WHEATFIELD – Elmer Moje clearly recalls accompanying his father to sell their fruit and vegetables at the North Tonawanda Farmers’ Market at the age of 5.
That was 95 years ago.
Today, Moje, who turns 100 Aug. 20, is still a fixture at that farmers’ market, although he has cut back from three days a week to two.
He rises at 4 a.m. Thursdays and Saturdays to accompany his granddaughter, Carly Freiert.
“It used to take us an hour and a half to get to market with a horse and wagon, and now it takes 15 to 20 minutes,” Moje recently marveled as he sat on a couch in his granddaughter’s home. The house is in what was his family homestead, where he was born nearly a century ago, on Townline Road. He lives next door in a tidy, brick home he built with his late wife, Esther.
Moje gave up his truck three years ago, and while he has turned over the work of growing and marketing the vegetables to Freiert, she proudly said her grandfather is still known as “The Garlic Man.”
“We had 1,200 pounds of garlic” this week, Moje said with a slight shrug, dismissing the quantity as average.
Both sets of Moje’s grandparents emigrated to the U.S. from Germany.
Moje’s garlic can be found throughout the U.S., as folks buy it at the farmers’ market to ship to friends and relatives elsewhere, Freiert said.
What’s his secret to growing enormous, tasty and long-lasting heads?
“You need to sweeten the ground with lime,” he said. And you need to start with good seed and good soil.
“Everyone who wants to know, comes to me,” he said, blue eyes twinkling behind his glasses.
The garlic “that comes from China is like eating an apple – there’s nothing to it,” he said. “I tried to grow some once, and by the time I went to plant it, it was dust. People can keep mine for a year. I use the last of mine (harvested last July) in May. I use it in cooking. Garlic likes air and low humidity.”
But long before Moje was known as the Garlic Man, he was known as the “Honey Man,” recalled Freiert.
“I kept bees for 60 years,” Moje said. “I sold the honey at market. I started when I was 15. There were fruit orchards all around here, and my father would rent bees for pollinating. I told him if he’d buy a couple of hives, I’d take care of them. A man on Shawnee schooled me on it. I had 40 hives in three different places around here.”
But he said he was forced to retire from beekeeping when arthritis weakened his knees.
“The hives got too heavy to handle,” Moje said.
Partial knee replacement surgery in 1998 helped alleviate the pain.
“From the waist up, I feel like a 20-year-old,” Moje said with a chuckle. “But my legs have worn out. I think they’ve traveled a million miles. But my knees are still good as new.”
As proof, Moje straightened his jean-clad legs out straight in front of him for a good stretch.
His family has a record of longevity, with one of his aunts reaching her 104th birthday and several other ancestors living well into their 90s.
“I never drank coffee, I never smoked – but I still drink milk – whole milk – every day,” he said. “I guess it’s just good country living.”
“And he eats a lot of blueberries and garlic,” added Freiert.
This father of three, grandfather and great-grandfather retired from National Grinding Wheel Co. in North Tonawanda after 36 years, where he rose from a wheel-finisher to a supervisor. He also served in the U.S. Army during World War II, spending eight months in Africa and two years in Italy, as well as serving stateside for a total of five years, rising to the rank of master sergeant.
He marveled at the changes he’s seen in the world in the past 10 decades.
“I went to a one-room schoolhouse on Shawnee Road and had to walk no matter what the weather was,” he said. “I took a train to high school, and it cost me 10 cents. I graduated from North Tonawanda High School in 1931 – that was the depth of the Great Depression, and I worked 10 hours a day on a dairy farm for $1 a day.
“I was 27 when I went in the Army and 33 when I got married in 1946,” he recalled. His wife, Esther, died in 1994. They had a daughter, Beverly, and adopted two sons, Robert, who lives in Cambria, and the late David.
Moje is a lifelong Buffalo Bills fan, and held season tickets from 1965, five years after the team’s founding, to 2005. He still catches sports every night on television, changing sports with the seasons. He also still belongs to a social card-playing club, the Bobcats.
And, he’s approaching the 100th anniversary of his baptism at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ.
He recently gave a speech at the church, remarking on the church’s history and his own 100 years in the community, concluding, “I was born in 1913, when the men still wore pants and the women wore earrings.”
Moje has belonged to the Shawnee Volunteer Fire Company for 61 years and will be feted at 1 p.m. today at the fire hall. An additional party will be held at the North Tonawanda Farmers’ Market from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday.
“My grandfather is still very sharp of mind, is quick-witted and loves to charm the ladies,” said Freiert. “He is in amazing shape for being a near-centenarian.”