The Garden Trolls of Western Pennsylvania

In my home state, one man’s plan to encourage voting didn’t go the way he expected.

An illustration of flowers with shouting mouths
Shutterstock / The Atlantic

The garden center that Tom McMeekin owns is packed with pumpkins and crimson-petaled mums this time of year. Generations of neighbors have depended on its greenhouse, located along a winding road north of Pittsburgh, for petunias, tomato seedlings, bags of compost, and clay pots for their patios. My mother bought two rose-of-Sharon bushes there that outlived her and bloom still in my sister’s backyard. I always made a detour to Quality Gardens whenever I drove from Washington, D.C., to visit my parents.

A few weeks ago, McMeekin—a level-eyed businessman who at various times has been registered as a Republican and as a Democrat, a Presbyterian elder who preaches to a tiny congregation every Sunday, a local boy who earned both economics and engineering degrees from Carnegie Mellon University—had the idea that he wanted to encourage voting in a state that could determine the presidential race.

He thought he was doing something clever. He planned eye-catching Biden and Trump signs on opposite ends of his property in Valencia, Pennsylvania, with a huge Vote placard in the middle. He reached out to county party representatives, Republicans and Democrats, to donate signs, and, he told me, they thought it was a fine idea. The Biden sign arrived first, and McMeekin posted it. He was expecting the Trump sign the next day. Then the local Republicans couldn’t find an equally big sign. He insisted that was part of the deal. They agreed to find one by the weekend.

The next few days were unlike anything McMeekin had ever seen.

His business phone rang, morning to night, with complaints. Emails threatening his business and his safety—hundreds of them—tumbled into the company inbox. Venomous handwritten letters filled the postbox. Someone, in the middle of the night, spray-painted pedophile across the Biden sign. “Yes, QAnon lives,” McMeekin said dryly. A customer who was irate over the Biden sign walked into the greenhouse café and spit at a waitress. And that was it for McMeekin, a gray-haired grandfather.

“I had almost kept the Biden sign up—with that word spray-painted on it—to shove in people’s faces about how ridiculous this has become,” he told me. “But I didn’t think it was right to have the employees subjected to the really nasty comments. I took down the Biden sign.”

Since landing in Pittsburgh to report on the upcoming November election, I’ve heard of other rambunctious or frightful happenings near the public high school where I graduated from and near the local newspaper office where, at age 18, I typed my first story on a computer. (It was a write-up of a wedding.) People I knew, in places where good manners and community once mattered, seem in a state of distemper. Fear drives their days, much of it from imagined dangers pinging on their phones. “These are people who used to be normal,” my friend Mary Ann Williams, who works near my old high school, told me as she shared some cellphone photos of a startling guys-with-guns protest on Main Street this summer. “They have picked up on Trump’s me-me-me attitude—and they are riled up all the time.”

The borough of Saxonburg was founded by John A. Roebling, a master of wire and steel who built a glorious bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan more than a century ago, and his brother. My three siblings and I knew it as a place with some excellent teachers who held us to high standards and encouraged our ambitions. My brother and sister respectively studied in Switzerland and Turkey as high-school juniors in school-funded exchange programs. My mother, born in Canada, volunteered our home for foreign students spending a summer or a school year in the States. One from Jordan, another from Peru, a third from Austria—they slept at different times in the extra bed on our second floor. Those experiences helped me imagine that someday I could write about lives different than mine.

Four decades later, after years of tumultuous reporting from Israel, Iraq, and Iran, and filing dispatches across the war-cratered landscape of Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia, I find myself wondering how different my life is now from the lives of the people I reported on then. There are days when I feel as if I somehow have fallen back in time, conducting the sort of awkward interviews—trying-not-to-offend queries leading to circuitous conversations—with people I once knew as easy-going. They no longer are. Ease has been supplanted by edginess and, to some degree, suspicion. The guys-with-guns protest was an example of how illogic and fear spread swiftly on the internet and no authority, notably the police, has a chance of stopping them.

In the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, rumors spread that “agitators,” likely crossing state lines, were intent on rumbling into a Black Lives Matter protest. The posting was shared to multiple Facebook pages around the region, from Slippery Rock in the north to Butler, the county seat, to Saxonburg in the south. In the first week of June, 100 men with pistols, hunting rifles, and AR-15-style assault weapons, positioned themselves outside nearly every storefront of Saxonburg. They were, of course, exercising their Second Amendment rights. (One man turned up with a pitchfork. It was not clear why.)

After a few hours in the hot sun, and after a dozen or so local residents marched by carrying handwritten signs espousing racial justice, the men left, no ammunition spent. They were home in time for supper. I called the Saxonburg police chief, Joe Beachem, to ask what he made of the day. Beachem had tried to dissuade them from making a show of force, but failing that—Pennsylvania is largely an open-carry state—he’d been intent on keeping the peace. “Both sides were respectful, and I wanted to keep it that way,” he told me. Beachem, a quiet man not unlike McMeekin, had called in police from other towns to help. “I had never seen anything like it,” he said.

State officials are keenly aware of unrest, in big and small towns, over racial inequities. But now emotions are running so high over the presidential campaign, there is concern that a similar crowd of guys with guns could turn up at polling places on November 3. Beachem was somber when I asked whether he expected that to happen. “Obviously tensions are high. We keep our ears to the ground,” he said. “Our hope is that people can vote without fear of intimidation in any way.”

McMeekin had heard of the protest; he knew some business owners who had balked at the armed “protection.”

“It seems we can’t discuss; we have to proclaim. Everybody has built their own little fiefs and their own little towers.” The Trump years are built around a bombastic personality, not policy, he told me, and “I find that discouraging. We are talking about the future of our country.”

McMeekin takes some solace in what happened a few weeks after he took down his ruined election sign: One Saturday in August, he noticed a stream of cars turning into his parking lot. Sales were soaring by midday. He couldn’t figure out why until a county political organizer stopped in. She was wearing a T-shirt that touted the Democrats. He did a double take and told her she was brave, given what he had been through. She smiled and asked whether he had seen a certain local Facebook page that day?

Someone had written a hateful post about Quality Gardens again. This time, though, the commenters rebelled. Head over to the garden center, someone posted, and open your wallets. McMeekin had his biggest sales ever on an August weekend.

He was glad for the good-heartedness, but he also read every comment. Some were ugly. “There were 460 comments. People calling each other names, people calling Trump names, people calling Biden names, people calling me names and then people defending Quality Gardens. It was an awful display of the worst of us,” he said.

Remember the community we grew up in? McMeekin asked me. If there was a need, you filled it. And if you were in need, someone would help out. “We all knew our neighbors on a first-name basis,” he said. “And you talked.”

I asked him if he regretted trying to use his nursery to plant the seeds of tolerance this year. He said he didn’t—and that he still believes intimidation won’t work. “The only difference between me and a rhinoceros is my skin is thicker,” he said.