During the mid-1930s dust-bowl drought and in record-setting heat Dorothea Lange took her Rollei on assignment to an Indiana farm. The month of July in 1936 was the hottest on record in and around Clayton, Indiana. She traveled there for her employer, the Farm Security Administration, to photograph an oat harvest.
Her photos show farming in a period of transition. The farmers obtained most of the power they needed from horses and their own muscles but they would bring in power equipment at harvest time. The equipment would be cooperatively purchased and maintained among local farmers or one farmer would own and rent it. The power source would be an engine, probably a self-propelled one like the modern tractor. The engine would power a thresher which separated the oats from the stalks on which they grew. The photos show the thresher but not the engine and it's evident that Lange wasn't much interested in machines but rather the men and horses.
Oats were harvested like other grains. The oat plants would be mowed down and bundled then threshed to separate seed from stalk. This mowing and bundling had already been done when Lange arrived. Her photos show the oat plants being loaded to horse-drawn wagons and brought to the thresher where they're forked into the receiving end. The thresher pounds the plants to loosen the seed which then drops to a receiving chamber. From there it's augured up and out to a receiving wagon. The cut up stalks are blown out to make a vast pile in the field where the work is being done.
The oats — the seeds of the oat plant — are used in making beer, in cereal for breakfast, and as feed for horses and other livestock. The cut up stalks are strewn in animal stalls. Because of drought and heat this is not a good year for oats but you can't tell that from the photos.
The following photos are all captioned either "Harvesting oats. Clayton, Indiana, south of Indianapolis" or "The threshing of oats. Clayton, Indiana, south of Indianapolis." Lange took them all in the same photo-shoot and they're typically excellent as documentary record, human study, and photographic art. As with the first, they all come from the FSA/OWI Collection of the Prints and Photographs Division , Library of Congress.
Bundles of oats were tossed into the mouth of the thresher (also called a separator). A 1979 article describes the process:
A chain operated feeder fed the bundles into rapidly moving arms which cut the string tie from the bundles and spread the stalks of grain going into the giant stomach of the old separator.
As the stalks of grain moved into the machine a cylinder beat the grain from the stalks and a huge blower blew the straw from the grain.
The straw went flying out the blower and the grain was augered from the bowels of the machine.
The engine powers the thresher by means a long, wide belt made of canvas or leather. The whole process is dangerous to men and horses alike but the belt is particularly hazardous. If it breaks in opeation it whips around at great speed causing serious injury wherever it strikes flesh.
This photo and the one that follows show part of the augur mechanism for transporting the oats from the belly of the thresher to a waiting wagon.
In addition to the augur this shows a pipe, at left, from which the stalks are expelled.
This video shows theshing in action. The tractor is modern but the thresher itself is authentically 1930s.
This image shows the type of tractor used in 1930s oat threshing.
These are hop seeds.
The camera Lange used for this shoot was a Rollieflex Standard. This shows this medium format camera (6x6 cm) and her large format one (4x5").
This is a Rollieflex Standard, much like the one she used.
This shows pages 2-3 of the Instruction Manual for the Rolleiflex Standard.
This shows Lange using her Rollie to photograph a migrant laborer in 1937.
Harvesting oats - yesteryear style! by Jan Lee Buxengard in the Spring Grove Herald (Minnesota)
Survivor of 1936 drought recalls conditions by Bob Buttgen, The News Sun, Monday, July 16, 2012
WAWAKA, Ind. (AP) Tom Franks was 15 years old in 1936, the year that Indiana and much of the country suffered through a severe drought that spawned the Dust Bowl era in many parts of America.Now, at the age of 91, Franks still can recall the horrible conditions his family had to endure on their 77-acre farm in Wawaka.
"The corn only got to about 3 feet high, and with no water available, it just turned brown," he said. "Back then, we didn't plant corn until the first of June, because of the chance of frost and freeze. I can still see that short corn and how brown it got. Just like it's going to get this year if we don't get any rain."
Franks said his parents, Frank and Vida Franks, had six daughters and one son, William Thomas Franks. "I was fifth in line," he said.
Franks has lived an extraordinary life. Living through the drought as a teenager is just one of many trials for the man who is a hero in many respects.
Along with his many years in farming, he's a decorated World War II veteran who was presented with the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. Twice he was shot by German soldiers in Europe, and each time he went back to the front lines after being patched up.
He's been widowed twice and survived prostate cancer, open-heart surgery and a hip replacement.
"I've pretty much outlived my friends and my enemies," he said with a well-earned chuckle.
"Our farm had just about everything back then," he said of the 1930s. "We grew red clover, oats, corn and wheat. We didn't know anything about soybeans back then. We didn't have beef cattle but had dairy cows. There were lots of ducks, geese and turkeys that had the run of the yard. We had 10 cows and probably 100 laying hens, plus four sows and a few ewes.
"I know it was dry back then, but I don't remember us having the heat like we've had this summer," he said.
(According to the National Weather Service, the highest temperature ever recorded in Indiana came during the summer of 1936, when Collegeville recorded 116 degrees.)
