In The Field Station’s Genes: Walton C. Galinat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before the land at the Waltham Field Station became a mosaic of community gardens, farming greenhouses, and cold storage units, there were hundreds of rows of research plots. The Waltham Field Station was a place of serious academic study from the 1920s to the mid-1990s—nearly 70 years. In 1921, farmer-philanthropist Cornelia Warren left a 58-acre parcel to the Massachusetts Agricultural College in her will. Organizations of the college, horticulture groups, and other growers used the new field station land from 1930-1950, using it to, amongst other projects, develop the most popular varieties of broccoli and butternut squash today.

 

Around the same time that Mass Aggie graduated to the title of University of Massachusetts, ground was broken on the main field station research facility. The Waltham Field Station as we know it today was completed in 1950. It was a state-of-the-art hub for agricultural sciences until the mid-1990s, producing work on everything from entomology to plant genetics. After 40 years in the space, UMass began to pull away from the field station for opportunities in Amherst. Once in a while, however, the university’s presence returns in unexpected ways.

 

I have only truly known the field station as it is today: an old brick building that shelters seven non-profit organizations and countless reminders of its own history. One such reminder, a stack of dusty papers, photos, and old wooden boxes, was recently relocated to the desk drawers beside me. The stack was rescued a few weeks ago, on a warm June day, when the Boston Area Gleaners were hard at work clearing their storage spaces for the coming summer season. BAG operations manager, Charlotte Border, found it amidst the gardening gloves and harvesting buckets. Upon closer inspection, the original owner of these documents became clear. One wooden box was neatly labeled “Walton C. Galinat,” and unlatched to reveal eighty carefully preserved microscope specimens.

 

Walton C. Galinat was the station’s resident plant geneticist from 1964 until his retirement in 1995. His biggest passion is revealed in the meticulous photos and hand sketches we found in the stack: corn. Galinat is credited with the development of many popular and creative varieties of corn, including the whimsical Candy Stick, practical square-eared “airplane corn,” and a patriotic, red white and blue kernel variety to be eaten at 4th of July Picnics. Many of the varieties were intended to problem solve—making life easier for consumers or protecting corn genes at risk of monoculture.

 

The fascination with corn began in his high school years, as he spent summers working plots at a field station in Connecticut. Galinat is also renowned for his research on corn evolution, morphology, and diversity—having spent significant parts of his career in Tehuacan, Mexico or along the banks of the Balsas River, studying ancient maize, the transformation of maize to corn, and the future that corn could help to create. A believer in the combined power of art and science, his unique hand-drawn diagrams are permanently displayed in the National Academies Building in Washington DC.

 

Once I had learned their context, I was surprised to have some of those sketches laying right in front of me. Along with old notes, letters, and conference pamphlets, the stack includes a poster with three drawings—evidently depicting a corn specimen’s development from 74 days to 284 days to 365. Scrawled alongside the drawings are dated notes about the specimen’s progress. Beyond the academic, the stack also revealed some of Galinat’s personal interests: a booklet of impressionist paintings by Auguste Renoir, a United Airlines map with facts about airplanes and geography printed along the margins, and a carefully cut out newspaper cartoon.

 

Galinat’s scientific legacy is astounding. Throughout his long career, he contributed to more than 300 published papers, and in 1994 received the prestigious Distinguished Economic Botanist Award from the Society for Economic Botany. His skill as an illustrator was renowned—with his finished drawings offering more detail than photos could. One particular drawing depicting the morphology of a cornstalk is considered the most widely used botanical corn illustration today. Furthermore, his work in Waltham was critical to the continued success of corn as an American staple. Fearing for the biodiversity of the crop, he studied the original genetics of ancient maize in order to strengthen corn genes and boost production. Galinat was immersed in local New England farming culture, so he took what he learned from researching corn predecessors and applied it to a new project: developing and marketing healthier, more innovative sweet corn varieties to local, and later nation-wide, farming businesses.

 

In my quest to find someone who could home these documents permanently, I was able to contact Galinat’s daughter, Alice. Concord resident and computer software engineer, Alice kindly stopped by for a visit to the station, check out what we found, and speak with me about her family. The Galinats moved to the area she was only two weeks old. Growing up, Alice was involved in life at the station right alongside her father. She spent her summers working the research fields though high school and college.

 

The picture Alice painted of the field station during that time was equal parts serious academic facility and community gathering space. She remembers the station as a bustling research center in the 1960s, when horticultural societies planted fantastic tree specimens and flower gardens for the entire community to enjoy. Alice listed the names of her father’s colleagues, which I had only known through old articles, and the research she witnessed unfolding on poultry veterinary science, ticks, and air pollution. Finishing our conversation, we chatted about the challenges the station must overcome and the magic of working or living in an old building with history to share. Speaking with her enriched my understanding of not only her father’s legacy, but the legacy of the buildings in which he worked.

 

My internship is drawing to a close, and UMass still seems uninterested in the history they have left behind. Yet, the university’s presence cannot be erased, or forgotten. The documents we found still need a new home—a place where they can be safely kept, and maybe one day displayed.

 

In the very bottom of the photo box we found is tangible evidence of the Field Station’s endurance in the face of uncertainty. A yellowed Boston Globe newspaper clip is titled “Waltham agriculture station to move if UMass plan OK’d,” and details UMass’ decision to leave the Waltham Field Station for Amherst. Though the article itself is undated, a coupon on the back page expired in January of 1990. Writer Carrie Izard Richardson describes the plan as “cost-saving” but “unwise,” because with the university gone, horticultural societies and other “green industry” members would be left behind without support. This prediction, of course, came true. In the article, the Experiment Station Director at the time is quoted, calling the decision to move “a real downer.” The article, its author, and her interviewees assign urgency to what had previously been a little-known crisis. Readers are invited to learn about the station’s importance, and to get involved in its preservation. Though that call to action was intended to address a problem already past, it seems an appropriate message once again.

 

Walton C. Galinat thought it was important to save this small newspaper clipping. Now, working at the station as it undergoes a similarly uncertain transition period, I can understand why. The documents we found are a reminder that the task is up to us to keep the station’s history, and future, alive. Yet, I can’t help but feel confident: hard work is in the Waltham Field Station’s genes.

 

If you want to get involved in preserving Waltham Field Station history, contact your local and state legislators. Tell them about Walton C. Galinat’s work and the enduring legacy of the station’s land and buildings.

By Anneke Craig, Boston Area Gleaners Intern