Hundreds of gourds wrapped in black plastic bags remain stacked behind the northwestern Parke County home of Helen Thomas, waiting to be power washed.
A weathered red barn next to the home serves as a museum of sorts, with examples of what artists can do with gourds — from painting them to making musical instruments, bird houses, bottles and scoops.
It’s a passion Thomas has had since she first planted gourds in 1988, after buying seeds from her nephew.
“Never dreamed what it would do to me,” she chuckled, as the venture became known as Sandlady’s Gourd Farm.
“I planted two rows that first year, then planted four rows the next year.” That grew into planting gourds on a quarter of an acre the following year.
“I had a barn full of gourds and I didn’t know how to sell them. I didn’t know much about them, I just liked them,” she said.
That changed after Thomas went to an Ohio Gourd Society show in 1989 with a friend. The following year, she and her husband, Ronnie A. Thomas, went to the show, learning how to market and sell gourds through events, festivals and eventually on the internet.
“He came home so excited, he built a trellis and planted a whole bunch of gourds,” Thomas said of her husband, who also had worked for more than 25 years at Mid States Steel and Wire.
“By using a trellis, the weight of the gourd pulls down on the plant and you can make a long-handled gourd,” she said. A 6-foot example of such a long-handle gourd is in her barn and is taller than Thomas, who stands at 5-feet, 5-inches.
Thomas has been involved in farming since 1970s. She and her husband initially farmed cantaloupe and watermelons. They also had pumpkins, which are part of the scientific Cucurbitaceae family which includes gourds.
Gourds would become a family mainstay after Thomas made decision to go to plant only the hard-shell ornamental fruit. It was a decision she said was thrust upon her in 1991.
That’s when she and her husband were returning from their second trip together to an Ohio gourd show. Helen, who was driving, said she was groggy and didn’t see a culvert, just miles from their home, until it was too late. The crash left Ron, who was sitting in the passenger seat, a paraplegic.
“I was thrown into a position where I was boss,” Thomas said. “I decided to grow all gourds.”
While the accident was tragic, it enabled her husband to meet new people as he sold gourds, Thomas said.
Ron became more involved on the farm after a doctor visit, where Helen saw a Purdue University magazine. “It was called Breaking New Ground. It was about how machinery can be changed. It was headed by Bill Field (a Purdue professor of agricultural and biological engineering) who helped farmers who had been disabled make a comeback and do things in a different way,” she said.
Three Purdue students came to their farm, measured a tractor and welded steps onto the tractor. That allowed Ron to pull himself up on the steps and use the tractor, “so he could plow and disc and cultivate. He could do a lot of stuff,” she said.
“It gave him a new life. If you look back over it, I can say those were the best years of our life. We were having fun and were doing something that was fun,” Thomas said. “I think we are all created to do something. Even though Ron had farmed and worked in a factory, he was comfortable with that. There was a lot of creativity in the gourds.”
At the farm’s peak in the 1990s, the couple had 56 acres, topping out at 150 trailer loads, each holding 200 to 300 gourds. The farm produced a variety of gourds, including kettle, cannonball, basketball, long handle dipper, a Tennessee spinner used as a spinning toy and a purple martin gourd for bird houses.
The darker colored the gourd the better, Thomas said. It produces a harder shell that can be used for instruments, such as a “thunder drum gourd.”
As the years passed, the couple slowly pulled back on production.
Last year changed Thomas’ life after her husband of 59 years died in July at the age of 77.
“I was going to quit,” Thomas, 78, said, but a neighbor had a field just down the road from her house that was open after the neighbor decided to stop raising horses. “He wanted to know if I would farm it. Well, I decided this is the Lord’s way of saying just keep it up.”
She now farms three acres, still getting about three trailer loads per acre.
“I probably will keep it up until the day I die,” Thomas said.
The Sandlady’s Gourd Farm can be found at 10295 N 700 W in Tangier.