Tucked behind campus’ Walnut Street Greenhouses sits a nondescript brick building known colloquially as the “Carrot and Beet Lab.” It doesn’t look like much, but its exterior tells the story of an important campus legacy. Etched into its walls are various names, dates and symbols carved by UW-Madison faculty, staff and students who were—or are—involved in the university’s carrot and beet breeding research efforts.
The small building, built in 1910, originally functioned as a barn to house campus animals. In 1949, it was converted into a cooler to store carrot, beet and onion roots by Warren “Buck” Gabelman, who grew into an internationally respected plant breeder over the course of his 42 years with the Department of Horticulture. Ever since, the facility has functioned as a common space for campus’ various vegetable breeding labs.
Irwin Goldman, professor and chair of the horticulture department, recalls students and researchers nicknaming the building “The Clubhouse” which accurately portrays the building as a common ground used for lunch breaks, yard games, and conversation.
“Yes, it’s a campus building. Yes, it’s a place where we house our research materials, but it is also a gathering place, a place for people to play cards at lunch time and park their bikes,” says Goldman, who has been in charge of the Carrot and Beet Lab for the past 24 years.
From early on, as students and researchers moved on from the lab, they began carving their names on the south-facing wall to commemorate their time spent there. Thus, a new tradition was born.
One of the bricks bears the name of Robert Kane, who works as a plant breeder in the horticulture department. According to Kane, who has witnessed the evolution of the wall over time, the names are like a family tree of campus’ vegetable breeders. While each engraving represents a unique individual, the wall gives viewers a sense of the depth of the Lab’s alumni and current membership and the cumulative impact of their efforts.
“I’ve heard UW-Madison referred to as ‘the well’ of horticulture because of its variety and depth of talent,” says Kane. “If researchers needed anything—from someone with decades of professional experience to a fresh pair of eyes—they would go to ‘the well’ to recruit new team members.”
Upon close inspection, the wall contains the names of a number of veggie celebrities such as Warren Gabelman, Rodger Freeman, Fred Bliss and JF “Rick” Watson II. All trained at UW-Madison and carved their names before going on to make influential contributions to the world of agriculture.
“These are people in our field who are now legendary figures, but who all once trained there in the modest little place called the Carrot and Beet Lab,” says Goldman.
The carving tradition still lives on today. With the names of such famous predecessors written just to the left or the right of fresh signatures, one can’t help but wonder what incredible accomplishments these recent graduates might achieve.