As early as 1920, Chesapeake Bay’s seemingly limitless oyster population had been diminished by up to one-third, both by overharvesting and by habitat destruction caused by siltation and dredging. By 2001, the harmful effects of pollution and disease had taken their toll, and the bay’s native Virginica oysters dwindled to less than 1% of their historic numbers. The bay had all but collapsed.
It was under these conditions that cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton decided to revitalize their family’s historic oyster farm, Rappahannock Oyster Co. Founded in 1899 by their great-grandfather, James Croxton, on Virginia’s Rappahannock River, the company wasn’t much more than mud by the time the cousins took over the leases in 2001. But in that rich tideland, the cousins saw an opportunity to salvage a family legacy and renew their community.
Cousins Travis (left) and Ryan Croxton have transformed their great-grandfather’s oyster farm, Rappahannock Oyster Co., into a model of sustainability that is practicing food production methods that are healthier for the consumer, the Chesapeake Bay they call home and the native oyster they are 100% committed to preserving. / Photo courtesy Rappahannock Oyster Co.
Because they were starting from the mud up, the cousins were able to develop sustainable new methods that not only produce the highest-quality shellfish but also contribute to the health of the bay and repopulation of its aquatic life.
“Aquacultured oysters are a win-win for everybody—the farmer, the waters, the consumer that gets a better product,” said Travis Croxton, whose off-bottom method of growing oysters in wire cages not only protects the oysters but also allows them to reproduce naturally—a vital factor in restoring native oyster populations. And because oysters feed on excess nutrients in the water, their presence also helps keep the bay clean, as well as helping native grasses and other sea creatures to proliferate.
The number of oysters harvested in the Chesapeake Bay has grown wildly in the last two decades.
Perhaps the most satisfying thing for the cousins has been the ability to provide an opportunity to work, grow, and live in what has been a depressed rural economy. “Too often, rural communities such as ours lose promising talent as people look elsewhere due to lack of opportunity,” said Croxton. “We’re proud that our employees have a reason to stay.”
Photo courtesy Rappahannock Oyster Co.
By 2004, Rappahannock had developed a thriving wholesale business. Now with their tasting room, Merroir, four stand-alone oyster bars from Washington, DC, to Los Angeles, California, and a restaurant, Rappahannock, in Richmond, Virginia, the cousins are able to share their oysters and their dedication to “good people doing great things.”
When we checked in during spring 2020, owner Travis Croxton didn’t deny that it had been tough for Rappahannock Oyster since the COVID-19 pandemic had hit. He and cousin Ryan Croxton had to furlough hundreds of employees at their oyster company and restaurants. But, as Travis Croxton said, “You have to perform a hard pivot and await what the future may hold.” Rappahannock quickly set up an employee relief fund for those in need and shifted their restaurants to solely curbside pickup/takeout. On the oyster company side, they had to make additional hard pivots, focusing mostly on internet sales (which Travis Croxton said have greatly increased) and designing completely new business models, which included working with vineyards and breweries to sell 25-count bags of their oysters on consignment on weekends.
In 1899, James Croxton, great-grandfather of Travis and Ryan Croxton, laid claim to two acres of Rappahannock River bottom for the purpose of growing oysters. / Photo courtesy Rappahannock Oyster Co.
Despite these challenges, by trying to sustain nature, not tame it, the Croxtons have carried on their great-grandfather’s legacy, this time on a foundation of sustainability.
A Bickford & Huffman grain drill, circa 1890, used at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village. / THF110028
"In the Farmers' Favorite Plain Drill we offer the best machine for the purpose that has ever been produced, and believe we can prove it to be better made, of better material, better finished, better balance, and capable of sowing a greater range of work easier and better under all circumstances than any other." –Bickford & Huffman Co. Catalogue, 1896
Lyman Bickford and Henry Huffman founded what became the Bickford & Huffman Co. in 1842. By the 1870s, their small company in Macedon, New York, sold one of nation's most effective mechanical planters. The mechanization that took place on American farms with machinery such as horse-drawn grain drills, reapers, and threshing machines allowed American farmers to increase their field size and efficiently harvest small grain crops such as wheat, oats, and barley. If properly planted, these crops grow densely, and farmers did not need to remove weeds. But if the seeds were dropped inconsistently, then weeds would take up space in the field and reduce the harvest. Truly how well you sowed your crop determined the quantity you would reap. To comply with their customers’ beliefs, and to confirm their machines’ superiority, the Bickford & Huffman Co. emblazoned their grain drills with the phrase "As Ye Sow So Shall Ye Reap," along with the name "The Farmers' Favorite."
"As Ye Sow So Shall Ye Reap” printed on our Bickford & Huffman grain drill. / THF189173
From the 1840s into the 1880s, the Midwest served as America's breadbasket. Ohio farmers ranked top in the nation in wheat production in 1840 with 16.5 million bushels—almost one billion pounds of wheat. Farmers such as Benjamin Firestone in Columbia County, Ohio, planted winter wheat in the fall as a cash crop, and oats in the spring to use as horse feed. In 1880, Firestone planted eight acres of wheat and ten acres of oats. Like all farmers, his expectations were heightened as he planted his crops and hoped for a bountiful harvest. Like many farmers, he probably abided by the rule "As Ye Sow, So Shall Ye Reap." By the late 1800s, wheat production shifted to Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas.
