Wednesday, December 26, 2012

"Bloody Mary" and back-to-the-land: Letting Polish farmers complicate the big story

We're closing in on the end of the year, the end of my discussion of my Ethnographic Landscape Report chapters, and the end of this phase of "History at the Table."  I have four chapters left to talk about, which I'm going to attempt to do in the next four days, and then the blog will enter a new mode for a while, which I'll say more about shortly.

How historical research looks in the movies
In movies and TV, people who are uncovering secrets from the past always stumble on some intriguing initial clue that leads them to a usually-linear series of discoveries culminating in a clear epiphany.  Historians know that this seldom happens, and that real archival and ethnohistorical research more often involves finding tiny snippets of information that get pieced together to make more provisional interpretations.  That's one thing we can learn from the process of doing rigorous historical investigations.  But another lesson is that occasionally things actually do follow that clue-discovery-epiphany model, and when it does, it's tremendous fun.  That was the case with Chapter 6, which covered years between Van Buren's death in 1862 and the First World War.

This was a time of sweeping transition in the American farm sector, with the continued ascendancy of commercialized markets, ever-more mechanized agriculture, and increasing attempts to bolster farmers' profitability through a range of policy measures, cooperative organizations, and technological innovations.  The big story arc of farm history in the old northeastern states in this period can be described as "dwindling," with far more people leaving the agricultural economy than entering it.  And yet...

In real life:  misspelled Polish names in old Census records!
I found an intriguing little clue in Martin Van Buren's Kinderhook neighborhood that suggested there were people getting into farming in Columbia County even as many of the older farm families were getting out.  I wouldn't have noticed it except that I'd just completed a previous National Park Service ethnography study that focused on Polish-Americans.  Because I was attuned to looking for Polish surnames, they jumped out at me from the U.S. Census records around the turn of the 20th century.  Once I started looking more closely, I found a sizeable number of Polish immigrants in the immediate area, clearly part of the large wave of migration from occupied Poland in this period.

The majority of Polish immigrants in the U.S. settled either in industrial cities or regions that serviced industry, like the coal-mining areas of Pennsylvania.  Few were able to follow up on the widely-shared dream of becoming small independent farmers, but I knew from my earlier research that a minority had done so, often taking over the older farms of New Englanders and other northeasterners and sometimes making them highly productive again.  (This was particularly the case in parts of the mid-Connecticut River Valley, where Polish family farms remain an important part of the local agricultural economy.)  It became clear that Columbia County's Poles had followed that anomalous path, with sons and daughters often working in the county's small factories but with many family members--particularly the  men--listed in the census as "farmer" or "farm laborer."[1]  Like many Dutch- and English-Americans of earlier generations, they combined waged labor for other farmers with subsistence and small-scale market farming on land that they bought or leased.

This neighboring farm (c. 1890) regularly hired Polish workers
Some Internet searching and asking around about family names from the old Censuses helped me to track down some descendants of the immigrant generation, and this new data helped me "read into" some of my earlier interviews and sources in a richer way.  For example, a charming memoir by the daughter of a neighboring farm family provided some tantalizing glimpses of the tensions between the Polish farmers and well-to-do Dutch-American farmers whom the immigrants probably saw as analogous to the landed gentry of Polish rural areas:  country squires and landlords who sometimes needed reminding of their responsibilities to the less well-off.[2]  The memoir recounts stories about a Polish woman that the family called "Bloody Mary" because she was the one who caught the pigs' blood in a pan during butchering.  After one day of harvesting potatoes, she was found to have stacked one bushel inside another to hide some potatoes she had taken for her own use, but like others who were caught pilfering feed grain, lumber, and other supplies, she seems to have been hired again the next year.  Perhaps "Bloody Mary" viewed her purloined potatoes as an informal benefit for her hard work and a way to remind her employer of his more-than-merely-financial responsibilities to those who labored in his fields.

The discussion of Kinderhook's Polish farmers in Chapters 6 and 7 let me trace both the opportunities seized by these hard-working immigrant families and the growing challenges faced by small farmers as the 20th century went on.  By the time of the Second World War, the sons and daughters of the newcomers had almost all moved on to other kinds of work;  the few who stayed in farming had embraced the new mechanization, chemicals, and mono-cropping that have come to characterize industrial agriculture.

Not just a Sixties thing
So the discovery of this nearly-invisible farm population doesn't change the big story arc.  But it complicates it in useful ways by showing that "decline" can sometimes be accompanied by renewal and reinvention, and that going "back to the land" was by no means confined to the 1960s and 70s.  Recognizing that helped me to see other examples of it from the 1930s and the 1950s (a fascinating history that Dona Brown has recently traced in her 2011 book Back to the Land:  The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America).  It also provided a kind of sideways connection with the farmers who, in 1924, invited philosopher Rudolph Steiner to give a series of lectures in German-occupied Poland to address their concerns about the decline in their soil and livestock fertility after the use of chemical fertilizers.  Steiner's lectures laid out the principles of what became biodynamic agriculture, which was transplanted to the U.S.--specifically, to the Hudson Valley region--a decade later and which is practiced by the farmers who currently cultivate Martin Van Buren's old farm.  All these "alternatives" and hidden histories give us a picture of how ideas about farming have historically circulated in surprisingly cosmopolitan and far-flung networks.

So this wasn't a quest on the scale of the DaVinci Code, but it was an example of how pursuing a seemingly random snippet of information can throw a new light on some of what was happening around the edges of the big, taken-for-granted story of agriculture in a given period.

Next:  Sometimes history helps us see how short-term a trend actually may be.

[1]  For more on Polish farmers in America, see Dennis Kolinski, "Polish Rural Settlement in America" in Polish American Studies 52:2 (Autumn 1995), pp. 21-55.
[2]  Elisabeth Van Alstyne Wilson.  Children of Sunnyside.  Self-published, 1965.  Columbia County Historical Society.  The 1890 image of the Sunnyside barns above is from the book.

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