall from residents fighting an endless, frustrating battle against noxious weeds in their gardens and lawns. Despite attempts to maintain their yards and keep their grounds tidy and well kept, dandelions were being allowed to grow, particularly in the park strips and vacant lots. Then, like now, out of town property owners were given the brunt of the blame for allowing their rental properties and vacant lots run rampant in the yellow flowers and spread to neighboring properties. W.O. McCaw stated the situation thus, “This tends to discourage the person who would improve his property, because the idle, weed-sown, strip detracts greatly from the appearance of the street, in general, and at the same time plants weeds on the good lawn of the man who has civic pride. I believe the ordinance against obnoxious weeds should be enforced.”
That is when the Civic Improvement Association stepped in with a novel plan to spur on the eradication efforts. The Civic Improvement Association was formed by local society women in 1909 to promote the beautifying and civic improvement of Aberdeen. Since then, the group had originated “city clean-up day”, overseen the annual flower show, funded the Boys Summer Camp, and contributed to a day nursery.
Presided over by Mrs. H.L. Burnett, wife of a prominent jewelry store owner, the Association proposed a contest that would clean up the city, help kids earn a little money, and relieve summer boredom all in one fell swoop. The proposal was to pay half-a-cent per pound for all dandelion blossoms, leaves or roots collected within the city limits by children under the age of 18. The child who collects the most pounds at the close of the contest receives a special prize of $5; to the next highest $4; third, $3; fourth $2, and fifth $1.
Truant Officer Lee, placed in charge of the competition, established a weighing station at the corner of 3rd and I Streets. There the dandelions would be weighed between the hours of 10 am and noon, and 2 to 4 pm, and payment slips issued which contestants would redeem at the Aberdeen Daily World office at Wishkah and I Streets for cash. The weeds were dumped in a gully where the Aberdeen Museum of History now stands.
Even before the plans had been formalized, the contest was a hit with the young ‘uns. Word got out and a few boys arrived at the Civic Improvement meeting with bulging bags of weeds inquiring, “Say, are youse de ladies dat buy de dandylions?” The boys were advised that the contest wouldn’t start until July Fourth and they should hold on to their weed bundles until then.
A militia of boys (and a few girls) armed with sacks, carts, butcher knives, trowels, weeders, spades and an armory of other garden implements set off to wipe out the scourge befouling the lawns, lots, and parking strips of their city. Some turned their totals in daily while others held them in storage until the final weigh-in. By the end of the first day, Wilfred Gawley brought in 259 pounds, but “little Clifford Leitch, who has worked all alone asking odds and the help of no one, is behind by Gawley by just one pound.” They were followed by Russell Linn, Cecil Callison and Giles Hogan. Some worked alone and others pooled their resources under the name of one boy with agreements to split the winnings. For the next week, the weed purge was front page news in the Aberdeen Daily World and followed with fervor by the reading public.
By the time the contest came to an end on July 14, 104 entrants had pulled a total of 39,279 pounds of dandelions. Cecil Callison took the crown with a total of 4,624 pounds of dandelions; earning him $28.12. He was followed by Bryan Brecht, 2nd — 3,869; Edward Remmelmeyer, 3rd — 2,822; Giles Hogan, 4th — 1,851; and Harold Cameron, 5th — 1,544 pounds. The Civic Improvement Association called the enterprise the “most successful of any ever undertaken by the Association and the results far exceeded all expectations.” The raid cost the women a total of $211.39, $196.39 of which was for dandelions
Throughout the competition, the Aberdeen Daily World had positioned “little Clifford Leitch” as the underdog and described his loss of a place within the prize money is the “surprise of the contest. He is a little chap, but he had done consistent work and had remained within sight of the prize money throughout the contest but could not match the heavy contributions of Brecht and the other leaders in the contest.”
The contest wasn’t intended to remove all of the dandelions in the city, but it did eliminate nearly 20 tons of the deleterious weeds and instilled a sense of civic pride. One hundred years later the war continues in the gardens and lawns, vacant lots and parking strips throughout the city — an endless fight to eliminate the scourge of the “dandylion”.
Roy Vataja is the son of Finnish immigrants and apologizes to his neighbors for allowing his yard to become a breeding ground for dandelions. The matter is being rectified.