Life on the Farm

Although descriptive not only of August 29, this 1939 interview “Human Kindness,” by author Anne Stevens, recorded a typical day at the Graham dairy farm in Georgetown, North Carolina. After bottling the milk of their 23 cows, Dale Graham will load his truck and head into town by 7:00 a.m. to deliver fresh milk door-to-door. Meanwhile, his mother and sister will “put the house in order” and Ben will put the cows to pasture and repair fences, paint the barns, or do whatever chores call for attention. Dale will return in time for the 4:30 p.m. milking, sterilization of bottles, bottling, and refrigeration. It’s a long day.
[Boy in Tire Swing Holds a Cow on a Tether]. [Between 1925 and 1930]. Prints & Photographs Division

By four o’clock in the morning, lights flicker through the windows of the Graham farmhouse. Sarah Graham calls to Dale, “Wake up, son, it’s time to begin milking.” Young Dale groans and turns over, but less than a half hour later his boots can be heard, tramp, tramp, on the stair. Frances, his slender, bright-haired, younger sister follows with a lighter tread. She has slipped on slacks and sweater, and puts on a fresh, white apron as she goes. Their flashlights illuminate the side grass plot and the red clay of the upward-sloping [road?]. [Out?] of the blackness emerges the stout figure of Ben, the hired helper. Doors and windows of the cattle stalls and of the bottling and refrigerating rooms show bright against the darkness. Cows stir and low sleepily as Ben washes their well-filled bags. There is the swish of milk in pails, the click and gurgle of bottles being filled. Down the hill, smoke rises from the kitchen flue, as the sky gradually brightens. The work of the day has well begun.

[Human Kindness]. Anne Winn Stevens, interviewer; Georgetown, North Carolina, 1939. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940. Manuscript Division

Millerovo, North Caucasus, USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). Woman farmer feeding piglets on a collective farm. [Between 1930 and 1940]. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division

“Some mornings I oversleep,” Mrs. Graham admits. “Why, yesterday I didn’t wake up until four-thirty in the morning.” She had gone to bed at seven o’clock the evening before. While historically there has been a perception of farming as a male occupation, women and children have always played a large and important role in agricultural labor. If you search the historic newspapers in Chronicling America for women farming, or women farmers, you will find a number of features on women’s contributions to farm life, both as part of a family unit, and as independent business women. To learn more about the diverse individuals farming in the U.S. today, see the resources compiled from the United States Department of Agriculture, including U.S. Statistics on Women and Minorities on Farms and in Rural Areas.

Jo Durco. This man, his wife and two children, Mary 8 years, Tony 10 years, do all the work on a large plot of beets…Location: Corunna, Michigan/L.W. Hine. Lewis Wickes Hine, photographer, July 17 1917. National Child Labor Committee Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

While cows still demand twice-daily milkings, many farmers use mechanized milking machines that attach to the cows’ udders and, through a system of pipes, deposit the milk into an on-site storage vat. Rather than delivering cans or bottles door-to-door, farmers also sold their milk to wholesalers who pasteurized and packaged the milk before selling it to grocery stores and other venues. Farmers milking both a few head of cows or large herds of more than 100 cows continued to mechanize to ease the physical labor of farming.

Madison, Wisconsin. Farm short course school at the University of Wisconsin. Students in the dairy husbandry class watching a demonstration of a milking machine. Jack Delano, photographer, Feb 1943. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division

Farming changed dramatically in the years after the Graham family described their life in 1939. Major food production in the United States moved from mainly family farms to large agribusness operations totally unknown during this period. However, the life stories of the American farm family and the cultural mileau are not forgotten in the shift toward mechanization. These recollections and memories offer a unique perspective on rural and small town life that formed the basis for American society; without the collecting efforts of the Federal Writers’ Project, such information would have been lost.

Five men making butter in a class at Hampton Institute, Hampton, Va. Frances Benjamin Johnston, photographer,[1899 or 1900]. Johnston (Frances Benjamin) Collection. Prints & Photographs Division.

