Putting the Barn Before the House

Putting the Barn Before the House: Women and Family Farming in Early Twentieth-Century New York

Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Putting the Barn Before the House
    Book Description:

    Putting the Barn Before the House features the voices and viewpoints of women born before World War I who lived on family farms in south-central New York. As she did in her previous book, Bonds of Community, for an earlier period in history, Grey Osterud explores the flexible and varied ways that families shared labor and highlights the strategies of mutuality that women adopted to ensure they had a say in family decision making. Sharing and exchanging work also linked neighboring households and knit the community together. Indeed, the culture of cooperation that women espoused laid the basis for the formation of cooperatives that enabled these dairy farmers to contest the power of agribusiness and obtain better returns for their labor. Osterud recounts this story through the words of the women and men who lived it and carefully explores their views about gender, labor, and power, which offered an alternative to the ideas that prevailed in American society. Most women saw "putting the barn before the house"-investing capital and labor in productive operations rather than spending money on consumer goods or devoting time to mere housework-as a necessary and rational course for families who were determined to make a living on the land and, if possible, to pass on viable farms to the next generation. Some women preferred working outdoors to what seemed to them the thankless tasks of urban housewives, while others worked off the farm to support the family. Husbands and wives, as well as parents and children, debated what was best and negotiated over how to allocate their limited labor and capital and plan for an uncertain future. Osterud tells the story of an agricultural community in transition amid an industrializing age with care and skill.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6417-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. [Map]
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  6. Introduction: The Nanticoke Valley in the Early Twentieth Century
    (pp. 1-24)

    People who drive through the Nanticoke Valley of south-central New York today find it difficult to imagine the intricate patchwork of farms that covered the countryside in the early twentieth century. The road following the Nanticoke Creek as it winds south from the upland towns of Nanticoke and Maine to join the Susquehanna River at Union passes scattered nineteenth-century farmhouses with dilapidated barns, Cape Cod–style houses with tidy flower gardens, and overgrown trailers surrounded by broken-down cars and rusting machinery. A few crossroads are marked by straggling hamlets, but none of the three villages boasts a grocery store.



    • 1 Putting the Barn Before the House
      (pp. 27-45)

      “The Revolt of ‘Mother,’ ” a short story by Mary Wilkins [Freeman] published in 1890,¹ defined the predicament of farm women in the minds of contemporary urban Americans.² Set in the author’s native New England, the tale depicts a long-suffering wife’s rebellion against her husband’s decision to build another barn before building the new house he had promised her at their marriage forty years before. After Adoniram Penn steadfastly refused to discuss the matter with his wife, Sarah, she sat him down and declared:

      “Now, father, look here”—Sarah Penn had not sat down; she stood before her husband in...

    • 2 Women’s Place on the Land
      (pp. 46-66)

      How have rural women’s connections to the land shaped their sense of self, the agency they felt able to exercise, and the trajectory of their life as they look back on it? The women whom I interviewed saw themselves as profoundly embedded in kinship networks and deeply grounded in the work they did to support and nurture others; family and work were inextricably interconnected in their narratives. Neither farmers nor caregivers—much less women who are both—suffer from the illusion that individuals are the masters of their own destiny. Yet most rural women did not think of themselves as...


    • 3 “Buying a Farm on a Small Capital”
      (pp. 69-82)

      “Buying a Farm on a Small Capital,” published in the American Agriculturist in 1926, tells the story of the Young family’s decades-long effort to establish a farm “under difficulties.” The sixty-year-old George W. Young and one of the two sons with whom he worked in partnership, thirty-two-year-old Ralph, were interviewed by Hugh L. Cosline, the coeditor of the weekly newspaper, for a series on “the successes that had been attained by farmers” in the region. George Young’s example, Cosline thought, demonstrated that a young man could start from scratch and, by “hard work” and “perseverance,” make a living, pay for...

    • 4 The Transformation of Agriculture and the Rural Economy
      (pp. 83-102)

      By 1926, when the American Agriculturist held up the Young farm as evidence that a young man without capital could become a successful farmer, editors and readers were deeply anxious about the future of agriculture in the northeastern United States. The farmer who had been profiled just before George Young “said that the young men of today are not willing to start under the handicaps which their fathers had.”¹ Everyone understood that many men and women who grew up on farms were leaving rural areas rather than taking over their parents’ enterprises or establishing their own. But the real problem...


