Prosperous Farms and Happier Homes
Arkansas Agricultural Extension Service, 1911–1966
Summer 1998, Vol. 30, No. 2
By D. Clayton Brown
© 1998 by D. Clayton Brown
In 1921 Sallie Lindsey, the home demonstration agent of the Arkansas Agricultural Extension Service for St. Francis County, filed her annual report to the state headquarters in Little Rock. She reported that, with the county superintendent of education, she "visited the Gum Grove School—a rural school taught four months of the year by an ignorant teacher. In this school," she continued, "there were sixty dirty, poorly nourished children and a teacher who looked no better than the poorest child." Describing the school building, she wrote: "The building was fifteen feet square and contained only three little windows . . . Teacher and children were suffering from malnutrition and well developed cases of itch. Yet they had not even known that the disease was curable."1
Itch referred to hookworm, which caused the stunted and pinched appearance associated with many of the southern poor. Lindsey also described her efforts on behalf of the residents at Hill School, about seventeen miles from Forrest City. She had organized a club of rural women there, which in conjunction with the County Charity Board, had "sent sick people to hospitals, bought cork legs for cripples, clothed and fed the poor and unfortunate, buried the dead, and assisted in all humanitarian work possible."2
Lindsey's annual report exemplifies the records of the Arkansas Extension Service held at the National Archives and Records Administration Southwest Region in Fort Worth, Texas. Measuring 155 linear feet, the 487 archives boxes of folders that are part of Record Group 33, the official records of the federal Extension Service, consist of the annual reports of each Extension agent in Arkansas for both the Men's and Women's Divisions. Most of the Extension Service records are held in the Washington, D.C., area, but these records are a rich source of information on rural life in Arkansas's seventy-five counties for 1911–1966 because agents had to file a narrative and statistical report of their year's work, and in the course of reporting on their specific duties, they frequently incorporated information about the socioeconomic conditions of their counties. These reports also furnish an opportunity to observe the development of Arkansas agriculture, parts of which were remote and primitive in the early twentieth century, into contemporary modern farming. Reports from the Women's Division allow researchers to observe changes in home life, for just as farming practices improved with the help of Extension Service agents, home management practices also improved under the guidance of women home demonstration agents.3
The arrangement of these records provides a real convenience for researchers. Not only are they arranged into the Men's and Women's Divisions, but they are arranged chronologically in yearly segments and by district: Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, and Southwest. In 1957 a North-central District was added. Within each box the districts are clearly designated, and the narrative and statistical segments are separated within each folder. This combination of indexing means that annual reports can be located by year, by district and county, by the Men's or Women's Division, and by narrative or statistical information.
Still another valuable dimension of these records are the annual reports on "Negro Work." The Extension Service had a separate program for rural blacks in the state, and the reports filed by black agents were generally, though not always, kept in separate boxes. Work on behalf of African American farmers started in the Men's Division in 1915 and the following year in the Women's Division. There was no difference in the types of services offered to African Americans; they received identical demonstrations on farm and home operations. Resources for blacks, however, were always skimpy. There were always fewer black agents, and they worked with less, even though they, too, received an enthusiastic welcome from their rural recipients.4 In 1964 separate reports on "Negro Work" stopped with the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
The nature of Arkansas's terrain and hence its farming dictated the organization of the service's activities by district. In the eastern half of the state, the Mississippi Alluvial Plain or Delta, cotton was the predominant crop, and it was there that the worst socioeconomic conditions of the rural population were found. Delta sharecroppers, sometimes regarded as "America's peasants," lived in a state of penury unsurpassed anywhere in the United States, and it was likely this class that home demonstration agent Lindsey encountered at the Gum Grove school in St. Francis County. In the western half, particularly the northwest, are the Ozarks, which include the Boston and Quachita Mountains with peaks up to twenty-eight hundred feet. It was here that the legendary hillbillies lived, the mountain folk who as late as the 1930s still sang ancient English and Scottish ballads and used Elizabethan phrases. In 1930 home demonstration agent Mattie R. Melton described the rural residents of Baxter and Stone counties as "almost pure Anglo-Saxon people whose myths and legends are relics of Old England."5 To be sure, not all rural inhabitants lived a squalorly, nineteenth-century lifestyle, but the mandate for the Extension Service was clear: to improve farm life by increasing income and encouraging families to modernize their homes. "Unless the farmer has an increased earning," wrote M. T Payne, state director of the Extension Service, "he cannot support education, and he cannot purchase for his family the necessary comforts of life." Improved farming would increase income, Payne continued, which "may be used to promote higher developments in our course of civilization."6
For each of the seventy-five counties the Men's Division provided a "county agent who dealt directly with crop and livestock production. By introducing better farming practices pertaining to soil, crops, insect control, horticulture, animal husbandry, rural engineering, and agricultural economics, agents sought to increase productivity and income. Since Arkansas's terrain was divided generally into the Delta and the mountainous areas, the Extension Service had to deal with conditions ranging from large-scale plantation agriculture to small, isolated homesteads tucked away in the Ozark hills and valleys.
