The Pioneer Women

For young women who grow up on the family farm, there comes a time to make a choice—should I stay or should I go?

Then

Russell Lee, c. 1937-41

Louisiana, Kansas, Oregon, Vermont

Then

Russell Lee, c. 1937-41

Louisiana, Kansas, Oregon, Vermont

“Worst dirt storm for any single day we ever had,” wrote Elsie May Long, a farm woman living in Kansas, in her diary on a Wednesday in March, 1937. “Fear all our wheat is gone or badly damaged.” The wind, she noted, was 48 miles per hour, the “worst wind in 37 yr.”

Farmers, in general, were hit hard by the Great Depression—the price of agricultural products plummeted, newly impoverished farmers couldn’t afford to buy what they produced, and surpluses piled up—but it had an especially profound impact on the female members of farming families. In some cases, this meant that women, particularly those whose farms were devastated by the Dust Bowl, had to leave their rural homes to seek work in cities; for others, it meant a return to the farm. Women who had uprooted their lives to move to the city came home when urban opportunities vanished, often to drastically different circumstances than the ones they left.

Prior to the Depression, rural women already performed multiple jobs on the farm—they birthed and raised kids, ran the household, and did farm work. During the Depression their workload expanded as they managed threadbare budgets, dipping into tactics they thought had been retired to the past.

Daughters of a wage laborer working in the sugarcane fields near New Iberia, Louisiana, 1938.

Farm Security Administration photographer Russell Lee routinely trained his camera on the lives of farm women and girls as he made his way through the Midwest, South, and West photographing the hardship of rural Americans and the work the FSA was doing to pull them out of it. Frequently these images captured these women and their daughters hard at work. In 1937 Lee traveled to Montana, where he photographed the Harshbarger family, a clan of Mennonite farmers, extensively. Minnie, the oldest daughter, is shown wearing overalls and caring for her younger siblings, as well as driving a car. The caption on a 1941 photograph of a mother and daughter pouring ice cubes in Malheur County, Oregon notes that the pair “haul drinking water several miles.” In 1940 Lee snapped a photo of two young girls, daughters of a tenant farmer in Creek County, Oklahoma, sewing patchwork cushions for chairs. The names of many of these women weren’t recorded; Lee often referred to women as “wives” and “mothers.” The individual stories of farm women faded to the background, although many women (like Elsie May Long) recorded their daily lives in journals and even public forums.

Mrs. Browning and her daughter fill ice trays for electrical refrigeration. They are FSA rehabilitation borrowers. Dead Ox Flat, Malheur County, Oregon, 1941.
The wife of an FSA client with her two daughters in a garden. Kaffir corn in the background is used as a windbreak. Sheridan County, Kansas, 1939.
An FSA client and her daughters petting their pigs on their farm near Bradford, Orange County, Vermont, 1939.

Many chronicled their efforts in letters to local farm press, swapping tips with one another. Historians Dorothy Schwieder and Deborah Fink cataloged many such examples written by women in Nebraska and South Dakota in their 1988 article “Plains Women: Rural Life in the 1930s.” Nothing was wasted; fine ash was used as a cleaning scrub. Planting massive vegetable gardens and canning food was crucial to supplement the family table. One woman wrote that “in addition to grinding their own grains for flour, breakfast cereal, and cornmeal, she had raised 100 pounds of pinto beans, canned 22 quarts of string beans, 40 quarts of tomatoes, 200 quarts of cherries, 50 quarts of apples, and 40 quarts of beef and pork and cured six hams and rendered 70 pounds of lard.” They went without mass-produced household items and made their own “soap, toothpaste, furniture polish, fly paper, fly spray, hand lotion, and stove top cleaner.”

Despite the intense pride women took in the work they did on their farms and on behalf of suffering farmers, some still did not wish their daughters to inherit their fate. In a letter to the journal Nebraska Farmer, one woman opined on the fact that her daughter, a high school graduate who had found work in town, had married a farmer. “They will start farming with a load of debt,” she wrote. “When I think of the struggle ahead for her, I actually ache. I didn’t plan this kind of life for her, but what can I do?”

