John Webster Remembered
John Webster was born July 1, 1901, and died on September 13, 1990. His life began in the horse and buggy era and ended in the space era. He ran the family farm, first with his father, and then with his wife and five daughters. He broadened the horizons of the family farm, taking produce to the King’s Street Farmers Market, building homes in the community, creating a dairy herd, and becoming a peach orchard specialist. He was involved in his community, hiring people in the 1930s who were desperate for work and for food, teaching Sunday School at church, a leader in the Delaware and Pennsylvania Farm Bureaus.
Those of us who were fortunate enough to know John Webster all have a story to tell. I remember planting peach trees with my grandfather when he was “retired,” and wondering why he was planting more trees now. “Because people will want good peaches to eat when these are ready,” he replied. John Webster’s ability to look ahead was phenomenal and laid the foundation for what we are able to do today.
John Webster told us stories of horrific crop failures in the 1930s. Not only was the economy a mess (The Great Depression), but agriculture was hard hit with freak weather which destroyed entire crops. He described the determination that it took to keep on farming and to overcome the catastrophe of losing crops three years in a row. I learned that farmers have to be strong in spirit as well as in body.
My mother remembers the story of his foot being crushed by a boulder when he was digging out a foundation for a house in the 1920s (pre X-rays, pre-antibiotics, pre-a lot of medical advances). He refused to go to the doctor, fearing that the doctor would amputate the foot. Instead, John Webster bound up that foot and continued to work, limping along. Eventually the foot healed, and he worked another half-century as a farmer.
His great-grandchildren remember that he read Aesop’s Fables to them. John Webster loved books, reading, learning, and sharing his wisdom with others. Folk tales and stories were particular favorites with him.
When John tried to enlist for service in World War I (underage), he was sent home, told that his work as a farmer would be an important service to his country. When World War II rolled around (too old), he was recruited as an advisor to help farmers achieve maximum production.
The Ivanson family remembers that John Webster sponsored her family after World War II. They came from Latvia—grandparents, parents, and children. They had horror stories to tell of what happened to them, their village, and their country. The daughter still stops by to tell us how grateful she is for my grandparents’ sponsorship of her family. A place to live, jobs, education, helping the children get to college, and acceptance into this community in Delaware—all of these things were given freely to them by John and Rachel Webster.
Another person remembers that John Webster hired him as a teenager in the 1930s: a teen who got into trouble, didn’t know anything, and had no family support. John Webster gave him that emotional support, taught him skills, taught him how to be a responsible person and how to contribute to society. He is a successful business owner, family man, and is involved in his community, and gives a lot of credit to John Webster’s leadership.
When he established his dairy herd in the 1930s, John Webster chose the name “Highland Orchards” for the farm name, to honor his Scottish ancestors who came to America in the 1760s as well as to show his personal interest in fruit trees. He loved his peach trees. The farm on Foulk Road was known both as Webster’s and as Highland Orchards.
For my former church organist, it was remembering him as her Sunday School Superintendent and what a kind man he was. For a Delaware Department of Agriculture employee, it was remembering John Webster as an advisor to the governor.
Although John Webster had taken produce to the Wilmington King’s Street Farmers Market for over 20 years, he saw that the community was changing after World War II. More people were coming to the farm and more people were moving out of the city and closer to the farm (more cars everywhere!). He set up a Sales Room in the barn about 1950 to sell to the customers who came here. This was the foundation for our current market.
John Webster set a sterling example for his family, his friends, his customers, his church students, his employees—all who came into his orbit—of acting with integrity, keeping his word, acting with compassion, maintaining a lifelong desire to learn, treating others with respect and dignity, helping the less fortunate. He set an example of planning ahead, being cautious about spending but generous when giving, and treating others well. He was an inspiration to many, and respected and loved by all who knew him.
Although it has now been 28 years since John Webster passed on, we remember his example and lessons every day on the farm. I am honored that he is my grandfather, and I hope that I can live up to the standards that he set for himself.