Family heirloom holds mysterious collection of seeds
Rebecca Sweetman moved back to her childhood home on Morrison Point Road last April with her husband, Neil Usher, and their two children, Tristen Usher, then 14, and newborn Nicholas Usher-Sweetman. They soon established a fledgling organic farm, providing organic pork, eggs from heritage hens and Rebecca’s home-made preserves, made with produce from their farm garden. While cleaning a second-floor bedroom, previously used as a catch-all for all manner of items, Rebecca and Neil came across a slim, dusty wooden box. They opened it to find a neatly labelled collection of nearly 200 cork-stoppered glass vials containing a variety of seeds.
Inquiries to Rebecca’s mother shed some light on the origin of the box. It had belonged to Rebecca’s greatgrandfather, O.M. Steer, who was a teacher in the Peterborough area during the 1920s and ’30s. “It’s a crazy, wonderful collection that has everything from parsnip, turnip, radish, lettuce all the way to, like, flowers,” said Rebecca. “There’s burning bush, there’s ironwood. But then there’s things we have absolutely no idea what they are.”
“We’re hoping to test some viability of which seeds can still actually produce,” added Neil. The ink has faded on some of the labels, rendering them illegible, but Neil and Rebecca are hoping there are some horticulturalists or gardeners who will be able to help them identify the contents. They can be reached through the farm website at: hawkridgehomestead.com.
Rebecca believes the seeds were simply a hobby collection, gathered sometime the 1930s. Her greatgrandfather made the green velvet lined box and neatly secured the glass vials with copper wire. He also made another cherished heirloom—the rocking chair in which Rebecca sat as a child and in which she now rocks her own baby. Rebecca’s parents were glass artists who moved to the County in 1995, when Rebecca was a teenager. After her father died in 2000, the house remained only sporadically occupied—Rebecca started university and embarked on a career, and her mother returned to Hong Kong.
Rebecca and Neil moved back to the County in April 2016. Their romance has a modern day fairytale spin to it. They were childhood sweethearts before Rebecca moved to the County. In the days before Skype and Facebook, the main way to keep in touch was by longdistance telephone. Astronomical phone bills nearly bankrupted their parents, and the relationship came to an abrupt halt. Twenty years later, the fairy godmother named Google allowed Neil to find Rebecca half a world away in Bali, where she was working for a Canadian NGO.
Rebecca and Neil still engage part-time with their previous careers. She continues to work on social justice issues and providing educational outreach to local youth to connect them with world events, while Neil has returned after paternity leave to his position as compliance manager for an export company. However, they are both principally focused on making their small farm operation self-sustainable. “It is such a cherished, loved property,” said Rebecca. “And the land is very special. The fence at the front, the stone fence, I rebuilt it with my father when I was a teenager. Our goal is for this is to be self-sustaining…to be a steward to this piece of land, and also to achieve local food security.”