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Omar Carr walked out of the Old Testament, down the aisle of the New Columbus Methodist Church, and laid the fruits of his labor on God’s altar. Of course, he didn’t wear flowing robes like Abraham and Elijah and the others I’d seen in pictures. He favored denim overalls, and his thick reddish-brown hair was held in place with a weathered felt-brimmed hat, but he had the look of a patriarch none the less. And even a child could tell that Omar’s offering was what Cain should have been about instead of goofing off and picking fights with his brother Abel.
Each November, Mr. Carr transformed our plain little country church into a della Robbia masterpiece. Our simple oak altar rail, hand varnished by someone in the 19th century, stretched in a wide oval from near one front corner of the church on the left, to near the other front corner on the right. Its simplicity was beautiful in all seasons. But at Thanksgiving, embellished with the profusion of Mr. Carr’s home-grown fruit and vegetables, it rivaled the splendor of Italian cathedrals.
Now I’m not talking about a few corn shucks and pumpkins scattered around that even the likes of me could muster. Mr. Carr – who had the blue ribbons to prove it – grew the finest array of vegetables and fruit in the state of Kentucky and his presentation at our church was an artistic creation. Squashes and gourds of all size and variety, in every hue of the rainbow, dense multi-dimensional layers, high and then low, of apples, pears, eggplant, potatoes, and corn in exotic colors, oh the list goes on – adorned and engulfed the altar rail, filling up the front of the church as though a cornucopia in Heaven were overflowing and raining down upon us.
In the 1950s – perhaps even now – the Methodist Church promoted a program called the “Lord’s Acre” in rural areas. Farm people were encouraged to donate the proceeds generated by one acre of land and the money was then used for a specific outreach such as Methodist orphanages or inner city and foreign missions. At our small church, the Lord’s Acre offerings were laid on the altar during a ceremony that followed the annual Thanksgiving dinner held on a November Wednesday night. To be honest, I think most people just gave what they wanted to or what they could. But in Omar Carr’s case, it appeared he had taken the injunction literally and carried in the bounty of an entire acre – probably more – to underscore the symbolism of our endeavor.
For as long as anyone could remember, Mr. Carr had grown the best vegetables and fruits around and entered them in competition at the Kentucky State Fair. He won in nearly every category he entered and was a perennial “Best of Show.” In fact, he amassed so many grand championship ribbons, his wife had more than enough to piece an heirloom quilt for the family.
No one else in our off-the-beaten-track community entered the agricultural competitions at the state fair in Louisville. Actually, I don’t remember others even growing gardens as diverse as his. Most grew only some tomatoes and beans, and perhaps some cushaw, a popular variety of squash in Owen County at that time, and a little corn for roasting ears in the summer. A few grew potatoes. Tobacco – the cash crop in the region – absorbed most everyone’s time and energy and restrained their enthusiasm for gardening.
But Mr. Carr grew everything he could coax from his Owen County hills. He was a man of few words, and so his family doesn’t know why or how he was motivated to become such a master gardener. Nor do they recall why he began showing his produce at the state fair. Perhaps a county-extension agent encouraged him. Perhaps he just “took a notion.” What they do recall is that the state fair became a multi-generational excursion, an annual and treasured camping trip for his large family, children and grandchildren alike, who slept in the barns with other exhibitors, and helped Omar carry and tinker with his displays until no one else had a chance at claiming the blue ribbons. His tour de force at the Kentucky exhibition extended for 30 years, from the early 1930s until his death in 1964. He died in August of that year only minutes after leaving his garden where he had been prepping his crop for the soon to open fair.
One year, I attended the state fair myself to participate in the 4-H speech contest. I decided to look up Mr. Carr’s exhibits over in the far exposition hall. They were wonderful, of course, and he was, once again, the overall winner. But somehow, they didn’t look as magnificent to me as the dramatic panorama he created for our church family each November. I wondered then if Mr. Carr gave his finest effort to us.
What I know is this. Though I was but a child, Mr. Carr helped me understand the generosity of the earth and of God in a way that transcended language, with a beauty that required no words. With his hoe and with his art, he affirmed the abundance of life itself, and led my young heart – and yet does now -- to prayer in thanksgiving.