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American agriculture has changed dramatically since World War II, affecting many aspects of American life. Curator Peter Liebhold has been collecting stories from individuals to help document this change in the Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive. Smithsonian Secretary Dr. Wayne Clough recently shared his story of growing up in South Georgia.
Many people have shared their stories of agricultural life in America with the Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive—and not all of them have grown up on farms. This shows just how important farming and ranching are in America. You don't have to be a farm kid to have been affected by the changes in American agriculture. Dr. Clough grew up in town but experienced farm life while visiting family:
"I was the youngest of my family and was born in 1941 in a clinic in Douglas, Georgia, which had no hospital at the time. While we lived in town, we made frequent visits to the farms of our relatives. The visit itself was a bit of an adventure, as once you left Douglas and turned off the main highway, the roads were not paved and the bridges over the creeks were tall, creaky wooden trusses with planked decks made for wagons and tires."
One aspect of agricultural change of particular significance is how land is bought and agriculture is financed. Farm auctions, crop insurance, buying seed, surviving financial crises—these are topics I want to explore more deeply through personal stories. Dr. Clough's family, for example, was affected by a financial crisis far from Georgia:
"No one in this bucolic corner of our nation expected events far away on Wall Street in New York City to affect them, but the reach of the Great Depression was wide and deep and changed lives forever, including those of my mother and dad in Georgia. On my father's side, his family lost their farm completely, and on my mother's side the farm income would no longer support all of the siblings in the family. Both of them had to leave their ancestral homes to find work…but no matter how far life took them, they longed to return to their South Georgia roots, and in time they did."
Eventually, his parents gathered the funds to purchase the ice and coal plant in Douglas, a thriving business in the 1930s and 1940s before rural electrification. Business was busy but the family still found time to visit relatives on the farm:
"Back then, my grandmother and grandfather still had a small farm and a number of my uncles and aunts on Mom’s side owned larger working farms. When in season we would pick fresh vegetables or peanuts that we would bring back to town with us. Mom could boil fresh peanuts with the best of them, with a technique using salt water that penetrated the peanut shells during the boiling. It is an acquired taste I know, but to this day, I can recall the delight of breaking open the water-softened peanut shells and eating the peanuts that were seasoned by salt water from the pot."
Tobacco was an important crop in Georgia and Dr. Clough remembers the excitement of the tobacco harvest and auctions:
"Come August and September, farm families would bring their golden tobacco leaves to Douglas stacked high on pick-up trucks to be sold in large open warehouses…Hopes were high too, as the tobacco crop was auctioned off to the big cigarette and cigar companies."
The tobacco auctions also proved to be a business opportunity for Dr. Clough, who sold bags of his mother’s boiled peanuts and earned tips by bringing water to auctioneers. He says:
"It was sweaty business in the summer heat of August, but for a young boy who did not have a lot of entertainment opportunities otherwise, this was the highlight of the year. The auction process was riveting and the auctioneers were the kings…For the farm families, money earned was a welcome infusion of cash, and they used it immediately to buy clothes and supplies for the next year. It was a good and a joyful time: farmers with money to spend, kids who wanted all they could get, and merchants willing to sell."
This contribution from Dr. Clough is a great example of what we seek—wonderful anecdotes about the past, interesting insights on what they mean, and striking historic images. Agriculture is part of the national fabric and at the heart of many American's identity. We hope that you will go up to the attic, pull out that old scrapbook, and take the time to relate some your family's experiences growing crops, selling food, or even as urban consumers—your stories about American agriculture. Please share your story with the archive.
Peter Liebhold is the chair and curator of the Division of Work and Industry. Sign up for e-mail updates on the Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive. For more background on the project, see Peter's last blog post.