The Daffodil Man: Joseph Cunningham

This article originally ran in the Belleville (Ill.) News-Democrat on April 12, 2015, and has been updated and is reprinted with permission. Joseph Cunningham is an FFRF executive board member.

The daffodils waving to you along Illinois 4 in Mascoutah are the work of Joseph Cunningham.

The 90-year-old retired teacher has been planting the yellow flowers there for more than 20 years.

“They put (Mid-America) airport in and had to move the highway a quarter mile,” said Cunningham, sitting on a hassock in his living room. “I had extra daffodils. They were getting pretty thick around here. I just went out there one night and planted. I wondered, ‘Do you need a permit?’ No one stopped me. I just kept going.”

He estimates he has planted thousands. They, in turn, have multiplied.
“I would say there are millions.”

Cunningham was honored for his efforts on Earth Day last year, along Illinois 4, south of Interstate 64, where many of his daffodils grow.

Susan Reed, membership chairman for Federated Garden Clubs of Missouri and Illinois, set things in motion to honor Cunningham’s work.

“If a garden club person sees somebody’s beautification efforts, it’s our job to make sure they get recognized,” said Reed, who met Cunningham at the St. Louis Home and Garden show in February. “He’s an amazing man. It’s a way to show our support and appreciation. He’ll get a national award of distinguished service. Federated Garden Clubs of Illinois and Missouri will give him one. (So will Garden Clubs of Illinois.) I got hold of Mascoutah mayor Jerry Daugherty and asked ‘Is there a highway beautification certificate?’ He said, ‘If there isn’t, we will get him one.'”

Once a gardener

“My dad was a gardener,” Cunningham said. “I started planting flowers from the time I was 4 or 5 years old. Vegetables, as well. I’ve always been an outdoor person.”

His father was a truck driver. The family lived in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Michigan before settling near Carmi, Ill.

“I was a child of the Dust Bowl. Ever seen ‘Grapes of Wrath’? I was that kid.”
Cunningham, who often wears a navy blue veterans’ cap, served in the U.S. Navy before becoming a teacher.

“I was in World War II all over the South Pacific,” he said. “We carried troops and supplies.”

He taught English and typing at Mascoutah High School.

“I taught 37 years all together — two years in a country grade school where these daffodils were that I took up, two years in Red Bud, the rest of the time at Mascoutah.”
He met his wife at Mascoutah High.

“I am a hillbilly from West Virginia. My wife (Norma) was a Phi Beta Kappa who graduated from Washington University. She taught German and Latin and English. She’s been in a nursing home for two years.”

Cunningham retired at 59 to travel with his wife. They went far — Russia, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Italy, England, China, Scotland, Wales and Japan — and near. She accompanied him on the two-hour drives to Carmi to dig daffodils.

“At one time, 10 miles outside Carmi, there were 20 houses and a little grocery store,” he said. “People went away and left their daffodils. They won’t be back. I started digging and digging and digging.”

Planting routine

Cunningham plants his highway daffodils a couple hours every evening for eight to 10 days.
“You’re supposed to plant in fall,” he says. “If I were to go back to Carmi in the fall, I couldn’t find them. I have to dig while they’re blooming, which is against all gardening rules. But they live and do fine.

“So far this year, I’ve planted twice,” he adds. “Rain helps. I just dig the spade in, push sideways, push the daffodil in and stomp it with my foot.”

Sometimes, someone is curious about what he’s doing.

“One time, a state policeman stopped with lights flashing, I was way up on a bank. I told him, ‘Don’t come up. There’s snakes.’ I came down and told him I was planting daffodils. He said, ‘What’s a daffodil?’ He was just a kid, about 22 years old, a very, very nice fellow. We talked a little and he drove on. Once in a while, someone will go by and honk. I can tell stories about this all day long.”

Obviously, he enjoys the work.

“I like to go out by myself. If I get tired, I sit on the bank and watch the cars go by,” he says. “I look off in the distance and think and think and think.”

Last year’s planting schedule was interrupted for good reason. Cunningham’s two daughters, Kathryn Jean Grogman, an attorney from near Los Angeles, and Linda Cunningham, a doctor in Salem, Ore., and their husbands, came for a nine-day visit to celebrate Cunningham’s 89th birthday on April 8. He also has five grandchildren.

“He was one of the original organic gardeners,” said Linda Cunningham. “He grew a lot of vegetables and fruit. He had a big garden and we did a lot of canning when we were kids. I was always at his side. This originally was poor soil. He amended it, made it rich soil.”
When in town, they’re likely to visit Missouri Botanical Garden and go for a hike in Missouri’s Hawn State Park. They still talk about the time a few years ago when they came to a place too deep to cross.
“Dad used his walking stick to pole vault across,” said Linda Cunningham.

Joseph’s yard

It’s not hard to pick out Cunningham’s house on a quiet Mascoutah street. Daffodils — lots of varieties — border the yard. They’re on either side of a front hedge. A pail of dug-up plants sits next to the gray ranch’s front door.

“Some of them have been here 60 years,” he said, walking around the yard. “I think I took up the old-fashioned ones and moved them to the highway. Here, they are at their full bloom. Out there, they are slower. You stand along the highway and the wind blows. I have trouble keeping my hat on.”

Does he have a favorite variety?

“Probably the pink ones,” he says. “I like them all. It would be nice if someone could develop an ever-blooming daffodil.”

He pointed to a delicate white daisy-looking flower out front.

“You know what this flower is?,” he asks. “Bloodwort. I got it out in the woods one day. After the blossom, the leaves get gigantic. They skip around from place to place to place. I didn’t plant all these. They just jump around.”

Across the driveway, a little pond babbled a soothing tune.

“I spent a whole day cleaning it out yesterday,” he said. “All the water in there came from a sump pump. I didn’t spend a penny.”

During the tour, he may mention the neighbor who cuts his grass, ask another neighbor about taking her son to the circus, or show off his latest planter. Petunias and geraniums tumble from the stump of an old apple tree he had to cut down. He saved its logs for his daughters’ visit.
“They love to sit out here at night and watch the fire.”
Take a drive
On a breezy, wet afternoon, Cunningham steered his Honda sedan the mile or so to Illinois 4.

Rainwater had collected in the culvert between the road and a hillside where he plants, making it tough to get across.

“I wear boots,” he said. “I use my shovel as a cane.”

He pointed out clumps of green.

“It’s sort of a haphazard way I plant them,” he said. “They will be out in another week. Where did we plant yesterday when we put daffodils in the shape of my initials? (A while back), my intention was to put in my wife’s initials. I hit a rock. Couldn’t go straight. I gave up that idea.”

But gardener Susan Reed did just that with Cunningham’s initials when she came over from Golden Eagle to see his work.

“She’s a bigwig in the Missouri Garden Club,” Cunningham said. “She’s a go-getter, very enthusiastic. I started talking and told her about my daffodils. She latched onto me. She wanted me to judge some flower arrangements (at the Home and Garden Show).”

But Cunningham is happy just to tend to his daffodils.

“I do look forward to them each year, I really do,” he says. “They’re a sign of spring.”

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