July 4, 2009
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Tom Keller still remembers the day he said to his wife, Madaline, "Don''t tell our neighbors we''re gonna drive 1,000 miles to a stupid gourd show." That was 15 years ago, not long after the one-time Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge dealer had retired following 43 years in the auto and real estate business in West Point. The couple were heading out at the time to their first gourd show, in Ohio.
"After we got there, we found there were more stupid people than just us," he chuckled. "About 5,000 of them."
That trip would cement Keller''s determination to turn a lifelong enjoyment of growing gourds for birdhouses into something more.
Now, after four decades in the pressurized business of selling cars, life is a little more peaceful for the active 76-year-old. Surrounded by the music of cicadas and twittering birds, he now spends 35 to 40 hours each week with Mother Earth''s amazing -- and often peculiar -- profusion of feather-light, dried gourds. He harvests, cleans and ships them across the country, sometimes getting back some rather spectacular gourd art to add to his mini-museum in the shop next to his Clay County home on Churchill Road.
"I''d always grown a few gourds for purple martins, even when I was a kid," explained Keller, walking between wire-walled bins filled with gourd varieties with exotic shapes and names like Indonesian Bottle, Maranka Monkey, Long Handle Dipper, Goose Gourd and Penguin.
"The last two years in the auto business, I had a bumper crop, more than I could use," he shared. "I put ''em in front of the car lot, and people just really liked them, especially people from the North passing through. I knew I was gonna need a hobby (after retirement), so that helped me make up my mind."
Utilizing a small network of three to four growers within a 200-mile radius of West Point, Keller now supplies thousands of gourds annually to craftsmen and hobbyists; he makes gourd houses for purple martins, too. He has shipped to every state.
Father of invention
The first thing Keller noticed at that initial Ohio show a decade and a half ago was about 20 vendors selling gourds outside the venue.
"And nobody had clean gourds," he observed. "I made up my mind I was going to change the market."
Gourds straight off the ground appear crusty and moldy, Keller explained, because they are about 90 percent water while on the vine.
"When harvested, that moisture has to go somewhere, so it penetrates from the inside out," he said.
To bring about his gourd revolution, he went to work designing a "washing machine" with the help of his mechanically-inclined good friend, Neal Myers, of West Point. The result was a 7-foot diameter watering trough for cattle fitted with 10 water heads emitting powerful jet sprays to agitate and rotate a reservoir of water. It was even rigged with dual overflow pipes to run used water into Madaline''s garden, or out into a field.
With the invention, Keller was able to clean 100 gourds in about an hour -- something it used to take him two days to do by hand with brushes and steel wool.
When he next returned to the Ohio exhibition, he carried a load of smooth, clean gourds that were such a hit, the competition was left scratching their heads. And, sure enough, these days, most vendors bring clean wares to market, he''s noticed.
Although he believes he could have patented his washer design, Keller said he has no secrets. "I''ll give my recipe to anyone who wants it."
"A good, dry gourd, you can pick it up and shake it and hear it rattle," Keller tutored.
"Gourds are bad to cross-pollinate and lose their shape," he continued. "I only buy seed from a two-family operation that hand-pollinates. A grower is foolish to use any other seed than the best. It costs just as much to raise a gourd from undesirable seed."
Seeds are planted some time after the last frost and stay on the ground until the next winter''s frost has killed the vine; some even longer.
"You don''t want to take it off the vine until it''s gotten every bit of food value out of it. It makes for thicker walls, makes a stronger gourd. And leaving them on there makes them lighter, easier to handle. A ''green'' gourd is as heavy as a watermelon."
When harvest time arrives, generally in January or February, Keller himself travels to the farmers to hand-pick gourds in the field. He''s sure to gather enough until the next year.
"You think the economy is bad and cruel? I have a lot of regular customers (who expect gourds), and you try getting 200 women mad at you," he said with dry wit.
Keller has amassed what he calls "a good little museum" of decorative gourd art, a portion of it sent to him as gifts from craftspeople and artists who got their gourds from West Point.
Many of the 100-plus pieces on display are so imaginatively carved or detailed, it''s difficult to tell they began as a humble gourd. Snakes, Easter baskets, Santas -- even a huge gourd carved with portraits of his family -- catch the eye. The eclectic collection is purely for enjoyment; the prized pieces are not for sale.
Keller says he started out to gain a post-retirement hobby, but it''s the "people who keep me in it," referring to the good folks he has had the fortune to meet.
"I''ll ship a gourd to anybody in the world who wants one and let them pay for it later, even if I''ve never met ''em. In 15 years, I''ve never been beat out of a nickel," he offered. "That''s an indication of the type of people who are in this."
Noting that Kettle and Martin gourds are his bread-and-butter staples, he cautioned, "You don''t make a living selling gourds, but I have a hobby that pays for itself.
"My wife tells me she thinks I get a bigger thrill out of selling 30 gourds with a $20 profit than I did selling a car at a $200 profit. And I have to admit, I think she''s right!"
Editor''s note: More information about Tom Keller''s gourds may be found at www.tomkellergourds.com, or by contacting Keller at 662-494-3334.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.