A limited number of folders cover the short period prior to 1914, when Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act creating the Extension Service. They have some historical value since they concern the early years of Dr. Seaman A. Knapp's work in Arkansas. Knapp is considered to be the originator of agricultural demonstrations. A few folders deal with Louisiana. Although these folders contain limited information, they show the method and style later used by agents in writing their annual reports. These first reports also show that southerners were enthusiastic about the Extension Service program. "The general desire [by Arkansas farmers] to learn and the willingness to improve on present methods," wrote state agent J. A. Evans in 1911, "is indeed in striking contrast to the apathy and indifference of former years."7
Once fully operating in 1914, the Extension Service encountered the enormous task of modernizing Arkansas agriculture. Cotton was the chief crop, and agents in the eastern portions of the state devoted much of their time and effort to improving cotton production. They held demonstrations on each aspect of cotton farming: soil conservation, selecting and planting seed, cultivation, and picking. Agents had to deal with insect control, particularly the boll weevil, and the practices they taught evolved during 1911–1966 from the hand application of arsenic to the use of aircraft for applying chemicals. A particular goal of the Extension Service was crop diversification since the surplus of cotton kept its price low and seemed to perpetuate rural poverty.8
In regard to all farm operations, the agents sought to increase production by convincing farmers to use mechanized equipment and develop modern agricultural practices. They assisted farmers with marketing, but only in the sense of storing crops or transporting them to markets. The Extension Service avoided sensitive issues; it almost never dealt with the organization of cooperatives or the withholding of crops from the market. During the mid-1930s, when the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union organized the tenant farmers of eastern Arkansas, the annual reports of the agents in those counties showed no awareness of the unrest and violent protests occurring there.9
The Extension Service contributed to changes in agriculture, but it worked in a noncontroversial manner. During the New Deal years, agents of the Men's Division assisted farmers trying to take advantage of the services offered by the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), and the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Arkansas farmers welcomed the federal help. "Food for victory" campaigns were carried out during World War II, and when farmers had labor shortages, agents helped them find workers. Agents also supported war bond and scrap drives.10
After the war, Arkansas agriculture improved remarkably. Tractors came into use and were followed by a variety of large and small mechanical equipment. The availability of electricity, and radio, enabled agents to develop programs on farm management. Small family plots started disappearing due to the economics of farming and the further industrialization of the United States. As the state's surplus rural population left the land, particularly in the Delta, the hardship and poverty of rural Arkansas declined. To be sure, new concerns arose: some agents in the 1960s started reporting drug use in their counties. By the mid-1960s, however, Arkansas was no longer a land inhabited by "peasants" but mostly, though not entirely, by middle-class landowners and rural dwellers not wholly dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods. For the observer unfamiliar with farming, the most obvious improvements in rural Arkansas for 1911–1966 were related to home life, which was the domain of the Women's Division. The earliest home demonstrations for women and girls started in 1912, when the General Education Board made a fifteen-hundred dollar donation to the Arkansas Department of Education for farm home improvement. In Pulaski County four hundred girls aged ten through eighteen living near Little Rock were organized into tomato clubs. Each member grew one-tenth acre of tomatoes and canned them. They also received instructions in making uniform caps, aprons, and tea towels.
