"Cows are my passion. What I have ever sighed for has been to retreat to a farm and live entirely surrounded by cows–and china." Charles Dickens

August 8, 2011

Farmwife Monday: Mrs. Miller

Canning beans, farm near Bristol, Vermont  © Louise Rosskam, 1940
"Four-square, high beamed, solid, (the farmhouse) has plain useful furnishings, 
it gives off a certain set, purposeful, stubbornness. 'I am here,' it seems to say. 
'You may take me or leave me. I have work to do. I shall do it. Try and move me.'"
Here is Mrs. Elizabeth E. Miller (aka Grammy Miller), who was 90 years old at the time this photo was taken in 1940 (she was born in 1850 if you can imagine that). She was of Scotch-Yankee ancestry, lived on Mountain and Lake View Farm in West Newbury, Vermont and had four boys: Clarence, John, James, George and one daughter who died in infancy.

She was interviewed in 1938 by Rebecca M. Halley (see above quote or entire manuscript here), and later photographed, above, as part of the Federal Writers' Project under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Created as part of the New Deal in 1935, the WPA was responsible for employing people to build highways, public buildings, and some infrastructure. They also sent unemployed photographers, writers, artists and even musicians across the country––and paid them, too––to document, or enhance, rural life during the Great Depression. Of note is that many of these writers and photographers were women, such as Louise Rosskam, Dorothea Lange and Marion Post Wolcott. This may explain the abundance of interior kitchen scenes and portrayals of rural farm women across the country from this initiative.

Here is an excerpt from that interview:
One fall we had a five hundred and fifty pound dressed hog hanging in the yard. The men went off to Wells River to take up another hog they had dressed at the same time and left it hanging there and the caldron kettle half full of water. They aimed to get back and take the hog down to cellar before it froze. It would never do to let pork that was going to be salted freeze. I was all alone with the children and I waited until almost twelve. My husband didn't come and so I took a lantern and a saw and a knife and went out to fetch in that hog...I cut up that hog and loaded it piecemeal onto the sled. The worst part was getting it through the front door, but I managed. I had it all done before my husband got home. He asked who had brought the hog in. I said, 'I did.' He asked who helped and I said, 'Alone.' I wasn't wasting many words on him. He was struck dumb.
You can also hear Mrs. Miller speaking here. [I so enjoy listening to older accents: you can detect some Scotch dialect and also some Yankee accent in her voice.]

The online archive of the Library of Congress––our national library in Washington, DC that you own it––is tremendous. There are many images and audio archives available on the Internet. Here is a link to their "American Memory" archive where you can do a more refined search on many documents, images and audios, including the WPA collection.

There are numerous books on the WPA photography from this era but another more recent book I highly recommend is The Food of a Younger Land––A Portrait of American Food from the Lost WPA Files by Mark Kurlansky. Drawing on the unpublished writings that drew from the WPA interviews and photographs depicting farm life around 1940, the book documents the pre-War period of time in America when life was still largely agrarian for many and food was truly local.

You come back when you're ready!


1 comment:

  1. She looked darn good for 90 I must say. I loved hearing her voice.


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