By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
PARSONS, Kan. —
When Civil War veteran William Scott came to Kansas looking for land, he found a half-section that appealed to him, 320 acres in the Osage Township west of what is now Parsons.
Scott’s descendants know it today as “the home place.”
“That’s where I was born. That’s where my father was born. And that’s where my children were born,” said 83-year-old Bill Scott Jr., the great-grandson of the original settler and a lifelong Labette County farmer.
For researcher Pam Cress, the Scotts and their connection with the land served as a jumping off point for painting a picture of farm life during the Great Depression — stories about what the Rural Electrification Administration meant when it brought power to the farm for the first time, or how President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal provided gravel for the mud road, which meant Scott could ride his bicycle to school.
Cress, who heads up the Southeast Kansas Farm History Center’s Oral History Project, spent two years capturing stories of the Scott family and 44 other farm families in Southeast Kansas.
Today, some 140 years after William Scott settled on the home place, those histories are available to anyone with an Internet connection. In addition to audio files and written transcripts of each interview, the collection includes archived historical photographs.
Serving as host to the collection is Axe Library at Pittsburg State University, under the direction of Morgan McCune, cataloging librarian, and Randy Roberts, curator of special collections.
“It was the end of an era,” said Roberts, who also grew up on a farm. “These are stories that need to be saved, need to be told, can teach us a lot.”
A grant from the Kansas Humanities Council provided funding for the project in 2008, just as the country was preparing to mark the 75th anniversary of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Interviews focused on farm practices, the social lives of farmers, and the impact that New Deal programs such as the REA and the Works Progress Administration had on rural families.
The oldest person interviewed was born in 1913 and is now 99 years old.
Cress said at least five of those who were interviewed have since passed away. At least four of the women interviewed taught in one-room schools, and one, Gertrude McKinney, won fame in a 1937 milking contest. At least six of the subjects were veterans of World War II and shared those memories. Seven were in the armed forces after World War II, including the Korean War.
Some had lived in Southeast Kansas only a short time when the Depression hit, while others, such as Bill Scott, were preceded by several generations of farming ancestors.
Bill Scott’s grandfather, Howard Scott, was born on the home place, followed by Bill Scott’s father, William G. Scott Sr., in 1906. Bill — William G. Scott Jr. — was born there in 1929. Today, his son, Tom, farms the home place with his sons.
Despite some unique differences, recurring themes surfaced. Numerous people shared, for example, that they weren’t poor just during the Great Depression — they were poor before, during and afterward.
“But many voiced the belief that they were much better off living on a farm; at the very least, there was something to eat,” Cress said.
It might not have been much, since a main staple was bread and gravy. But many of those who were interviewed spoke of raising chickens and milking cows, providing protein to otherwise meager diets.
“And most of the time, some had crops that could be harvested,” Cress said. “One sold chickens and vegetables door to door in town, which was the only cash income of the family. But they made do.”
Many also shared fond memories of what was a difficult time.
”They pulled together,” Cress said.
They also talked of the significant changes during their lives.
“They went from horse and mule power to modern equipment we see today,” she said.
In his account, Bill Scott recalled his family thinking that horses were better than tractors; they required no gas, “and you could talk to them.”
Several of those who were interviewed worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps, another New Deal program, earning three meals a day and money to send back home. Several were part of the WPA, building civic projects for $1 a day.
“When I asked about the Rural Electrification Administration, everyone had memories of when electricity came to their place and how that changed their lives,” Cress said. “The women, especially, had fascinating stories.”
One recalled the installation of a wind generator that powered an electric iron. When the wind blew, she ironed as fast as she could. When it stopped, so did her power.
“It speaks to that era, that generation, that you made do, you got by, you kept moving ahead,” said Roberts of the farmers’ tendency to overcome challenges with resolve.
They were hard times, Scott agreed, “but even that, living on the farm … we had so many advantages over the people in the town. We knew that, you know, that we had a meal every day. We always did. We could eat every day. A lot of people couldn’t.”
The Southeast Kansas Farm History Project can be found online at http://axedigital.pittstate.edu/cdm-sekfarm/index.html.
Got a story?
THE SOUTHEAST KANSAS Farm History Center is continuing to collect stories. To participate or nominate someone to be interviewed, people may contact Pam Cress at 620-421-5404.