Monday, October 4, 2010


The Julian Dobson Family in June, 1922: Shirley, Ina, Vance, Julian (Jack), Earle, Ethel, Pearl, Myrtle. The family is having a spot of fun with inept Aunt Bertha behind the camera. Except for Julian, that is.

In 1932, my Grandma Ina began to write to my dad about the impact of the Depression and diminishing markets on farm life. Here and there she mentions the age issues affecting Julian's ability to continue the strenuous work of farming with horses. Questions, such as "How much longer can we hold old on?" and "What would we do if we had to leave the homeplace?" hang unspoken in every letter. Eventually those letters would come to rest in my correspondence file. However, I don't have any record of Grandma Ina's thoughts a decade earlier when readers of "The Farmer's Wife" were discussing whether or not their daughters should marry farmers.

Here's what I do know about Ina's life in 1922: Her dream house, built just five years earlier in 1917, had no wiring, no running water, no plumbing, no central heat – in short, no modern conveniences nor any hope of gaining those. They carried water from a spring, split wood for the cook stove and fireplace, lit kerosene lamps at dusk, and bathed once a week in a wash tub set in the kitchen. Jack and Ina never had an automobile and Jack farmed with horses until he died, the horses dying shortly after he did.

Now with Jack "out of the picture," some are contrite.
I never thought the life of the homesteader / farmer was one of prosperity. Farming was subsistence living. The farmer grew crops which supposedly enabled him to meet expenses and buy seed for the next year's crop. In addition, he was able to live off the land, growing his own food – fruits, vegetables, and meat. He had the privilege of being his own boss, but only the lucky few found success in terms of money and goods. There was little left over for material goods. The farmer and his family worked hard and never got ahead – not really. And if he got behind on expenses, maybe through no fault of his own, he had no recourse except to go further into debt. A young man might sell out and move on. For an old man, the plight was worse.

Of course, it wasn't that way for all farmers, but according to my research, it was true for the vast majority. In 1930, 90% of U.S. urban homes were electrified but only 10% of rural homes. This lack of electrical power prevented modernization of the farm without which conditions were none too healthy. So most farms were behind the times in modern improvements – plumbing, running water, refrigeration, and central heat. According to the statistics I read, 90% of farmers were still without electrical power in 1935. Privately-owned electric companies were little interested in rural electrification because of the expense and inability of farmers to pay. Some farmers formed co-ops in an effort to bring in electricity but without funding they couldn't meet the expense. Passage of the Rural Electrification Act (REA) in 1936 is said to be the most significant legislation to come out of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Through the REA, co-ops were granted low-cost loans to bring electricity to the farm. By 1950, 90% of American farms had electricity. Ina's was one of the 10% that did not. The last utility pole was at the neighbor's a quarter mile distant. In 2000, Clearwater Power Company, a rural co-op, placed the three poles that carry electricity to Ina's house.

I'm sure that the farmer's wife didn't need conveniences to love her life and see its benefits, but when writers in 1922 make sweeping statements that farms everywhere are now modernized, it's just not true of the country in general.

Even with rural electrification, we were unable to save farming in our country and stem the tide of movement to the cities, but as we became an urbanized society, I'm not sure the government was interested in the small farm anyway. I always remember my mother's words: "I hate to see the small farm disappear," she said sadly. "It was a good way of life and a good place to raise a family." Then she added, "Our government spent years convincing people to move to the farm and then couldn't move them back to the city fast enough." KW


drMolly, the BeanQueen said...

So true, and although we have some sense of a reneissance in small farms - with folks focusing on niche markets - it would be impossible now, I think, to go back to many small family farms. Unfortunately, people expect their food to be omnipresent and cheap, too - just NOT a really good combination.

Hallie said...

Who is the child in the second photo?

Kathy said...

That's Stanley Sanders, Pearl's little boy. He would be about two. My dad, Vance, is holding him.

Good observation, drMolly.

Chris said...

Well, we know the story of electricity my dad told me. :-)

It's too bad the the high prices we pay seldom trickle down to the farmers. It's reminds me of when we had visiting authors at school who, when asked, would tell us the amazingly tiny amounts of money they would get for each book sold.

Kathy said...

Yes, and I thought several times about your dad's story, Chris. Not just the farmers but folks in town struggled to pay. In fact, I remember my dad's seemingly incessant command that I turn out lights when not using them. Then it seems like we went through a spell when we didn't care so much, and now we know we need to conserve for the benefit of all. I've had the "conserve power" discussion with my son, the Idaho Power employee.

It's tough for the farmer to get a fair shake. I don't know much about authors, but I can guess it would be true. There are ways to get books that aren't in the author's best interest.