You can see a Bickford & Huffman grain drill in use during the spring in Greenfield Village as the hands at Firestone Farm prepare and plant the fields. The drill drops seeds just a few inches apart, and the wheat or oats will sprout and spread, forming a lush field of grain. By the middle of June to early July, the grain will be ready to harvest, after which it will be stored until we thresh it in the fall. This drill, though more than 100 years old, continues to sow the hopes of our farmers and demonstrate innovation in American agriculture.
Firestone barn cat Ellen keeps an eye on our Bickford & Huffman grain drill when not in use. / Photo by Jillian Ferraiuolo
Today, farmers still plant using grain drills. Tractor-drawn machines pull grain drills that are as wide as 30 feet. Farmers still rely on a good stand of grain to help control weeds, but also spray herbicide to kill unwanted plants in the field. Some people worry that the use of these chemicals threatens our environment. Others argue that when used in moderation these chemicals are safe. Though we are reaping bountiful harvests, our farming practices may result in unintended problems—we may not know all that we are harvesting.
Leo E. Landis is former Curator of Agriculture & Rural Life at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted from the April 2001 entry in our former Pic of the Month series.
Fordson Tractor No. 100,000, Completed at Dearborn, February 21, 1920 / THF146392 Henry Ford & Son organized on July 27, 1917, to make Fordson tractors. David L. Lewis, author of The Public Image of Henry Ford: An American Folk Hero and His Company, explains that the first 7,000 went to England to support British food production during the Great War (World War I). Distribution to U.S. customers began early in 1918.
Aggressive advertising got the public’s attention, and the tractor’s price—$750—made it a reasonable investment. It quickly became a bestseller. Just three years after its debut, on February 21, 1920, the 100,000th Fordson rolled off the assembly line in Dearborn, Michigan.
In November 2020, a full century after the photographic print above marking the tractor’s milestone manufacturing moment was taken, it became The Henry Ford’s 100,000th artifact to be digitized.
You can find out more about our digitization program and celebration of reaching 100,000 digitized artifacts on our blog here, and can explore more artifacts related to Fordson tractors in our Digital Collections here.
IYFV Goal Two: Promoting diversified, balanced, and healthy diets and lifestyles through fruit and vegetable consumption.
Can Label, "Holly Brand Crushed Pineapples," California Packing Corporation, San Francisco, California, 1920-1940. / THF294147
The Henry Ford’s chefs promote healthy diets, the second goal, as part of their daily routines. They adapted recipes originally published by George Washington Carver and debuted them at Plum Market and Taste of History during 2021. You can read more about the process to perfect these mouth-watering entrees, side dishes, and desserts in our post “Beyond the Peanut: Food Inspired by Carver.” Carver dedicated his career to food advocacy, and his recipes and advice literature explain how people, often marginalized and victimized, can use “Healthy Food to Build Healthy Communities.”
IYFV Goal Three: Reducing losses and waste in fruits and vegetables food systems.
Farmer Feeding Pigs and Chickens, circa 1935./ THF621845
The third goal, to reduce food waste, immediately calls to mind the historical role of pigs on farms. Farmers (like the fellow in the photograph above) often fed skim milk or buttermilk, byproducts of dairy processing, to their pigs. The pigs at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village benefit from this richness. Reducing food waste factors into regenerative agricultural practices because food waste can be composted and returned to the soil, adding nutrients and biomass—both essential for soil health. The Henry Ford’s internal Green Team incorporated composting into the strategic plan it developed during 2021. Firestone Farm presenters also reduce waste by composting garden waste and sheep bedding for use in gardens and farm fields. The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation crew filmed a story on regenerative agriculture during 2021—stay tuned for this episode to air during Season 9!
This page features two pears, “Lawrence” and “Triumph,” distributed by Stark Bro’s and illustrated in Stark Fruits as Grown by Stark Bro's Nurseries & Orchards Co., 1902, page 51. / THF610234
IYFV Goal Four:Sharing best practices on:
Promotion of consumption and sustainable production of fruits and vegetables that contributes to sustainable food systems;
Improved sustainability of storage, transport, trade, processing, transformation, retail, waste reduction and recycling, as well as interactions among these processes;
Integration of smallholders including family farmers into local, regional, and global production, value/supply chains for sustainable production and consumption of fruits and vegetables, recognizing the contributions of fruits and vegetables, including farmers’ varieties/landraces, to their food security, nutrition, livelihoods and incomes;
Strengthening the capacity of all countries, specially developing countries, to adopt innovative approaches and technology in combating loss and waste of fruits and vegetables.
The fourth goal, to improve supply chains, applies to two very different aspects of fruits and vegetables. One relates to the delivery of seasonal fruits and vegetables to points of sale. This was a business grew through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as pomologists addressed plant propagation, plant breeders like Luther Burbank created new varieties, and companies like Stark Bro’s Nurseries and Orchards Co. marketed their own plants for wholesale and retail markets. These topics and many others related to fresh fruits and vegetables are well represented in the collections of The Henry Ford.
These men and boys are grading pears by size and packing them immediately after picking into wooden crates marked C.F.C.A. (California Fruit Canners Association) No. 1 and C.P.C. (California Packing Corporation).Photograph Album, California Packing Corporation Operations, circa 1922, page 5. / THF276795
Individuals sought out fruit trees and berry-bearing shrubs from companies such as Stark Bro’s because farm families had to maintain orchards that yielded fruit for many purposes and over long periods of time, from summer through frost. Those without orchards relied on public markets, or the produce section in grocery stores, for their fresh produce. A refrigerated railcar represents the complex systems of moving and hauling perishable foodstuffs.
