Farming & Rural Life in the 1950s & 60s
In 1965, LOOK magazine ran an article entitled “Growing Up on a Farm, the Vanishing Life.” For ten years before and 30 years after, photographer Archie Lieberman followed the lives of one community – Scales Mound, Illinois, population 399 in 1965 – and especially one family – the Bill Hammer, Sr., family.
In the mid-60s, the big question was whether or the family farm and son Bill, Jr., would be able to stay in farming. LOOK wrote –
“For Bill, [Jr.,] there is no better life than a farmer’s life, but whether he can remain on the farm is problematical. Thirty years ago, there were about 7 million farms. Today fewer than 3.5 million farms feed 53 percent more people. By 1980, experts say, there may be only a million farms left.”
The concern was justified. Farming in the 1950s and 60s had serious challenges, and millions of farmers left for jobs in town or the city.
But, in many ways, the 50s and 60s were both the best of times and the worst of times. Farm numbers did shrink, especially over these two decades. But, the rate of decline leveled off and by 1980 – when LOOK was predicting only one million farmers left – there were, in fact, around 2.5 million still on farms. The farmers who were able to stay were making pretty good money during these two decades. After the earlier Depression and World War II, agricultural machinery manufacturers found eager buyers for more and more sophisticated machines. An explosion in agricultural research resulted in better crops and better pesticides.
There were several years of severe drought during the 50s, but the development of center pivot irrigation systems helped alleviate some of that pain for those who could afford them.
Life in rural America was dominated by hot and cold wars. This period began in 1950 with the Korean Conflict. It ended with the Vietnam War. And everyone lived with an uneasy Cold War in between when life seemed to teeter on the brink of all-out nuclear attack.
For the Hammer family, there were more immediate concerns, as it may have been for most farm families during this time. They were aware of the world events, but were more concerned with keeping the family and the family farm together.
In 1965, Bill, Sr., said, “Ten years ago, two families could live off a 335-acre farm like ours, but no more.” Bill, Jr., was renting 90 acres of cropland near his father’s home place. He was milking cows and growing feed. But his total net income that year was less than $2,000. So, each evening, Bill drove 18 miles to a feed mill to work. Two days a week, his wife Dorothy dropped her son and daughter at her mother-in-law’s house and put in an eight-hour shift at a factory.
But Bill, Jr., didn’t complain. “A farmer is someone who likes to work and enjoys seeing stuff grow,” he said. “That keeps him on the land… Just like the animals. You’ve got to like them and pamper them. The same way as the land. You’ve got to live it all.”
“Young” Bill’s wife Dorothy was perfectly capable of getting on a tractor and discing a field if need be. She also took a variety of part-time jobs to help make ends meet on the farm or to buy additional equipment. She recognized her role, “On a farm, the woman’s the helping hand and a partner. But I’d rather be the woman than the man. I couldn’t take some of the pressure that he takes. I worry about it, yes, but I always figure he’ll take care of it. I mean, he always does.”
When Bill and Dorothy’s son Jim was born, Bill said, “I was thinking about him being a farmer, same as Dad and me. But I felt the same way as Dad did, and still do, that Jim is going to have to find his own way. If Jim wants to be a farmer, fine! And I’ll to help him, too.”
Ten years later, Jim had learned important lessons working next to his father and grandfather. “I know what it takes to be a farmer. He’s a man who’s strong, a moan who can think, make decisions quick, and all that. A man like my dad.”
Today, here is the situation –
- Scales Mound has 401 people, two more than in 1965.
- The older generation, Bill, Sr., and Mildred, have passed on, Bill in 1977 and Mildred in 1993.
- Bill, Jr., died of a heart attack in 1990. A week before his death, he sold the home place. Dorothy was still living in 2006, and still working a part time job.
- Bill and Dorothy’s son Jim is still on a farm just across the border in Wisconsin. He has 60 dairy cows and says, “We’re hanging on by our fingernails.” He says farming is “like an addiction. But everybody in the family liked it a lot.”
Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.
Baby Boomers in Hot & Cold Wars