In 1914 the Smith-Lever Act stipulated that federal funding for instruction of farm women would be provided if the county government entities also furnished some budgetary support. In other words, funding for the Women's Division was not as consistent as that for the Men's Division. Consequently the number of women agents fluctuated year to year although extreme variations in the number employed were rare. In 1915 funding was furnished for twenty-eight women agents; another eight received funding by private subscription. These thirty-six home demonstration agents organized ninety women's and girls' clubs during their first year of operation, 1915–1916. By 1917 the number of agents had risen to forty-seven, and in 1936, despite the hardship of the depression, every county provided funding for a home demonstration agent. In 1937 the state government assumed responsibility for funding the Women's Division, making it a permanent part of the Arkansas Extension Service. Even though the Women's Division was considered to be secondary to the Men's Division until it received permanent status in 1937, it was never treated as a stepchild. Rural women gave the agents an enthusiastic welcome, and the Quorum Courts, or local county courts, had a good record of appropriating funds for home demonstration agents.11
Before World War II, women agents often had to pay some of their own expenses, particularly transportation. As recalled by state agent Connie Bonslagel in 1939, "They traveled with the county agents . . . first in a lop buggy, and later in a Ford. They usually set out on Monday morning, making the 'circuit' of the county and returning Friday evening. Like the circuit rider of the day, they were entertained or 'put up' by farm friends." By 1939 this practice had stopped, but Bonslagel remarked, "this arrangement born of necessity laid a foundation of confidence and trust on the part of the farm people in the county farm and home demonstration program."12
Among the areas of rural life targeted by the women agents for improvement, one of the most important was health, particularly as it related to diet. Diet-related diseases such as pellagra and rickets were common due to the low nutritional value of the rural poor's diet. Diversification of meals became a major goal of the Women's Division, and it knew that only if farm women increased their awareness and knowledge of nutritious food, and its relevance to health, would the general home life of the rural population improve.13
By conducting demonstrations at schools and other public sites, the women agents gave instructions on making fresh breads, pastries, and desserts and emphasized the value of using grains such as whole wheat. They also stressed the importance of fruits and vegetables as part of a balanced diet. Simply urging farm women to diversify the family menu was not enough, however, because the foods for a better diet were not always available. Gardening and canning consequently received much attention and became another principal area of emphasis by the Women's Division. The division even went so far as to teach techniques of butchering livestock, and agents taught poultry raising to enhance diets through meat and egg production.
Lessons on the preparation of dairy foods were generally included with instructions on making cheese and butter. In 1924 a county "milk-for-health" campaign was conducted in Quachita County schools. Farm women welcomed these programs, and in 1929 the Logan County home demonstration agent, Marcelle Phillips, quoted several women in a newspaper article: "I have learned many more ways of canning foods" and "The things I have learned make for a healthier and happier family."14
Home improvements were sorely needed, and agents urged families to install screens on windows and doors, fly traps, water supply systems, and sinks and cabinets in kitchens. They recommended the use of labor-saving devices such as canners, cream separators, oil stoves, and washing machines. Agents conducted demonstrations on furniture refinishing and showed how to recondition rooms with paint, rugs, flooring, and ceiling improvements. Larger projects such as room additions were rare, but progress was made even with families' limited budgets. "Results achieved surprised the most optimistic advocates of the plan," wrote one agent in 1924, and other agents noted that homes became more cheerful and attractive when the families could improve their houses.15
Women and girls enjoyed the instructional demonstrations on dressmaking most of all. The Women's Division's main concern was not the need for adequate clothing but for women and girls to wear and enjoy more stylish and up-to-date clothes. It was believed that an improved wardrobe would alleviate some of the hardship and drudgery of farm life and that wearing fashionable styles would reduce some of the contempt youth had for farm life. Demonstrations on making clothes, regardless of the reasons, made sense, and women agents were always sure to maintain programs on sewing and garment-making. "The work in textiles and clothing," wrote state agent M. T Payne, "is so directed that the old practice of making garments without considering appropriateness of style or color to the individuals will be done away with."16 Style shows were held at the county and state level with prizes awarded to the contestants.