The Frankses didn't have electricity in 1936, and there were plenty of chores to keep a teenage boy busy.
"One thing they never taught me was how to milk a cow, and I didn't mind not knowing that," he said with a grin.
Franks has lived his entire life within a mile or so from the farm where he grew up. These days, at 91, his mind is as sharp as a tack. He's still active, having attended Wawaka High School's class reunion back in June.
"We had 21 in our class, and that was the biggest class ever, up to that time," he said. "I think there's just three of us who are still around."
Farming was much simpler back then, he recalled.
"We hadn't heard of hybrid corn yet. We just had open-pollinated corn. You'd go out in the field and pick the best ears you could find for seed the next year. You didn't have any seed salesman coming around," he said.
"Dad had a Fortson tractor. It was a hard-starting thing. You had to crank the handle just right to get it to spark and get out the way when it kicked back. I remember he traded that in on a 1020 International, and later traded that one in for a Farmall F-20," he said. "They paved U.S. 6 back in '33 or '34. Our tractor had big lugs on it, and we'd have to cover them up if we were going to drive on the pavement very far.
"We also had a big team of horses, and I enjoyed working those horses. But I also enjoyed driving our tractors. Our red clover crop was planted back in February. We would make hay out of it, and the clover made it through the spring before the drought hit that summer.
"Mom had a yard garden and grew Navy beans and potatoes. We always had a basement full of potatoes in the fall. After we harvested the Navy beans, we would stomp on them to open them up and let the wind blow away the chaff.
"We had a well that was real shallow, probably only had to go down 15 feet or so to get water. I remember we had to pump the water out with a hand pump, but eventually we got a windmill that would run the pump for us," Franks said.
"Back then, we didn't realize how hard it was for my parents and what they were going through," he recalled. "We were just coming out of the Depression. I can still remember the day after the banks closed (in 1929). Dad came back from going to bank in town, and he told us there was no money. I still remember the look of panic on my mother's face. I will never forget that.
"Dad was one of the lucky ones; he had a job driving kids to school, and that brought us a little extra money," he said. "We didn't have too much money to spend, but we had parents who loved us, and that was enough for us."
The Impact of the 1936 Corn-Belt Drought on American Farmers’ Adoption of Hybrid Corn by Richard Sutch (University of California, Riverside and the National Bureau of Economic Research, Draft of January 6, 2010) (pdf)
Extract: "A severe and sustained drought struck central North America during the 1930s. Centered on eastern Kansas, it extended north into the Canadian prairies, east to the Illinois- Indiana boarder, south to the Gulf of Mexico, and west into Montana and Idaho. See Figure 1. The seven-year period of low rainfall and high temperatures, 1932-1938, was unprecedented in the memory of the Euro-Americans who inhabited the region in its extent, severity, and duration. It has been described by climate scientists as ―one of the most severe environmental catastrophes in U.S. history [Schubert et al, 2004: 1855]. The period is best remembered for the ―Dust Bowl conditions created on the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and adjacent parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas."
1930's: Threshing Wheat with a Threshing Machine was a Fun Time on the Farm, Work Horses Were Very Important on Small Farms in the 1930's, by Stewart Lodge, Yahoo! Contributor Network
Extract: "No threshing day story would be complete without mention of the noon meal. The neighborhood farmers who brought their horses and wagons would also bring their wives. The wives would all bring their favorite homemade pies or cakes. Then they would stay and help cook all the meat and vegetable dishes. The cooking was done on a wood stove with a room temperature of 120 degrees or more. The workers all had very large appetites, but it was almost impossible to sample all the many dishes. The hard part was trying to work so soon after such a tremendous meal. This ritual was repeated several times as you traveled to all your neighbors' farms to repay them for their help. Each wife tried to outdo the others. It is no wonder that threshing day dinners were legendary."
FSA Photographs in Indiana,
Program of Digital Scholarship, University Library, IUPUI
Back home again: Indiana in the Farm Security Administration photographs, 1935-1943, by Robert L. Reid, United States. Farm Security Administration (Indiana University Press, 1987)
Annual Crop Summary, 1936, Indiana Crops and Livestock, US Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Agricultural Economics (pdf)
Maximum and Minimum Temperatures in Indiana, Indiana State Climate Office, Purdue University
THRESHING OATS CHALLENGES MEN AND OLD MACHINES by Bob Harrington on farmcollector.com
99 Facts About Beer On the Wall... by Jennifer Daniel in Business Week, October 25, 2012
It's Global Warming, Stupid by Paul M. Barrett in Business Week on November 01, 2012
Extract: "This July was the hottest month recorded in the U.S. since record-keeping began in 1895, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The U.S. Drought Monitor reported that two-thirds of the continental U.S. suffered drought conditions this summer."
Rolleiflex (standard) in camerapedia.wikia
The first Rolleiflex cameras on roleiclub.com
Economy of Indiana in wikipedia
1936 North American heat wave in wikipedia
Graphlex Series D Camera
Rollieflex Camera on wikipedia