This commissary in Richmond Hill, Georgia, circa 1947, shows shelf after shelf of canned goods, including peas, pineapple juice, orange juice, V-8 juice, and peaches, as well as a “hand” of bananas hanging on the back wall. / THF135658
Rows of cans on grocery store shelves marked the end of road for many fruits and vegetables. Many depended on these inexpensive foodstuffs, but few had a sense of the scale of production required to satisfy this demand. One California Packing Corporation photograph album shows the establishment of a Del Monte orchard described as “the largest peach and apricot orchard in the world,” with these fruits all bound for canneries and drying facilities. The H.J. Heinz Company Collection documents all steps in the process, from laying out fields, planting and cultivating plants, harvesting, processing, packing, and loading the final product into railcars for distribution.
Planting trees, Tract #1, Spring 1920, Photograph Album, California Packing Corporation Ranches and Orchards, 1919-1927./ THF276721
Can Label, "Luxury Brand Solid Pack Tomatoes," circa 1916. / THF294205
These resources from the collections of The Henry Ford introduce some key elements that speak to the United Nations’ International Year of Fruits and Vegetables, but also to some of the most important themes around food in general—nutrition, health, waste reduction, and sustainable supply chains. As we anticipate introducing our visitors to the Vegetable Building from Detroit Central Market in Greenfield Village during 2022, we look forward to bringing you much more on all aspects of the food production system—from fresh to freeze-dried and beyond.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.
“The Farmer Is the Man That Feeds Us All.” The words of that folk tune became indelibly imprinted on U.S. popular culture when Alan Lomax included it as the 66th out of the 317 songs in Folk Songs of North America (in the English Language) (1960). In fact, linking “the farmer” to “the man” tells only half the story!
Plenty of popular images of women in agriculture exist. The painting above, rendered by a girl in Massachusetts in the early years of the new nation, shows a woman holding a cornucopia. This likely represented either Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, or Copia, the Roman goddess of abundance. The goddess to the far right, holding a branch, might represent Pax, the Roman goddess of peace.
Mode of Spinning and Weaving by the Pueblo Indians, 1857 / THF621691
Abundance and peace marked a stable and secure agricultural society. Yet, farms throughout the expanding United States flourished on lands that matrilineal indigenous societies had managed for centuries before colonization. The Henry Ford acknowledges these matrilineal indigenous societies as stewards of the lands that sustained them for centuries.
Hillsboro County Agricultural and Mechanical Fair Badge, 1852 / THF154922
The popular depictions of goddesses of agriculture, grains, harvest, and fertility continued in U.S. popular culture for decades. The agricultural fair badge above depicts either the Greek goddess, Demeter; the Roman goddess, Ceres; or America’s Lady Liberty—all matrons of agriculture.
In contrast, illustrations in The Farmers and Dairymans Almanac, published the same year (1852), featured only men engaged in the practice of growing crops and rearing livestock. The work fit the seasons—flailing grain, building fence, spreading manure, and bringing in the sheaves—but emphasized that men did agricultural work and ran the business of farming as well.
Male authority over business ventures, including farming, stemmed from legal traditions based in English common law. These included the precedent of feme covert—that married women had no legal civil identity separate from their husbands. Married women were civilly dead. Thus, only single adult women or widows could negotiate the legally binding contracts required to operate farms. Married women could not—their husbands alone had the legal authority to do so. State laws began chipping away at feme covert during the 1820s by granting married women authority over their wages, recourse if abandoned by a husband, or the privilege of parental authority. It took decades, however, before most states afforded married women authority over their property and finances.
Women acted as farmers, nonetheless. They performed many tasks routinely, including milking cows and tending chickens.
Farm scene showing Norwegian women at work in fields off Merrick Road, 1890-1915/ THF38397
Women worked in the fields, too, especially when crops needed planting, cultivating, or harvesting. Sometimes they did this work as a member of a gang of laborers. The companionship might have eased some of the tedium of hoeing around seedlings to reduce competition from weeds, but it did not ease the physical demands of the labor. The women shown above, described as Norwegian by the photographer, work in farm fields near Brooklyn, New York.
Workers in an Onion Field, H. J. Heinz Company, circa 1910 /THF291590
Perishable commodities required everyone to pitch in. The above photograph shows girls and boys, as well as women and men, busy in an onion field under contract to the H. J. Heinz Company.
In a Great Pine Forest, Collecting Turpentine, North Carolina / THF278800
During harvest seasons, farming needs often took precedence over domestic routines and women worked alongside men to get work done as quickly as possible. This included harvesting turpentine from long-leaf pine forests—yes, forestry work is a branch of agricultural work.
Illustrated Industries and Geography of America (1882), pg. 240 / THF277183
The need to get hay in dry provided opportunities for girls and women to contribute their labor. The 1882 illustration above shows a girl and a boy on horses that generate the power to raise the loaded hay fork and run it along the track to dump hay in the barn. The same illustration shows a woman at work in the dirtiest job, distributing the dumped hay in the mow.
A Rice Raft with Plantation Hands, Near Georgetown, South Carolina, 1901-1909 / THF278804
The work completed by women and children often contributed to the economic solvency of the family farm. They “gleaned” by walking through harvested fields and picking up grain and straw missed by the work crews. The photograph above shows laborers after a day at work in rice fields in South Carolina. The raft transported them and their grain and straw back home, where they hulled the grain for family use or to sell and used the straw as forage or bedding for their livestock.
