By Rebekah Davis

The Cullman Times

When Clarence Hartwig walks through his yard in Cullman, it’s like he’s visiting old friends.

Here is the pear tree his father started from seed so many years ago, right beside the Hackworth apple trees that Hartwig and his father picked each fall. They took the apples to the local cider mill to make vinegar and “the best cider you ever drank” when Hartwig was growing up.

Behind the house is the rose Hartwig rooted from his father-in-law’s funeral wreath and the June berry bush that came from a bush his grandmother gave a friend long ago. Beside the house is a patch of Johnny jump-ups a cousin gave Hartwig years ago.

And over there are the pink grapes that the late Raymond Higdon brought Hartwig from overseas when he came back home from the war. Higdon hid the sprouts between his T-shirts on the way home so he wouldn’t get caught bringing them into the country, and a few years later, he asked Hartwig to pull up the vines so he wouldn’t get into trouble. One vine looked like it was dying, so Hartwig just pulled up the healthy one and threw it over the fence into the pasture.

“I thought, ‘Why did I do that? I’m not the one that brought them back,’” Hartwig says.

So he nourished the remaining vine back to health, and he still enjoys the grapes each year. Higdon took the secret of the grapes’ origin with him to his grave.

Even the plants that didn’t come from family are still special, either because Hartwig started them from seed or because you can’t find them growing just anywhere.

The vine scrambling over trellises and up trees isn’t kudzu, but Hartwig says it grows just as fast. It’s kiwi, and the fuzzy fruit hangs heavy on the vines this time of year.

“I pick bushels of them and give them away,” Hartwig says.

The kiwis won’t ripen until Hartwig and his wife, Gay Nell, bring them inside before the first frost, but another fruit is almost ready to enjoy: blueberries.

Last year the Hartwigs harvested 65 gallons of blueberries from the bushes that dot the yard. The first one came up wild, but Hartwig started others from seed.

“Gay Nell makes some of the best blueberry syrup,” Hartwig said. “I eat some every morning on my toast.”

At almost any time of the year, something in the yard or garden is ready to eat. Hartwig has figs, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, okra, tomatoes, beans, corn and gypsy pepper, just to name a few.

Some plants have other uses, too, like the garlic that helps keep bugs away from trees, and the spearmint that helps keep bugs away from people – as long as they stick a few leaves in their pockets.

Behind all the vegetation is a pasture that houses unique short-haired sheep, a variety normally grown for meat, but that Hartwig raises just for fun.

Even the log house these plants surround has a story. The Hartwigs built it themselves of spruce logs and cedar beams in three months back in 1976, with help from some of their nine children. In the meantime, they lived in the shed out back.

“I haven’t wanted to go camping since,” Mrs. Hartwig says.

The Hartwigs, who both grew up in Cullman, met not long after they both returned home, he from Michigan, divorced with five children, and she from Chicago, widowed with four children.

A mutual friend introduced them at the old Troy’s Barbecue with, “Gay, this Clarence. Clarence, this is Gay. He needs a wife and you need a husband.” Then the friend promptly disappeared. Despite that eloquent greeting, the Hartwigs did hit it off, and they married five months later. That was 40 years ago.

As Hartwig’s life has come full circle, so, today, has the tour of his lush property. He looks around at his land and contemplates the memories held in each bush and tree.

“It makes me feel at home,” he says.

Do you know a neighbor our readers should meet? Call Rebekah Davis at 737-0652 or e-mail her at

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