"Putting the Barn Before the House" by Grey Osterud

Photo by Bill Jaker
November 13, 2012

At the dawn of the 20th century 38% of the US labor force was in agriculture.  In 1950 it was 12.2%.  By the start of the current century a mere 2% of the workforce can be found on the farm, and that may include someone who takes visitors on tours.  Most people today have never been to an actual producing farm and tourism has become the latest sideline.  So during the first half of the 20th century, farm population declined while productivity rose till today, according to the American Farm Bureau, each farmer can feed himself and 155 others. 

Or herself and 155 others.

The family farm is still a genuine American institution, and the family gathered around the farmhouse dinnertable with fresh meat and produce from their own land remains a beloved image.  That scene always includes "Ma" in her apron presenting a succulent roast chicken on an heirloom Knowles china serving dish.  But women's roles were and are more varied and a new study of women and farming tells how the needs of farm labor and family structure both coincided and collided.  The book is called "Putting the Barn Before the House" and it traces the history of agriculture in the first half of the 20th century as experienced by women and their families in the Nanticoke Valley of Broome County, NY.

The author is award-winning historian Grey Osterud, who began her research some thirty years ago while teaching at SUNY-Binghamton. At that time there were women still farming in the towns of Maine and Nanticoke, just north of the Triple Cities, who had lived through the technlogical, agricultural and social changes of the century and vividly recounted those developments.  Dr. Osterud also discovered extensive diaries, journals and letters that add detail of day-to-day life across many years.

"Did I rake hay!  Get on the hay rake in the morning and never get off till noon and night.  My boys had to be taken care of by my husband's brother; he was maybe eight or nive years old, and he used to wheel him around.  My husband's mother had to work, too, out in the hayfield."

"I only knew him two weeks before we was married, only two weeks!  I knew his sister but I didn't know her well; I'd seen her many times as I was walking from work and I'd say hello, but I didn't even stop and talk to her.  One night that girl's cousins or relations was right next door, and this girl Frances knew of Alex looking for a wife... He was a farmer, and he come to Endicott looking for a farm girl.  Come to a city to look for a farm girl?  But at that time many farm girls left farms like I did..."

Given the always-chancy nature of farming, the close availability of well-paying industrial employment in the Triple Cities at IBM, Endicott-Johnson and other companies meant that farmers (usually the man of the house) could commute to work in town and leave chores to the "farm wife" (a term Dr. Osterud abjures).  In some cases, however, women stayed away from heavy work like milking cows.  They also might not have equal say in economic decisions such as expanding the herd.  Osterud observes that, "The rural economy was supported, rather than undermined, by its close reciprocal connections with the urban economy.  Families combined wage labor, subsistence production, small-scale market gardening and poultry raising, and commercial dairying in a variety of ways," responding to both changing economic conditions and family structures.  Along with dairy, vegetables, eggs and timber, a farm family had to produce a sufficient crop of boys and girls who would share the labors and maybe eventually take over the farm.

"Putting the Barn Before the House" is mostly the story of people -- the title refers to the expectation that the farmer would provide accomodation for the cows and the cows would bring in cash to build a fine home. But the final chapters turn to the organizations that would support the farms in the Nanticoke Valley.  Those institutions included the Grange, the Broome County Farm Bureau and, probably the most active, the Dairymen's League.  Farmers are as a rule very independent but forming cooperatives can also be seen as an extension of the helpful spirit in the Nanticoke Valley and elsewhere.

Bill Jaker speaks with Grey Osterud about her research into life on the farm during the first years of the past century.  They are joined by Susan Lisk, curator of the Nanticoke Valley Historical Society and author of "Maine and the Nanticoke Valley" in the Arcadia Images of America series.

Guests: 
Dr. Grey Osterud, historian
Susan H. Lisk