Other important farm work occurred in domestic spaces. This “women’s work” should not be discounted among farm work. Women and girls ensured food security and kept farms running by raising, processing, and preserving food crops and processing animal products (eggs, dairy, meat). Several farm homes in Greenfield Village tell these critical stories.
Daggett Farm in Greenfield Village, September 2007 / Photographed by Michelle Andonian /THF53544
The Daggett family, of Daggett Farmhouse, had a very set routine of farm and household management tasks. Samuel Daggett ran the business side of the farm. He had to ensure harvests of enough hay to keep the cattle herd healthy, and enough small grains to satisfy family consumption needs and market income. Anna Bushnell Daggett, on the other hand, oversaw the kitchen garden, to ensure harvests adequate to feed the family. The Daggett family raised food they needed for the entire year on their farmland. They had to plan the quantity and quality of plants and vegetables they needed to grow and harvest to ensure family survival. They then had to preserve the crops by pickling, storing (in a root cellar), fermenting, or drying them to ensure a supply throughout the winter months and into the next season.
Illustrated Historical Atlas of the County of Wayne, Michigan, 1876, page 34, detail /THF126026
The Ford farmhouse functioned well under the oversight of Henry Ford’s mother, Mary Litogot Ford. She maintained the busy farmstead while ensuring that her young and growing family was well fed and healthy. She, with the help of neighboring farmgirls, milked the cattle and tended chickens. She may also have helped with pressing seasonal farm work like bringing in the hay crop, but her young family probably consumed most of her attention on the farm. Mary unfortunately passed away on March 29, 1876, and it’s hard to imagine the historical farmstead operating without her at the center (distinctive in her dress in the illustration above, published in 1876) standing with children and chickens.
Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village, September 2007, Photographed by Michelle Andonian / THF52966
Firestone Farmhouse provides insight into the question, “What does it take to put a meal on the table?” This work drove a farm woman’s working day as she prepared three meals each day, 365 days every year. Morning activities focused on the repetitive and time-consuming tasks of preparing, consuming, and cleaning up after breakfast, while also preparing farm-grown produce, eggs, and meat for the noon meal. Other chores, including work in the kitchen garden, processing of dairy products, and tending to the chicken flock, in addition to household chores and childcare, consumed afternoons and evenings. Evenings involved additional preparation for the same tasks repeated the next day, and so on. Disruptions to these routines included celebrations like weddings, somber events such as funerals, and the haste of harvest which increased the farm workload for all.
Mattox Family Home in Greenfield Village, 1991 /THF45318
The center of many farm women’s lives revolved around the backyards of farm homes. Grace Mattox, her ancestors and her children, spent countless hours over decades keeping the backyard of the Mattox Family Home swept. This area, with its nearby brush arbor, provided additional space to get work done, and to visit with relatives and neighbors while they did it. The Mattox children remembered their hardscrabble existence, consisting of constant work to keep the garden cultivated, ripe vegetables processed, and food on the table.
The Henry Ford’s collections and these historic farmsteads in Greenfield Village provide a glimpse into the routines of farm women’s work. Their labor, from sun-up to sun-down, was essential to ensure the health and wellbeing of their families, as well as the smooth operation of their farms. These routines changed by the mid-twentieth century, as processed foods reduced the work required to maintain the family food supply and new farm implements replaced laborers. Often, women pursued off-farm work, but they remained essential to farm operations as their earnings helped family farms make ends meet.
FMC Cascade Tomato Harvester in Use, circa 1985 / THF146505
The adoption of mechanical tomato harvesters in the 1960s both industrialized tomato production and ushered in a countermovement of small growers and local food advocates. How could one machine prompt such contradictory but real changes in agriculture? The full story spans decades and reveals complex relationships of supply and demand—for both agricultural products and the people who grow and harvest them.
Shortage and Struggle
California’s labor shortage threatened the supply of processing tomatoes for ketchup, sauces, tomato juice, canned tomatoes, and other products. Can label, "Del Monte Brand Spanish Style Tomato Sauce," circa 1930. / THF294183, detail
To meet rising demand for processing tomatoes (to be made into ketchups, sauces, tomato juice, canned tomatoes, and other products) in the early 20th century, growers needed laborers to pick them. Those laborers, in turn, needed living wages. Tensions between growers and laborers came to a head during the New Deal era of the 1930s, when government policies promised minimum wages, maximum hours, and workers’ compensation. Yet, lobbyists working for growers and agricultural processers convinced policy makers to exempt agricultural workers from these protections.
Laborers voted with their feet, seeking employment beyond farm fields. This caused a critical labor shortage that became even more acute during World War II for growers raising tomatoes and other crops in California and beyond. To meet demand, the United States and Mexican governments negotiated the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement. This guest labor program brought millions of farmworkers, known as braceros, from Mexico to work in the United States for short periods of time between 1942 and 1964.
A chain of events during the 1960s called attention to the plight of agricultural laborers. Edward R. Murrow’s television documentary Harvest of Shame (1960) highlighted the precarious existence of migrant laborers who worked picking perishable fruits and vegetables in the Midwest and along the East Coast. The Bracero Program expired in 1964, reducing the number of available laborers and increasing growers’ dependence on the existing labor pool. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, along with other anti-poverty and housing legislation, made it clear that migratory and seasonal laborers had the right to humane treatment.
