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
“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.
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.
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.
- The narratives housed in the American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940 and the Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938 collections describe all aspects of farming. From descriptions of working in the fields as a slave to memories of westward-moving wagon trains seeking homestead lands to mountain farming in Appalachia, these narratives are a record of America’s rural past. “Human Kindness,” included above, is one example of this rich storehouse of memories told by those who experienced farming firsthand. Search farming, farms, and farmers to discover the life of a farm family in the 1930s and 1940s.
- To find these and other farming images and stories, search the collections on dairy or dairying and other types of agriculture, such as tobacco or wheat. A search on dairy will find numerous resources on the subject, including sheet-music from the Music Division entitled The Dairy Maid’s Song.
Images of Farm Life
- Search across the pictorial collections on the term dairy, farming, farm, cattle or dairy cow to see a wide variety of images. Be sure to take a look at the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives Collection, from the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division.
- Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945-1982 documents a Nevada cattle-ranching community, with a focus on the family-run Ninety-Six Ranch. To get a little context on the items in this collection, take a look at the Articles and Essays feature.
- Search on the term dairying, ice cream, or farm in the Horydczak Collection to find images of numerous large dairies and creameries, as well as advertisements for various dairy products. You can also find images of a variety of creamy treats from the Colonial Ice Cream Company. See, for example, ice cream forms number XVIII and number XXIII.
- Maps related to the geographical location of farms can be accessed in Map Collections by searching farms or farming.