Then

Russell Lee, c. 1937-41

Louisiana, Kansas, Oregon, Vermont

Now

Lindley Warren Mickunas, 2019

Riverside, Iowa

Now

Lindley Warren Mickunas, 2019

Riverside, Iowa

“Iowa, a place to grow” was adopted as a slogan by the state in 1970 as part of a civic ad campaign to promote local economic opportunities. The tagline pointed to the Corn State’s fertile land as a place where residents could raise children, create a strong sense of self, and become enmeshed in a rich community. Tim and Heather Marek, fifth-generation farmers in Riverside, Iowa, whom I followed for Federal Project No. 2, embody the potential in this slogan. Their daughters do, too—albeit in a different way than its creators may have intended. For women who grew up on the family farm during the Depression, a “place to grow” was more often a place to survive, and women—especially young women—were often at the forefront of that survival. Today, young women have a choice: do I stay or do I go?

The road in front of the Marek home.
The Marek farm.
The Marek sisters, from left: Macy, Kenzi, Leah, and Lexi.

There was never a question in Tim’s mind about whether or not he would stay on the family farm; for his wife, Heather, this decision wasn’t so easy. She grew up an half-hour south on her own family’s grain farm in Brighton, Iowa, where they raised corn and soybeans. Tim and Heather went to the same high school, but it wasn’t until after college that they got to know each other; it was then that Heather knew she wanted to be with Tim and stay on his farm.

Leah Marek with one of the pigs.

I’ve lived in Iowa most of my life, and I am not the only Midwesterner who has a push-pull relationship with this part of the country. I’ve left and returned a total of six times in my 20s. I became interested in learning about young women in the state who grew up close to the land; I wanted to know who they are and what they want to become. I contacted Lexi Marek in early spring of this year because of her involvement in Iowan agriculture and saw that she has three younger sisters. I was curious about how they felt about staying on the farm, or making a home in Iowa in general.

Lexi, 24, Macy, 22, Kenzi, 20, and Leah, 17, grew up on the family farm in Riverside, where they raised crops, cattle, and pigs. The young women showed livestock competitively throughout their childhood; one room in the family home displays a wide assortment of trophies and purple ribbons they won over the years. Because of Tim’s deep love for farm life, he thinks that his daughters should stay close to home as they reach adulthood; Heather believes her daughters should end up wherever they find their passion.

An old gas pump.
Lexi Marek feeding cattle on a rainy day.
Macy and Lexi talking in a garage while Lexi moves a lawnmower.

While completing their daily chores on the farm, such as cleaning pens and tending to livestock, the Marek sisters learned to fulfill their family responsibilities before anything else. Sometimes this meant not getting to do what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it. Despite this, the sisters are thankful for their farm upbringing. Each of them told me countless times how the things they learned on the farm have informed other aspects of their lives; Kenzi, Lexi, and Macy also competed in beauty pageants and found that their experience competing in livestock carried over. “You work hard at preparing for the competition,” says Lexi. “You get yourself into habits that prepare you to do your best, and overall they make you a better person. One has boots and the other has high heels, but the goal is the same.”

One of the pigs.
Lexi shoveling in the pig barn.
Leah walking one of the pigs.
A grain silo.
One of the pigs being washed by Macy.
Kenzi in a dress for an upcoming beauty pageant.

Now in their teens and early 20s, the sisters have had to decide if they will pursue a life in agriculture. In the fall, Macy will teach in Houston, Texas, as part of her education at Iowa State University (ISU), majoring in agriculture education with a minor in animal science. Lexi also attended ISU and graduated with a degree in public service and administration, with minors in journalism and mass communication. Currently, she works for the Iowa Department of Agriculture in communications and previously worked for FarmHer, an organization that shares stories about women working in agriculture. Kenzi currently is majoring in apparel merchandise design and minoring in event planning at ISU. She has chosen not to continue working in agriculture but is carrying on a different family interest, shared primarily with her mother, who has a fine-arts degree. In the future, she hopes to have a fashion line, potentially designing prom, bridal, or pageant dresses.

The Marek family eating dinner at their house, clockwise from left: Leah , Heather, Lexi , Kenzi, Tim , and Macy.

The youngest daughter, Leah, will be a senior in high school next year. She plans to double major in global resource systems and biology at ISU. However, she wants to focus on the people side of these fields, as opposed to the livestock. Like Kenzi, she doesn’t want to be a farmer but still wants to be connected to agriculture in some capacity, which shouldn’t be difficult as their two other sisters plan to dedicate their lives to it. Only Lexi says with confidence that in the future she plans to be back on the family farm full-time. It’s her dream to have a job where she can continue the family tradition that they’ve had for six generations. A place to grow, indeed.

Macy prior to feeding cattle.
Three cows on the Marek farm.
Lexi and Macy walking to the pig barn with their four dogs.
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