On the West Coast, Filipino laborers organized as part of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. Seeking better wages and a more favorable rate of payment, they launched a grape strike that expanded into Delano, California, in 1965. The National Farm Workers Association, consisting mostly of Mexican migratory workers, joined the cause. This coordinated effort resulted in a new organization, the United Farm Workers (UFW), with Cesar Chavez as president.
The organizing efforts of groups like the United Farm Workers to secure better wages and living conditions for agricultural laborers in California gained national attention in the 1960s. United Farm Workers flag, circa 1970. / THF94392
The UFW devised innovative solutions to increase pressure on growers, and—especially due to the efforts of co-founder Dolores Huerta—built the Delano grape strike into a national boycott. This focused attention on basic needs for migratory and seasonal laborers. In addition to ensuring some protections for individuals, the coordinated effort secured the right for migratory and seasonal laborers as a class to collectively bargain.
Engineering a Solution to Labor Shortages
Tomato growers, keen on getting their crop planted, cultivated, and harvested at the optimum times, were interested in mechanical solutions that could address labor shortages. Mechanizing the harvest of this perishable commodity, however, proved to be a time-consuming challenge.
Scientists at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), sought a labor shortage solution through mechanical and biological engineering. Research and development begun in the 1940s finally resulted in the successful design of both a mechanical tomato harvester (created in partnership with Blackwelder Manufacturing Company) and a tomato that could withstand mechanical harvesting (the VF145).
Top: UC Davis vegetable crops researcher Gordie “Jack” Hanna developed the machine-harvestable VF145 tomato. Bottom: An early mechanical tomato harvester underway. Images from the 1968 USDA Yearbook, Science for Better Living. / THF621133 and THF621134
By 1961, Blackwelder had released a commercial harvester and recommended the VF145 tomato for optimum mechanical harvesting. FMC Corporation released a competing harvester by 1966. Manufacturers touted the labor-saving value of mechanical harvesters at a time when the supply of laborers was too small to meet demand, and the adoption of this new technology was swift. In 1961, 25 mechanical harvesters picked about one-half of one percent of California’s tomato crop. Between 1965 and 1966, the number of harvesters doubled from 250 to 512 and the percentage of mechanically harvested tomatoes in California rocketed from 20 percent to 70 percent. By 1970, the transition was complete, with 99.9 percent of California’s tomato crop harvested mechanically. (For more, see Mark Kramer’s essay, "The Ruination of the Tomato," in the January 1980 issue of The Atlantic.)
Some might claim mechanical harvesters helped save California’s processed tomato industry—by 1980, California growers produced 85 percent of that crop. But a closer look reveals a more complicated cause-and-effect. While growers could theoretically save their crop by replacing some labor with machines, many small-scale growers could not save their businesses from large-scale competition. By 1971, the number of tomato farmers had dropped by 82 percent. (This consolidation was mirrored elsewhere in the industry, as just four companies—Del Monte, Heinz, Campbell, and Libby’s—processed 72 percent of tomatoes by 1980.)
Tomato harvester advertisements promised farmers could save their businesses by replacing scarce laborers with machines, but many small-scale growers could not save themselves from large-scale competitors. Advertisement for FMC Corporation Tomato Harvester, circa 1966. / THF610767
A group of growers sued UC Davis, challenging the school for investing so much to develop the tomato harvester without spending comparable resources to address the needs of small farmers.In response, UC Davis opened its Small Farm Center, an advocacy center for alternative farmers, in 1979. These events coincided with wider efforts to hold the United States Department of Agriculture accountable for unequal distribution of support, resulting in increased attention at the national level to economically disadvantaged and ethnically diverse farmers. Around this same time, food activist Alice Waters raised awareness through her advocacy of locally sourced foods. Her restaurant, Chez Panisse, founded in Berkeley, California, in 1971, became an anchor for the burgeoning Slow Food movement.
So, while mechanical tomato harvesters—like the one on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation—represent large-scale scientific and industrial advances, they also offer insight into this country’s complex labor history and help tell stories about small-scale farmers and their connections to communities, customers, and all of us who eat.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture & the Environment at The Henry Ford. Adapted by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Machine-harvesting new tomato varieties, as depicted in the 1968 USDA Yearbook, Science for Better Living. / detail, THF621132
For millennia, people have domesticated plants and animals to ensure survival—this process is agriculture. And while most of us neither grow crops nor raise livestock, agriculture affects all our lives, every day: through the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the fuel we use to move from place to place.
But agriculture is also the changing story of how this work is done. At every step, people have created new technology and tools to challenge nature’s limitations and to reduce the physical labor required to plant, cultivate, and harvest.
People produced much of what they ate until processed foods became big business in the United States during the late 1800s. As market demand increased, and commercial growing and canning grew, it prompted changes in farming. Take the tomato. Canning required ample quantity to guarantee supply, and vast fields of perishable crops required rapid harvest to ensure delivery of the best crop to processors.
Workers harvest tomatoes by hand at a Heinz farm in 1908. / THF252058
But mechanizing the tomato harvest required changing the crop—the tomato itself—so it could tolerate mechanical harvesting. During the 1940s and 1950s, crop scientists cross-pollinated tomatoes to create uniform sizes and shapes that matured at the same time, and with skins thick enough to withstand mechanical picking.
Agricultural engineers developed harvesting machines that combined levers and gears to dislodge tomatoes from the stalk and stem. But humans remained part of the harvesting process. At least eight laborers rode along on the machines and removed debris from the picked fruit.
