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A Good Day’s Work: An Iowa Farm in the Great Depression

Author(s):Hoover, Dwight W.
Reviewer(s):Bogue, Alan G.

Published by EH.NET (October 2007)

Dwight W. Hoover, A Good Day’s Work: An Iowa Farm in the Great Depression. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2007. viii + 211 pp. $26 (cloth), ISBN: 978-1-56663-702-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Alan G. Bogue, Department of History, University of Wisconsin.

This book describes life on the farm of Dwight Hoover’s father during the 1930’s. Migrants from the German Palatinate to Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century, thence down the Shenandoah Valley to North Carolina, the Hoover family’s Quaker antislavery sympathies and farming opportunities finally brought them to the Middle West. Dwight’s great grandfather settled in Iowa Territory in 1845 where he obtained well-watered and partly timbered land between the Skunk and Des Moines Rivers. There Dwight’s grandfather developed a 120-acre farm with the help of five sons. The latter also acquired farms and at Dwight’s birth in 1926 his father operated one hundred acres near Oskaloosa, Iowa.

In a short introduction Hoover describes the family history and the local area. He explains that the farm of the 1930’s was “premodern,” a “capitalistic enterprise overlaid on a subsistence occupation,” “that provided its residents with most of their food but also with crops that brought needed cash in a market economy” (3-4). Chapters dealing with the farm tasks of the spring, summer, autumn, and winter provide the backbone of the book. These meticulously describe the work of each season including the plants and animals, the labor required, methods used, machinery and farm buildings needed, and the seasonal clothing ? plus Dwight’s reactions. He balked at helping castrate young pigs and hated picking maggots off the feces-encrusted fannies of lambs. He describes the dangers faced in keeping male animals and in using half-broken horses. Hoover’s father finished feeder lambs each year and Dwight’s account is an important contribution on a seldom discussed topic. Cooperative labor by the brothers in harvesting and other tasks largely solved their needs for additional help.

Between and around the seasonal chapters are ones introducing broader perspectives. The first of these, “A Family Farm,” describes the Hoover’s base structures, including the house, garage, barns, corn crib and other grain storage buildings, hen house and brooder house. Most of the farm buildings lacked cement flooring. There was electricity in neither house nor barn until 1937. The farm business was a mix of enterprises; usually five milk cows and their offspring, brood sows and their litters, feeder lambs from the West, and chickens, as well as garden and field crops. Forage needs limited the area that could be devoted to potential cash crops, such as corn or soybeans to some sixty-five acres, but low prices made such concentration unprofitable. A relative had provided Hoover’s father with start up capital but bank credit for expansion was scarce. He began farming, his son writes, at the wrong time, acquired land at high post-war prices and was caught in the ensuing depression. He “made do” until World War II brought a return of prosperity.

The chapter between “Summer” and “Fall” is entitled “An In-Between Age.” Here Hoover describes the problems involved in adopting mechanical engine power and electricity. He provides a brilliant analysis of how the purchase of a tractor or conversion to a larger dairying enterprise would have affected the farm business, including the increase of cash expenditures, changes in cropping emphases, the elimination of work stock, the arrangement of fences and fields, and the use of farm buildings. For his father, he concludes, “the only option seemed to be to begin changing to a modern, tractor-powered farm with as little investment as possible while retaining many of the elements of an older farming tradition” (89). Had it been available, cliometricians who have analyzed agricultural innovation would have benefited from reading this chapter.

In another chapter Hoover describes his agricultural education, absorbed on his father’s farm and from 4-H and Future Farmers of America programs. His sheep and swine projects in these activities took him into livestock competition at various fairs including the Iowa State Fair. A following unit explains his decision to leave farming despite his father’s wishes. He saw little chance of early marriage if he stayed in agriculture. Although liking aspects of animal husbandry, he hated the ever present manure, tasks like castration and the killing of livestock. Most important was his belief that he lacked the mechanical skills that were becoming essential in farming. Hoover’s final chapter tells of returning to Iowa for the fiftieth reunion of his high school class. Few recognized him and the trip left him with a feeling of “rootlessness.”

Some authors and editors regard accounts of growing up in rural America as story telling, the stringing together of anecdotes. Trained in intellectual history, Hoover writes as an historian, explaining what went on, and how and why. His detailed descriptions and explanations of farm practices make this book the best of its kind the reviewer has read. Hoover’s writing displays a marked literary flair and an introspective quality. The illustrations are well chosen but less sharp than desirable and committed economic historians would have appreciated more economic context. Where, for example, did the Hoover farm fit on the Iowa types of farming map of that era?[1] What were some of the actual prices that Hoover’s father received and specific adjustments that he made to counter the Depression? And perhaps the author reveals his intellectual history background when he explains that the land survey system was prescribed in the Northwest Ordinance rather than in the Land Ordinance of 1785. This, however, is a first-rate book.

Reference: C. L. Holmes, Types of Farming in Iowa. Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, Bulletin, No. 256, Ames, 1929.

Allan G. Bogue, emeritus professor of history and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has published in the fields of American economic and political history and historiography. Recent publications include, The Farm on the North Talbot Road (Lincoln, 2001) and (with Brian Q. Cannon and Kenneth J. Winkle) “Oxen to Organs: Chattel Credit in Springdale Town, 1849-1900,” Agricultural History 77 (Summer 2003): 420-52.

Subject(s):Household, Family and Consumer History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII