Hope in the Dust: The Story of Irwinville Farms
by Brian Brown
From the Autumn 2010 issue of Georgia Backroads
When the stock market crashed on October 24, 1929 – infamously known since as Black Thursday – the people of Georgia and her sister states in the old Confederacy barely took notice. Rural southerners already had been enduring a financial crisis of biblical proportions for nearly a decade.
During the World War I years, Georgia farmers had enjoyed a welcome increase in the price of cotton as demand rose. Following the war, a dramatic drop in prices coincided with the catastrophic arrival of the boll weevil, bringing hard times to nearly every Georgia farmer and everybody who depended upon agriculture for a livelihood. By 1930, the market price of cotton was just a nickel per pound, down from the wartime high of 30 cents. The price of corn, the other staple crop of small farmers, also suffered.
To add to the dismal financial situation, many Georgia farmers didn’t own the land they worked. In 1920, Georgia led the South in the proportion of farmland rented to sharecroppers (60%). The difficult economic situation and the low quality of living prevalent in rural Georgia (and in the rest of the South and most of the country) was apparent to lawmakers in Washington, D.C. To relieve the acute poverty and assist tenant farmers in purchasing land, the federal government established New Deal relief programs like the Resettlement Administration (RA) and Farm Security Administration (FSA).
One ambitious project of the FSA was to create “utopian,” self-sustaining communities throughout the country. The intent was to establish communities with good, affordable housing, as well as to provide cultural and recreational opportunities previously denied to the working class. The FSA took things a step further by promoting reclamation of farmland for sharecroppers and small farmers. Government-backed or funded low-interest loans would allow sharecroppers to acquire land.
Today’s enormous farm subsidy programs also had their origins in New Deal programs, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration sought to halt the overproduction of agricultural staples since excess supply drove down prices, as many cotton growers could attest. And while sharecropping remained a common practice throughout the Great Depression, subsidy programs slowly brought that way of life to an end.
Federal aid and education programs encouraged farmers to raise corn, tobacco, peanuts, and livestock. Today, it is hard to believe that crop rotation and diversification was a revolutionary concept in the rural South, but it took relief agencies many years to dissuade farmers from the old “cotton is king” notion.
Like the rest of Dixie, the economy in south Georgia’s Irwin County was depressed long before the Great Depression. Irwin County was a dusty, hardscrabble place whose people had struggled for generations, yet the farmland was among the finest in the state. The fruits of its natural wealth were, however, unevenly distributed. According to the 1890 Census, the average farm in Irwin County was just shy of 300 acres, yet less than ten percent of all land in the county was considered “improved.” This disparity, along with poor farming practices, a lack of modern equipment, and the inequities of tenant farming posed a serious threat to the welfare of many Irwin County residents.
To address the situation in Irwin County, the RA and FSA established Irwinville Farms, one of 34 subsistence homestead communities created in the United States. Here, farmers would live in close proximity to one another under the guidance of government consultants. The FSA promoted land ownership, modern farming practices, medical care, health insurance programs, and even offered classes in cooking and child care.
Irwinville Farms Project Manager W. P. Bryan made an effort to fit in with the local populace. He succeeded not only to that end, but also earned the praise of his superiors in Washington. Presented with blueprints and a cost list for the RA-specified barns to be built at Irwinville Farms, Bryan instead drafted his own plans for a less expensive barn. Called “Bryan Barns” by other managers within the program, Bryan Barns cost $145 – a substantial savings over the $350 price tag for the regular RA barns. While both types would be built at Irwinville Farms, Bryan made it clear that many of the people he was resettling had no need for the more expensive, elaborate structures.
Bryan was also a proponent of cooperatives, a concept that allowed farmers and their families to purchase goods on credit. Before the implementation of this program, many sharecroppers around Irwinville were unable to afford basic necessities like clothing and shoes for their children. In that era, it was not uncommon for children and adults to work the fields barefoot in the summer. To cover their feet in winter, some wore cardboard or newspaper bound with string.
Bryan recruited a local physician, Dr. Herman Dismuke, to provide medical care at Irwinville Farms. In the past, his patients seldom had access to a medical doctor. Furthermore, to encourage health education among children, the popular May Day pageant became the May Day Health Fair.
At first, the local population had misgivings about “outsiders” coming into their backyards to tell them how to live their lives. Georgia’s popular Governor, Eugene Talmadge, was uncompromising in his opposition to the New Deal. So averse was he to outside interference from the federal government that he seriously explored a run for the presidency on that platform. But the changes brought about by Washington proved too tempting for a class that had done without for so long.
Construction of the Irwinville Farms Community Auditorium, and appearances there by entertainers from the Grand Ole Opry, were important enhancements to the cultural scene in the wiregrass region. Rachel Parrish, a lifelong resident of Irwinville, fondly recalls the community’s appreciation for these shows: “Grandpa Jones, Minnie Pearl, they all came through Irwinville,” she noted in a recent interview.
The FSA’s most tangible and enduring achievements may have come in the areas of housing and land reclamation. For instance, the use of insulation in housing replaced drafty tar-paper shacks, and in those houses vaccinated schoolchildren read by electric light. There were also improvements in education and recreation.
Photography played a large role in promoting Irwinville Farms and other “utopian” resettlement communities. FSA Photographers who went on to national prominence included Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, and Jack and Irene Delano. Their stark, vivid, evocative photographs helped ensure funding for the New Deal and brought awareness of the harsh reality of rural poverty to a wide audience.
At Irwinville Farms, photographer John Vachon showed the public what a difference an appliance like a refrigerator could mean to a rural family. He photographed Mrs. Chester Foster with a new refrigerator in her house in 1938. Mrs. Foster proudly displayed her new appliance, stocked with food items that would have otherwise spoiled. Low interest loans made it possible for farmers to purchase time- and money-saving inventions.
Today, the legacy of the FSA’s Irwinville Farms program is still evident. Though officially dissolved by 1942, the FSA’s effect on the community was far-reaching. Many of the Irwinville Farms Project families today still work land obtained by their ancestors during the Great Depression. A majority of the farmhouses and barns built for the project are still in use today, even though most have been modified in one way or another.
In total, more than 100 families benefited from the Irwinville Farms project. Like many FSA programs, however, resettlement communities eventually fell victim to politics, an improving economy, and increasing attention to military and international matters as World War II neared. As the country focused on winning a global war, interest declined in social welfare programs, and thanks to the military buildup, manufacturing and industrial jobs were readily available. This lessened the need for further funding of the recovery projects.
The staff at the Irwinville Farms project office, once housed in the old Bank of Irwinville building, simply packed up and left Irwinville, as did W.P. Bryan, who was always well-liked by the community. The auditorium continued to serve the community until fire destroyed the building in the 1950s, but Irwinville Farms is all but forgotten today.
Agriculture remains the lifeblood of Irwin County and is carried on today by some of the same families whose forebears benefitted from assistance provided through New Deal programs. From baseball to medical care, from vaccinations for children to art appreciation, Irwinville Farms had a profound impact on those it touched.
Other New Deal Communities in Georgia
Flint River Farms, Macon County
Hazlehurst Farms, Jeff Davis County
Piedmont Homesteads, Jasper County
Pine Mountain Valley, Harris County
© Copyright Brian Brown & Vanishing Media, 2012.