In 1969, the first successful mechanical harvester picked tomatoes destined for processing as sauce, juice, and stewed tomatoes.
The 1968 United States Department of Agriculture Yearbook, Science for Better Living, depicted new machine-harvestable tomato varieties that “all ripen near same time, come from vine easily, and are firm fruited.” The oblong shape reduced rolling and bruising. / THF621135
Today, all processed tomatoes—the canned products you find on grocery store shelves—make their way from field to table via the levers, gears, and conveyor belts of a mechanical harvester. But you can still buy a hand-picked tomato at your local farmers’ market—or grow your own.
The process of growing food still involves planting and nurturing a seed. But exploring agriculture in all its complexity helps us recognize the many effects of human interference in these natural processes—an ever-changing story that affects all our daily lives.
Adapted by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, from a film in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation’s Agriculture and the Environment exhibit. The team that wrote and refined the film script included Debra Reid, Curator of Agriculture & the Environment; Ryan Jelso, Associate Curator, Digital Content; Ellice Engdahl, Manager, Digital Collections & Content; and Aimee Burpee, Associate Registrar—Special Projects.
Pumpkins offer the perfect opportunity to connect art with agricultural science.
All pumpkins are plants classified within one of five domesticated species of squash (genus Cucurbita). All are native to the Americas. Indigenous people domesticated them and improved them over generations by saving seeds and tending the next crop. Great variety exists because of this long and ongoing process. The histories of heritage varieties within genus Cucurbita acknowledge this legacy.
The following items within The Henry Ford’s collections add some complexity to the great pumpkin story.
Corn and Pumpkins at Firestone Farm, October 2, 2021 / Photo by Debra A. Reid
Connections Between Pumpkins (Squash) and Corn
Today, the story of the “three sisters”—corn, squash, and beans—reminds us of the indigenous origins of these three staple crops. The rest of the story acknowledges the ways that colonization destroyed indigenous cultures, and the ways that Euro-American agriculture co-opted selective agricultural practices over time. Great variation exists across regions and time. From this vantage point, the cultivation of pumpkins with corn represents a strategy adopted by Euro-Americans, especially in the northeastern and midwestern United States. Their goal focused on feeding themselves and their livestock.
The degree to which farm families grew pumpkins changed over time and differed depending on region of the country. A correspondent to the Michigan Farmer and Western Agriculturalist argued that “the practice of planting pumpkins in the same hill as corn, is not the best. What is gained in the pumpkin is lost in the corn. Where there is a thrifty pumpkin vine, there will be meagre ears of corn” [Eli Wooden, Pulaski, Michigan, May 8, 1843, published in Vol. 1, No. 7 (May 15, 1843), page 49].
Others advocated intercropping. Promotional material for the Triumph hand-operated corn planter urged farmers to purchase a pumpkin seed attachment so they could plant their pumpkins at the same time they planted their corn. “It takes no extra time or labor to plant Pumpkin Seeds when you are planting corn with Kent’s Triumph Planter. It takes no extra ground, no extra care.” In fact, as manufacturer A. C. Kent explained, “No farmer can afford to do without one.” The card described a bountiful pumpkin crop as excellent cattle feed. “Cows fed on them will give rich milk and fine flavored yellow butter,” and the material further asserted that cows fed no pumpkin rations would give neither.
Trade Card for Triumph Corn Planter with Pumpkin Seed Attachment, A. C. Kent Company, circa 1885 /THF208298
The intercropping of squash and corn served a purpose, but worked best in certain conditions. Corn and squash both need nitrogen, which beans (a legume) help the soil retain. Removing beans from the equation leaves two nitrogen-hungry crops competing for limited quantities in the same soil. Squash and corn plants both need large quantities of phosphorus, too, and squash vines also need potassium to thrive.
Farming Pumpkins in Indiana, 1920-1929, detail / THF149097
Farmers already practicing intensive animal husbandry could manure their intercropped fields with composted organic manure—preferably pig, chicken, or sheep manure with higher concentrations of nitrogen and other nutrients. This enriched the soil with the nutrients needed to yield a field of pumpkins and corn, as the detail above from a Keystone stereograph, “Farming Pumpkins in Indiana,” shows. Farmers that did not practice intensive animal husbandry needed to plan for decreased yields if they persisted in intercropping corn and squash. Mechanizing the corn harvest, a process that started in earnest during the 1920s, eliminated the tradition of planting squash in corn fields.
Agricultural science factored heavily into farmer decisions, but romantic notions of the pumpkin-corn relationship persisted largely because of associations expressed through poetry and adopted as part of regional popular culture.
Massachusetts abolitionist and poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892) waxed eloquent about the pumpkin in the context of corn fields and harvest rituals in “The Pumpkin,” likely written in 1844, and published in Poems by John G. Whittier (1849).
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!
When we laughed round the corn-heap, with hearts all in tune
Our chair a broad pumpkin – our lantern the moon…
Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley (1853–1916) further popularized the connections between pumpkins and corn fields with his poem, “When the Frost is on the Pun’kin,” published in 1888. Riley cast the rituals involved with fall harvest—“the gathering time,” as he called it—as fulfilling and regenerative practices. All occurred within the context of corn shocks with pumpkins stacked at their base, likely positioned there for a few days for the rind to “harden” prior to transport either to a storage bin or to market. An educational stereograph emphasized these connections by featuring verses from both Whittier’s and Riley’s poems.