In the 1930s, when electricity became available through the REA, home demonstration agents helped farm women learn to use electrical appliances. With electricity, families could carry out many of the recommendations long advanced by the Extension Service. Homes were equipped with electric lights, radio, refrigerators, and other modern conveniences.17 During World War Il, women agents organized food drives and the making of garments for European children in warring countries. In 1940 the Women's Division conducted the "Hands-Across-the-Sea" program by which 1,489 Home Demonstration Clubs made 21,826 cotton garments for homeless European children.18
After World War II, advancements in home life paralleled progress in farming operations. As the standard of living improved for those families remaining on the land, farm life changed radically. Tenant shacks disappeared with the decline of sharecropping; farm women lost interest in gardening and canning. Sewing continued to be popular, but rural women increasingly relied on ready-to-wear clothing. Women in Baxter County, where the Elizabethan dialect had been spoken earlier, "were working outside the home," reported home demonstration agent Beverly M. Morris in 1956, "and do not have time to do home sewing."19
An important element of the Extension Service was its work with rural youth, especially considering national concern over the migration from farm to city. Instructions given to boys and girls on farm and home operations, in recreation, and to generally enhance their opportunities were considered essential tasks of the Men's and Women's Divisions. Agents in both divisions devoted 40 to 50 percent of their time to training farm youth in better methods of crop production and homemaking. The 4-H Club was a convenient organization for the agents to use, but generally they had to organize clubs themselves. Typically, they established clubs around a specific operation: corn clubs were popular among boys while dressmaking clubs were popular with girls. Clubs were started for livestock production, farm engineering, gardening, and canning. Indeed, some of the earliest work in the Extension Service dealt with girls' tomato clubs. The volume of narrative and statistical data in the annual reports dealing with youth attests to the large role of this activity. Occasionally some of these youngsters later became agents. Two of the girls in the 1911 tomato club at Mablevale in Pulaski County were home demonstrations agents in 1939.20
Enriching these annual reports held in the Southwest Region in Fort Worth are the photographs frequently included by the agents of both divisions. These snapshots, obviously taken with agents' personal cameras, are staged and depict the Extension Service in a good light, but the photographs nonetheless provide a "nonwritten" dimension to the records from about World War I through the mid-1950s. Photographs in the Men's Division deal with farming operations, particularly labor-saving equipment. During the earlier years they show the regular use of animal power. In the later 1920s tractors appear occasionally and continue to appear more often until, by the post–World War II period, they were commonplace on Arkansas farms. Photographs from the earlier years also show farmers applying insecticide by hand, while some after 1945 demonstrate crop dusting by aircraft. Occasionally some particularly unusual photographs will be included, such as those showing the rat eradication campaign carried out by farm boys in Mississippi County in 1928.
Photographs submitted by the women agents show a steady improvement in the families' standard of living. In order to document their work in home improvements, agents would, for example, send "before" and "after" pictures of kitchens, and the inclusion of such evidence enables researchers to follow the evolution of interior design and the increasing use of appliances. Modern appliances in homes of the latter years stand in stark contrast to the crude facilities of the earlier period of the Extension Service. The most numerous pictures dealt with canning and food preparation. But the most valuable photographs are those showing women and girls in their new clothes made in the sewing classes. In addition to documenting the changes in styles of clothes through the years, these black-and-white photographs show the growing self-confidence and prosperity of the rural population. Many agents never sent photographs, but there are enough in the archives boxes, approximately five hundred, to give these narrative and statistical reports an extra dimension.
Newspaper clippings were also frequently included with the annual reports since the Extension Service relied on local newspapers to disseminate information. Press coverage of demonstrations, judging contests, educational classes, and various meetings shed additional light on the Extension Service's activities; newspaper accounts of droughts, floods, insect losses, prices, and other agriculturally related topics provide rich evidence of the trials and tribulations of farming on a county by county basis. These samples of the rural press are arranged by county and year, a condition particularly attractive to researchers.