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Images of Farm Life

Hurricane Katrina

At approximately 6:10 a.m., Central Daylight Time, on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina, a Category 4 storm packing winds of 145 m.p.h., made landfall out of the Gulf of Mexico near Buras, Louisiana, and headed north towards the historic city of New Orleans, Louisiana, and the state of Mississippi. At 8:14 a.m., the New Orleans office of the National Weather Service issued a flood warning stating that the city’s Industrial Canal levee had been breached. Within an hour, the neighborhood known as the Lower Ninth Ward was under six-to-eight feet of water. By then the 17th Street Canal levee had failed as well, and the waters began to rise relentlessly throughout the city. Other levees and floodwalls failed also. By the next day, eighty percent of New Orleans lay underwater, in some areas to a height of twenty feet. And Katrina had moved on, still bearing winds of 120 m.p.h., to wreak havoc across the central Gulf Coast of the United States.

“And you remember, uh, even after we couldn’t pump no more. I thought I was dreamin’ for awhile. I thought I saw bodies—dead bodies—in—in the water—”

“Yeah.”

“—and floatin’.”

“I don’t b’lieve that was no dream. And you know what? It’s gon’ linger with us, it’s gon’ be with us, until the rest of my life i’ gone, y’know, it gonna linger, it gonna be there with me.”

Rufus Burkhalter and Bobby Brown, New Orleans Pump Station operators, in conversation remembering Hurricane Katrina. Audio recording by StoryCorps, archived at the American Folklife Center.

Allysa Lemoine, New Orleans, Louisiana/Brenda Ann Kenneally. Kenneally, Brenda Ann, photographer, July 2006, 4/04/2011 [printed 4 April 2011]. Prints & Photographs Division.
Mississippi coast after Hurricane Katrina, 2006. Highsmith, Carol M, photographer, April 12 2006. Highsmith(Carol M.)Archive. Prints & Photographs Division

Placed between a great river and a lake, New Orleans had fought hurricanes and flooding since its founding in 1717. Only two years later, a hurricane all but destroyed it. Yet New Orleans survived, as it had survived wars and changes of empire, to become a great and beautiful city, justly famed for its extraordinary braiding of cultures, the architecture of its romantic French Quarter and its humble shotgun houses, its distinctive creole cuisine, and perhaps most of all, its importance as the birthplace of jazz.

Plan of the city and suburbs of New Orleans: from an actual survey made in 1815. New York: Charles Del Vecchio ; New Orleans: P. Maspero, 1817. Louisiana: European Explorations and the Louisiana Purchase. Geography & Map Division

Hurricanes (called typhoons in the Pacific) have always been part of life and lore in what is now the southern and eastern United States. A French visitor described one in the vicinity of New Orleans early in September 1722:

Towards ten o’clock in the evening there sprang up the most terrible hurricane which has been seen in these quarters. At New Orleans thirty-four houses were destroyed as well as the sheds, including the church, the parsonage and the hospital. In the hospital were some people sick with wounds. All the other houses were damaged about the roofs or the walls.

It is to be remarked that if the Mississipy had been high this hurricane [an earlier storm] would have put both banks of the river more than 15 feet under water, the Mississipy, although low, having risen 8 feet.

“Journal of Diron D’Artaguiette, 1722-1723.” In Travels in the American Colonies, ed. under the auspices of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America by Newton D. Mereness (New York: Macmillan, 1916). p24. American Notes: Travels in America, 1750-1920. General Collections

[The Eureka Brass Band in procession down a street in the French Quarter, New Orleans]. 1962. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

On September 8, 1900, long before adequate meteorological warning systems had been developed, a devastating hurricane hit Galveston, Texas, and left much of it in ruins. In the storm and flooding that followed, more than 8,000 people died, the highest death toll in U.S. history for a natural disaster. Katrina, for all its horrors, cost less in life than the Galveston catastrophe, though television and other mass media allowed the nation and the world to witness the storm and its aftermath as they unfolded. More than 1,600 people died, a majority in Louisiana; more than 1.5 million people were scattered from their homes, many never to return; cities and towns, familiar landscapes and historic landmarks, lay smashed in Katrina’s wake; and the scar that this hurricane left on the American psyche was ineradicable.

Hurricane Katrina all but destroyed the historic home of Jefferson Davis. While many historic homes and buildings were lost, there were a number of important homes which were saved. Many of New Orleans’s iconic buildings were located in the wealthier neighborhoods on higher ground, and these were nearly untouched. Other treasures, such as the grand old oak trees of Government Street in Mobile, Alabama, or Biloxi, Mississippi’s beloved 1848 lighthouse, were amazingly spared. And in New Orleans and throughout the Gulf, in spite of all they had suffered, Americans returned and began to build again.

Home of Jefferson Davis. The mansion. Centennial Photographic Co., c 1884. Prints & Photographs Division

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