Wagon Carrying Pumpkins at the Ten Eyck Farm, Dearborn, Michigan, circa 1905 / THF149092
The harvest really started the process of marketing the golden pumpkin. Processing pumpkin and squash is time-consuming. During the late-nineteenth century, canning technology created new commercial opportunities for farmers who contracted with canning companies to raise field pumpkins. The canners packed pumpkin and squash pulp into cans and decorated them with colorful labels that indicated the contents: “golden pumpkin.” An illustrated children’s book, The Pearl and the Pumpkin (c. 1904), featured a canner seeking choice pumpkins whose quest was disrupted by carving pumpkins for Hallowe’en.
Can Label, "Butterfly Brand Golden Pumpkin," 1880-1895 / THF113859
Cultivars of Cucurbita
Almost all summer squash fall within the Cucurbita pepo or C. pepo variety. Humans consider them most edible when immature—that is, before their rind hardens and seeds form. But mature summer squash can be stored for short periods of time and can be used for livestock feed. The Connecticut field pumpkin, the go-to for many canning companies, is also C. pepo.
The crookneck squash, a native of the eastern United States, makes an appearance in John Greenleaf Whittier’s ode, “The Pumpkin.” The crookneck grows on bush-type vines, yields edible fruit within 43 days of planting, and has either a warty or a smooth rind that protects a firm interior noted for its buttery and sweet flavor.
Two Members of the Woman's National Farm and Garden Association Feature Crookneck Squash while the Woman in the Middle Displays Two Cabbages, 1918 / THF288950
The pattypan squash, also known by many other names (including scallop squash), grows on bush-type vines, starts to yield about 50 days after planting, and produces squash for weeks. Gardeners hauled these attractive squash to market, as seen in the left foreground of this photograph of street vendors at Richmond, Virginia’s Sixth Street Market. The squash, along with watermelon, other melons, and sweet corn, affirmed the bounty of summer.
Sixth Street Market, Richmond, Va., 1908-1909 / THF278870
Winter squash species of Cucurbita are meant to be harvested only when fully mature. The largest of these species, C. maxima, includes one of the most marketable of all squash, the Boston Marrow. It takes approximately 105 days to mature and weighs around 15 pounds on average.
Hiram Sibley & Co. "Squash Boston Marrow" Seed Packet, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888 / THF278982
Seed companies described the Boston Marrow as having “excellent flavor” (from a Hiram Sibley Co. seed packet) and being unsurpassed in sweetness (from the D.M. Ferry & Co. 1882 catalog, page 56). The flavor, much celebrated, got the attention of canning companies from coast to coast. Olney & Floyd, located near markets swayed by the Boston Marrow’s reputation, featured the squash on its label. Across the country, the California-based Del Monte brand included a prototypical Boston Marrow on its “Squash” label, but the generic name implied the inclusion of other pie-worthy squash.
Can Label, "Butterfly Brand Boston Marrow Squash," 1890-1920 / THF294193
The Hubbard squash, another C. maxima, gained market share during the late-nineteenth century. Seed purveyors, including Detroit seed company D. M. Ferry, described it as “the best winter squash known … sweet and rich flavored” and “as good baked as the sweet potato” (page 56). A polychrome print in D. M. Ferry’s 1882 seed catalogue included a dark-green Hubbard among the “12 best varieties of Vegetables.” The illustration did not do justice to the squash, however, which averaged around 15 pounds, but could top scales at 50 pounds.
Winter squash could survive months in storage. Research by horticulturalists hoped to extend that life to take advantage of higher market prices during late-winter months. William Stuart of the Vermont Experiment Station in Burlington recorded changes in weight and moisture levels for one ton of Hubbard squash to document best storage practices. He explained that farmers could minimize loss by harvesting the squash only when they were fully matured. He advised farmers to cut the fruit from the vine, leaving the stem attached, and to “harden” the fruit for two to three days in the field before moving them to storage bins. Farmers needed to handle their harvest “as one would handle eggs” because breaking stems or bruising them would hasten decay. Such care could return $50 per ton at market during February and March, compared to $15 to $20 per ton during the fall harvest season (“Storage of Hubbard Squash,” Farmers’ Bulletin 342: Experiment Station Work XLIX (1908), pages 18–19).
How Big Does Your C. maxima Grow?
Prize Pumpkins, Yakima Valley, Washington, 1904 / THF122617
Agricultural publications often celebrated exceptionally large squash. The Michigan Farmer noted “A MAMMOTH squash” weighing 126 pounds was displayed at the Horticultural Exhibition in New Haven, Connecticut [Vol. 1, no. 17 (October 16, 1843), pg. 133]. Might the MAMMOTH squash have been a Mammoth Gold or other member of C. maxima? Was Charlie Brown’s great pumpkin a Mammoth Gold?
It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, 1967 / THF610382
Concerns about the preservation and perpetuation of indigenous squash and other Cucurbita cultivars led to the formation of Native Seeds/SEARCH in 1983. Volunteers collected and preserved endangered traditional seeds from the Southwest. Today the Native Seeds/SEARCH seed bank includes nearly 2,000 crops suited to arid southwestern North America, from Colorado to central Mexico. This area factored prominently in domestication of Cucurbita, and the urgency to understand biodiversity in context has only increased in the decades since its founding.