In 1954 the annual reports of the Men's and Women's Divisions were combined, and the reports became more standard. Photographs and newspaper clippings appear less often, and agents tended to write their narratives as if by a preapproved formula. The individuality of the reports was lost, and they became rather bland. To an extent, this development reflected the role of the Extension Service: the rural population had declined, and the remaining families were reasonably prosperous. Agents now provided information on tax laws, business analysis, social security regulations, and equipment depreciation. Arkansas rural life had advanced considerably by the mid-1960s.21
For those who wish to research the South's rural history, these records offer an opportunity to observe the transformation of farm and home life from an undeveloped condition into modern contemporary living. Direct first-hand evidence is available on farming operations and home management. Even women's clothing styles can be followed to an extent with the photographs in the reports. Researchers should find these records beneficial in several respects and use them for studies of rural life.
D. Clayton Brown is a professor of history at Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Texas, specializing in the modern United States and agricultural history (generally pertaining to the New South). He is the author of Electricity for Rural America; The Fight for the REA and of several articles.
1 Sallie Lindsey, Annual Report, 1921, Arkansas, Records of the Extension Service, Record Group 33, National Archives and Records Administration–Southwest Region, Fort Worth,TX (hereinafter cited as RG 33, NASW). For a review of hookworm in the South, see John Ealing, The Germ of Laziness: Rockefeller Philanthropy and Public Health in the New South (1981).
2 Lindsey, Annual Report, 1921, RG 33, NASW.
3 Annual Narrative and Statistical Reports, entry 1, 1911–1966, RG 33, NASW.
4 Connie Bonslagel, State Agent, "Historical Appraisal of Home Demonstration Work in Arkansas, 1939," Specialist Reports, RG 33, NASW.
5 Mattie R. Melton, Annual Report, 1930, NASW. For a discussion of Elizabethan dialect in Arkansas, see Vance Randolf, Ozark Mountain Folks (1932), pp. 185–187.
6 M.T. Payne, State Director, Annual Report, 1921: Better Farming, RG 33, NASW.
7 J. A. Evans, State Agent, Annual Report, 1911, RG 33, NASW. A brief review of Seaman A. Knapp and the Smith-Lever Act is available in Murray Benedict, Farm Policies of the United States, 1790–1950 (1966), pp. 152–154. See also Joseph Cannon Bailey, Seaman A. Knapp: Schoolmaster of American Agriculture (1945) and Theodore Soloutos, Farmer Movements in the South, 1865–1933 (1958), pp. 225–228.
8 C. W. Watson, State Agent, Annual Report, 1914; R. L. McGill, Annual Report, 1933, NASW.
9 Clifford Alston, Extension Marketing Specialist, Marketing Report, 1950, Specialist Reports, RG 33, NASW. A full history of the unrest in eastern Arkansas is available in Donald H. Grubbs, Cry from the Cotton: The Southern Tenant Farmers' Union and the New Deal (1971).
10 W. B. Proctor, Annual Report, 1942, and E. M. Ragsdale, Annual Report, 1942, RG 33, NASW.
11 Bonslagel, "Historical Appraisal of Home Demonstration Work in Arkansas, 1939," RG 33, NASW.
13 Elizabeth W. Ethridge, The Butterfly Caste: A Social History of Pellagra in the South (1972); D. Clayton Brown, "Health of Farm Children in the South, 1900–1950," Agricultural History 53 (January 1979): 170–187.
14 Ruby Mendenhall, "Home Canning Cuts Food HI," Agricultural Leaders Digest 76 (July 1930): 76.
15 Bonslagel, State Agent, Annual Report, 1924, RG 33, NASW.
16 Payne, Annual Report, 1921, RG 33, NASW.
17 Earl L. Arnold, Specialist Report, 1939, RG 33, NASW; D. Clayton Brown, Electricity for Rural America: The Fight for the REA (1980).
18 Mrs. R. C. Harville, President, Annual Arkansas State Home Demonstration Council Meeting, Little Rock, AR (September 1941), Annual Reports, RG 33, NASW.
19 Beverly M. Morris, Annual Report, 1956, RG 33, NASW.
20 Bonslagel, "Historical Appraisal of Home Demonstration Work in Arkansas, 1939," RG 33, NASW.
21 Ibid.; Narrative Report of Assistant County Agent and Assistant Home Demonstration Agent for Negro Work, Dec. 1, 1963–Nov. 30, 1964, RG 33, NASW.