Bee Callahan lives in a bucolic setting in the Shark Reef area of Lopez Island, amidst ponds, fruit trees, gardens, and chickens. There are plants in every room of her house; especially hoyas which grow up the walls and across the ceiling. Like many Lopezians, she loves to garden and has had a particular passion for tomato plants her whole life. Bee says her first memory is of planting tomato plants with her mother when she was 3 ½ years old.
Bee remembers her Mom saying, “Come on Bee, we’re going to plant the tomato plants.” After placing a plant in the ground, Bee’s mother instructed her to take the bucket down the hill to the creek and bring back water for the new plant. Bee did this ten times for ten plants when her mother said that she could plant the eleventh and final tomato plant herself. After the 3 ½-year-old Bee placed the eleventh plant in the ground she said to her mother, “Now go and get the water.” Her mother informed her, “It doesn’t work that way. You go get the water!” And Bee had to fetch the eleventh bucket of water as well. Nevertheless, this was the beginning of her “life-long love of tomato plants.”
Born September 29, 1920, on her father’s cotton farm outside of Memphis, Texas, Bee grew up in Texas and later New Mexico. Bee’s father was born in 1900 and had grown up on the farm — the youngest of four children — and the only one interested in continuing to run it.
“My father was quite a farmer. He embraced new ideas. The ends of the cotton rows had 100-foot turnaround areas for the equipment. My father read that you could grow food for cows in these turnaround spaces so the land wasn’t wasted. He would grow peanuts for the cows because they were high in protein. Peanuts in those days were not something you gave your kids, they were cattle food. When the peanut plants were harvested the whole plant was dug up and laid out to dry. The tops are high in protein, better than alfalfa. When they were dry, they’d be put in the hay barn.”
Like most kids who grew up on farms, Bee had to perform many farm chores, for which she was paid one dime a week. “All during the Depression, the only entertainment we had was going to town on Saturdays. That’s what farmers did back then. You didn’t jump in your car to go to town five times a day. You went to town on Saturday after working all week. There was a big square with commerce around it and the courthouse. The courthouse had a big lawn in front of it. It was the only lawn I knew about because farmers use the water they have for their animals. We didn’t have a lawn. The kids had two choices. We could go to the movies which cost ten cents, or we could play on the courthouse lawn. You didn’t dare sit down because the chiggers would eat you up.”
“One of the things we did during the week when we should have been hoeing corn, was playing in the hay loft in the barn. We would lie in the hay, which smelled so good, and reach out and eat peanuts. We loved them! They didn’t have salt and weren’t roasted, they were soft. We didn’t have candy or Coca Cola. I might not like them today.” Needless to say, Bee got into trouble for eating “the good cattle food”.
If you’ve ever wondered what the difference is between a “farm” and a “ranch”, Bee explains that in Texas anything less than 10,000 acres is considered a “farm”. “Our farm was definitely a farm. I grew up on a 360 acre cotton farm where we also had pigs and cows. The animals were on the land where cotton wouldn’t grow. Maybe 100 acres were untillable because of rocks and canyons. The cows ate the grass that grew in the canyons. Our gardens were near the creeks because of the good soil there. We grew watermelons and maybe 40 acres of peanuts.”
Bee’s parents divorced when she was thirteen years old. Bee and her mother moved to New Mexico where her mom’s parents were, and her brother stayed in Texas with her father. After living in California, Seattle, and Port Angeles, Bee moved to Lopez Island where her daughter Jackie and son Patrick were living on boats and owned property. Bee said she would try living here for one year to see how she liked the climate. She attempted to live on a boat, but decided living on land would be less complicated. Her first year on Lopez was spent living in a tent with a wood-burning stove. She decided to stay on Lopez and her son, son-in-law, and grandson built a house for her which, of course, has a greenhouse for her tomato plants.
A life-long love of tomato plants has left Bee with particular favorites: “Early Girl” because they are prolific, good-tasting, and don’t crack, “Yellow Pears” which don’t split, and “Sweet Million” (Lycopersicon esculentum) which are tiny and great for sprinkling on salads. And her secret for growing healthy tomato plants? “
“I give them love,” Bee says. But what she values and loves most in her life are her four children Jackie Ashe-Martin, James Patrick Cotton, Kathy Anderson, and Sandie Johnson. “They are my precious jewels.”