Today, Native Seeds/SEARCH remains committed to seed preservation and propagation, but also emphasizes the knowledge required to grow them. Adapting crops to ensure sustainable ecosystems and food security into the future now represents the mission of Native Seeds/SEARCH:
The resilience of our food systems depends on agricultural biodiversity, as farmers and plant breeders can draw on the myriad genetic combinations as raw materials to develop new varieties better adapted to an uncertain and changing environment. Climate change, water scarcity, new and more virulent crop pests and diseases—all of these troubling trends currently threatening our food security require a wide pool of genetic diversity to prevent catastrophic crop failure and famine.
Hopefully these variations on Cucurbita inspire you to learn more.
Michigan Farmer and Western Agriculturalist. 1843.
[Riley, James Whitcomb]. “When the Frost is on the Punkin,” in “The Old Swimmin’-hole” and ‘Leven More Poems by Benj. F. Johnson, of Boone. Sixth Ed. Indianapolis, Indiana: The Bowen-Merrill Co., 1888. Pages 31-33.
William Ford’s farm, depicted in an 1876 county atlas. / THF116253
Farm families in the late 1800s often maintained orchards. Just a couple of apple, pear, plum, or cherry trees could ensure a varied diet and foodstuffs to preserve for winter. And those with land to spare could raise enough excess produce to bring to market.
William Ford, Henry Ford’s father, raised apples for market on his Dearborn, Michigan, farm. The image above, from an 1876 county atlas, shows orchard trees, and the 1880 census of agriculture (collected by the census taker in the summer of 1879) reported 200 apple trees on 4½ acres of the Ford farm—a number that would produce apples well beyond the Ford family’s needs.
Forty years later, apple trees remained part of the landscape at the farmhouse, which was restored by Henry Ford in 1919. Ford’s historical architect, Edward Cutler, drew a map that situated the homestead among outbuildings and trees. It’s difficult to make out, but Cutler identified three varieties of apple trees there—Wagner, Snow, and Greening—that were presumably grown during Henry Ford’s childhood.
At that time, illustrations from horticultural sales books and descriptions in period literature would have helped customers like the Fords determine what fruit tree varieties to buy. An 1885 book on American fruit trees described the Wagner as an early bearer of tender, juicy apples that could be harvested in November and keep until February. A nurseryman’s specimen book itemized the merits of the Snow, “an excellent, productive autumn apple” whose flesh is “remarkably [snow-]white, tender, juicy and with a slight perfume.” And an 1867 book touted the Rhode Island Greening as “a universal favorite” that bears an enormous fruit superior for cooking.
Wagner, Snow, and Rhode Island Greening apple varieties, as illustrated in nurseryman’s specimen books. / THF620189, THF620326,THF620178
When Ford Home was relocated to Greenfield Village in early 1944, Edward Cutler made efforts to represent the surrounding vegetation as Henry Ford remembered it. He included apple trees, though age and condition took their toll on those plantings in the decades that followed. In 2019, The Henry Ford’s staff collaborated with Michigan State University’s Extension Office on a plan to keep the fruit trees of the historic landscapes throughout Greenfield Village healthy. Their strategy involved replacing heritage trees with young stock of the same variety. As part of this project, in April of that year, groundskeepers at The Henry Ford planted new Wagner, Snow, and Rhode Island Greening trees at Ford Home.
Kyle Krueger of The Henry Ford’s Grounds team plants a new Wagner apple tree near Ford Home in Greenfield Village, April 18, 2019. / Photograph by Debra Reid
It will take as many as five years before these new trees bear fruit—as long as weather conditions and the trees’ health allow it—but in the meantime, visitors to Greenfield Village can walk the orchards to check on their progress!
Debra Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted for the blog by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content. It originally ran in a spring 2019 issue of The Henry Ford’s employee newsletter.
A wooden case encloses the working parts of the cotton gin model shown above, which is currently on display in the Agriculture & the Environment exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. When you turn the handle, a group of circular saw blades rotate, removing cotton seed from cotton fiber. To see that process, you’d have to dismantle the box and look inside. Such exploration helps us see how the machine functions. But much more about this cotton gin model remains hidden from view.
This gin helps us learn about one early inventor, Henry Ogden Holmes. He lived in South Carolina and worked as a blacksmith and mechanic on a plantation. In 1787, Holmes applied for a patent caveat—a document that protected his ownership of this invention. The U.S. Patent Office did not exist at that time, but President Washington signed the caveat on March 24, 1789, allowing Holmes’ ownership of his invention for five years.
You may wonder: Didn’t Eli Whitney invent the cotton gin? Whitney received his first cotton gin patent on March 14, 1794, days before Holmes’ caveat expired. Whitney’s gin used wire teeth on rollers to tear the fibers from the cotton seeds, though he adopted saw teeth in later patents. This paved the way for numerous lawsuits about who had the right to claim the cotton gin as an invention.
This 1853 engraving, "The Levee at New Orleans," gives a sense of scale for cotton production in the American South in the mid-19th century. / THF204264
School children learn about Eli Whitney, but not about “Hogden” Holmes. Nor do they always learn about the negative consequences of the invention. Speeding up the process of removing seeds from cotton made it possible for growers to plant more cotton to meet demand from an expanding textile industry. To raise more cotton, they needed more land and labor—and this led to removal of Indian nations from, and expansion of enslavement into, the southeastern United States during the 1830s and 1840s.
This stereograph depicts people picking cotton while a man on horseback oversees the work. This juxtaposition reinforced associations between African Americans and enslavement, long after the Civil War. / THF278808
The history of the cotton gin has a long-standing and seemingly straightforward narrative based in problem solving and opportunity. But, just as technologies can have unintended consequences, so can stories conceal or stray.
This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.