    • 5 Sharing and Dividing Farm Work
      (pp. 105-124)

      In rural societies, social relations are constituted around work. Relationships among women and men in farm families are shaped by the ways in which daily and seasonal work is organized. When husband and wife work side by side in the main income-producing operation, such as dairying or poultry raising, they interact frequently on a common terrain. Each spouse is well aware of the other’s contribution to the family enterprise and is well informed about whatever problems arise: when the corn is stunted by too much rain, when the supply of feed might not last the winter, or when the milk...

    • 6 Intergenerational and Marital Partnerships
      (pp. 125-148)

      What shaped the gender division of labor in farming families? How did their work affect and reflect the everyday interactions between husbands and wives? Looking closely at the working relationships between women and men on a range of family farms reveals several clear patterns. First and foremost, the flexibility of labor was crucial, especially in labor-intensive operations such as dairying. Few strictures about “ladylike” behavior constrained rural women when it came to doing what needed to be done. Second, women’s work was more central to smaller-scale, more diversified enterprises than to larger-scale, more specialized ones. When another full-time worker became...

    • 7 Wage-Earning and Farming Families
      (pp. 149-168)

      In the Nanticoke Valley, the consolidation of larger farms was accompanied by the proliferation of smaller operations, and class differences between more and less successful farmers widened. Between World War I and World War II, as the scale and degree of specialization of commercial farm operations increased, women’s work became less central to these enterprises. Yet women’s active participation in income-producing labor, whether on or off the farm, was a fundamental feature of working-class families who combined farming with wage-earning. By the end of World War II, this pattern prevailed throughout the hills, and full-time farming families clustered in the...

    • 8 Negotiating Working Relationships
      (pp. 169-190)

      What made the most difference in the tenor of rural women’s life stories was the degree of agency they felt able to exercise over the major decisions that shaped their lives. The women I interviewed had not grown up expecting to conduct their lives as autonomous individuals in the same sense that their daughters and, especially, their granddaughters did. As they looked back on their experiences and articulated their way of thinking, they described themselves in relation to their families and kin and as embedded in a network of connections that extended through their neighborhood and community. Like most farm...


    • 9 Forming Cooperatives and Taking Collective Action
      (pp. 193-211)

      At the turn of the twentieth century, Nanticoke Valley farmers had a vital tradition of forming cooperative associations, membership organizations through which they not only purchased fertilizer and feed but also processed and marketed their products. Bargaining collectively and excluding the middlemen who would otherwise profit from their trade made farming more sustainable economically. It also ensured that farmers had practice in conducting organizations and handling financial affairs democratically. Granges—local chapters of the Patrons of Husbandry—had existed in this community since the 1870s, and in the early twentieth century, cooperative creameries in Glen Aubrey, Maine, East Maine, and...

    • 10 Home Economics and Farm Family Economies
      (pp. 212-230)

      The development of the Home Bureau, like that of the Farm Bureau, was marked by clear differences between the plans of outside experts and the practices of rural residents. The reform proposals made by professional home economists were dissonant with farm women’s perceptions of their situation and definitions of their interest. But in the Home Bureau, in contrast to the Farm Bureau, these differences did not lead to open conflict within the organization. Right from the start, the Home Bureau was democratic and decentralized. Its structure was more in consonance with rural women’s customary modes of collective action than that...

  11. Conclusion: Gender, Mutuality, and Community in Retrospect
    (pp. 231-248)

    From the onset of the Great Depression through World War II, most people in the Nanticoke Valley held on to the land they had inherited or managed to purchase. Whether their ancestors had come before the Civil War or after World War I did not matter much when everyone was struggling to grow enough food and cut enough wood to stay warm and well nourished. Workers from European peasant backgrounds had bought farmland during the 1920s, in part because employment in the mines and factories was unstable even in relatively good times and in part because they did not want...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 249-266)
  13. Index
    (pp. 267-278)