News TIME & AGAIN: Extension System Photo Collection Keeps Agricultural History Alive

TIME & AGAIN: Extension System Photo Collection Keeps Agricultural History Alive

TIME & AGAIN: Extension System Photo Collection Keeps Agricultural History Alive
May 30, 2006 |

On Sept. 13, 1926, Mrs. Ella Cheeseman of the Whistler community in rural Mobile County stepped out onto her back porch and into the annals of history.That was the day water came to Whistler — or, more specifically, to Mrs. Cheeseman’s back porch. The $75 force pump she installed was surely a technological marvel, brimming with possibilities for a family more accustomed to hauling water from the creek.Even today, almost 80 years later, those possibilities are still evident in Mrs. Cheeseman’s 64-year-old face, thanks to an unidentified photographer from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System whose photo of that momentous occasion now rests in the Auburn University Special Collections & Archives at Ralph Brown Draughon Library. Dr. Dwayne Cox, head of those archives, estimates the Extension System photo collection contains about 10,000 photos documenting the optimism of Alabama’s early agricultural history. Arranged by county, by individual name, or by subject, the photo collection actually pre-dates the Extension System that was created by the 1914 Smith-Lever Act. The early beginnings of the Alabama Farmers Federation, organized in 1921 on the Auburn campus as the Alabama Farm Bureau, are an integral part of the collection, too. Even today, the archives serve as a valuable repository for photos, records, film and more contributed by the Federation.”I am afraid many of our organization’s historical documents would be lost forever had it not been for Dr. Cox and the Auburn University Archives,” said Federation Administrator J. Paul Till. “The Archives hold minutes of early board meetings, correspondence, photographs and publications that trace the progression of agriculture and Alabama Farmers Federation since we were founded in 1921. Having a central location to catalogue and protect these documents has been invaluable to historians, our members and staff. These records have been used many times since being deposited in the archives at Auburn.” The Extension System also continues to contribute archival material, but the photos from the 1920s were among the first to make it onto the university’s digital online library where they have become popular with researchers, scholars and just plain ol’ web surfers looking to download the high-resolution images for books and publications or just for framing.The stock market crash was just a ticker tape away and the Great Depression close on its heels, but the roaring ’20s were an era of optimism for Alabama farmers. Fueled by high agricultural prices that peaked right after World War I, it was a high many expected (however wrongly) to continue.Operating under the motto “A Good Home on a Good Farm,” the Extension System set out to capture this excitement by hiring photographers like E. H. Green, a native Alabamian who had been a World War I combat photographer and later, a Washington D.C. photojournalist.Armed with cameras, Green and other Extension System photographers set out across the state, documenting not only innovations in farming, but also new ideas for the home and family as taught by the Extension System’s farm and home demonstration agents.”They were trying to show what was possible under better circumstances,” said Cox, who recently lectured on the role of Alabama farm agents as part of Auburn’s sesquicentennial lecture series. “It was a more positive picture of the rural South than the stereotype of the rural South. And I don’t mean to say the stereotype had no validity, but the Extension System was in the business of documenting, through these photographs, to show what was possible if the research knowledge of the university was applied on the level of the family farm.”Better still, said Cox, the Extension photographers were diligent in keeping records. “The photos are usually dated. They usually identify the people in the photograph and when and where it was taken. That’s unusual,” said Cox. “If they hadn’t, the historical value would’ve been much less. Every one of those agents had to document what they did.”Dr. Jim Donald, who’s been with Extension at Auburn since 1970, could attest to that. A self-described “photography nut,” Donald said he remembers how he helped the late Elbert Williams, an Extension photographer, go through “file cabinet after file cabinet after file cabinet” of photos made in the 1920s and 1930s.”I personally helped him box that stuff up, and for a long time, I had them in my office before they were turned over to the library,” said Donald. “I mean these were pictures of people plowing with mules and the first tractors and piling hay up with pitchforks, and field days. It’s unbelievable just what an amazing heritage this state has.”While showing slides of the photos to civic clubs and other such gatherings around the state, Cox has occasionally met people who knew someone in the pictures. “People like these photographs because everybody sees somebody in there that reminds them of their mother or grandmother or great grandmother sometime in the past,” said Cox. “People get nostalgic about these pictures.”It is, indeed, difficult to not wax romantic over many of the images you’ll find within the collection. Box 28, labeled “Poultry,” for example contains a photograph from March 17, 1927, showing a “poultry plant” owned by Mrs. Annette Breeden of Dallas County. Information accompanying the picture tells us, “Plant built on ‘Auburn Plan.’ Began with a few pullets in 1926, now have 200-400 in yard. Mrs. Breeden keeps close records and uses Poultry Specialist to enable her to give accurate info to her club members.”In Box 26, the “Packing Plant” folder contains a photo from Nov. 3, 1925, when a packing plant owned by L.L. Noble of Mobile County was crating up the Satsuma oranges that were king among the state’s citrus crops.Box 14 contains photos of the Tomato Clubs and the Corn Clubs, Extension organizations for girls and boys, respectively, that were the forerunner of 4-H Club. “The way Extension reached the parents was by educating children,” said Dr. Carol Whatley, co-leader of ACES Communications. “That was one of Extension’s little tricks — teach the children to do new things that the parents were sometimes reluctant to try.” There are scores of others — meetings and conferences, home improvements and food preservation, and even old Extension photos from the separate Negro Extension System which was located at Tuskegee Institute.But, of them all, Cox says his favorite is of Mrs. Cheeseman and her water pump. “If you look at that picture, you can see the shoes she has on are not her everyday shoes,” said Cox. “And she’s put on a fresh apron to have her picture taken. There’s just a look of solemn pride on her face. … This is the first time running water had ever been in her house! Either the photographer had an appreciation for what the overwhelming significance of this event was or it was just so profound to Mrs. Cheeseman that it came through without the photographer having a sense of it. But one way or another, it’s there.”
To see more photos from the collection, visit Auburn University’s Special Collections & Archives digital library at

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