Past Forward

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Women and the Working Farms of Greenfield Village

November 2, 2023
Firestone Farmhouse at Its Original Site, Columbiana County, Ohio, circa 1876, Robert, Harvey and Elmer with Grandmother Sally Anne Firestone

Sally Ann Firestone with her grandchildren at their farmhouse in Columbiana County, Ohio, circa 1876. / THF115221

How should we answer the question, “Did women do farmwork?” In the time periods and regions interpreted at the working farms of Greenfield Village — here we examine the Daggett, Firestone and Mattox family farms — men typically worked in the fields and barnyards, and women worked in and around the farmhouse. (This contrasted markedly with Indigenous American and African cultures that operated with a matrilineal worldview and in which women had authority over farm work. Women in these cultures worked fields and processed, preserved and stored food.) Because of this gendered division, some argue that only men truly did farmwork. However, farmwork ebbed and flowed between fields and barnyards and the farmhouse. In the farmhouse and surrounding yard, women nursed orphaned livestock, started seeds, preserved food, discussed farmwork and market strategies, and prepared meals three times every day to maintain their family’s health. Everyone did farmwork, and no one found relief from it.

Presenter Working at Daggett Farmhouse in Greenfield Village, April 2006

Presenter working in the gardens at Daggett Farmhouse in Greenfield Village, April 2006. / THF16442

Anna Daggett (1734-1832) — Northeastern Connecticut, 1750

Evidence of Anna Daggett’s day-to-day work is scarce. We know far more about Samuel, the farmer and housewright she married in 1754. However, though Anna's role is not specifically called out in the historical record, we can deduce from sources such as Samuel's account book (now in the collections of the Connecticut Historical Society) that in addition to tending young children, Anna also managed agricultural processing and domestic chores like spinning yarn and making clothing. Studies of the region at this period indicate that Anna may have helped with hoeing corn, raking hay and stacking sheaves of grain to cure in the fields. She may also have led the family in berry picking and nut gathering. In addition, Anna would have had to milk cows twice a day and process all of the farm’s dairy products, churning butter and making cheese. In the fall, Anna likely worked with her family to pull ears of corn from their stalks and husk them. During winter, she would have processed butchered meats and offal. When spring arrived, Anna would have planted and hoed the kitchen gardens, tended to newly freshened cows and cared for poultry, which provided eggs.

Catherine Flickinger Firestone with Her Mother and Sisters, circa 1880

Catherine Firestone relied on the help of experienced female relatives — including her mother-in-law, Sally Ann, pictured at the top of this post — to complete many tasks. This portrait shows Catherine (front, left) with her mother (front, center) and sisters, circa 1880. / THF124774

Catherine Firestone (1838-1916) — Northeastern Ohio, 1880s

At the farm of Catherine and Benjamin Firestone, who married in 1863, women took care of the children, cooking, baking, laundry, cleaning, and sewing and mending. The Henry Ford’s former curator of public life, Donna Braden, has written that women like Catherine also “did some of the farm chores, including milking the cows, preparing dairy products (especially butter), looking after the chickens and gathering eggs, overseeing smaller livestock, planting and maintaining a garden, and sometimes assisting with the field planting and harvesting. They were responsible for all preserving, pickling and drying of foods, as well as for helping with the preparation of maple sugar in the spring and the butchering and processing of meat in the fall.”

Mattox Family Home

Rear view of the Mattox Family Home in Greenfield Village. In addition to grapes, the arbor on the right provided Grace Mattox and her family some shade in which to work outdoors. / THF1967

Grace Mattox (born circa 1891) — Southwestern Georgia, 1930s

Grace Mattox cared for her children, prepared family meals and pitched in to help her husband, Amos, whom she married in 1909, on their farm. Grace helped maintain the family’s corn and sweet potato crops as well as an orchard, grape arbor and garden where she grew squash, cucumbers, butter beans, okra, tomatoes, collard greens, hot peppers and cabbage. She helped care for their livestock, including chickens kept in the farmyard. In addition to her daily chores, Grace preserved fruits and vegetables to eat during the winter months, provided for elderly and sick neighbors, crocheted, quilted, and did “fancy work” embroidery. According to Sage Sampson, supervisor of living and inspiring history at Greenfield Village, “Grace was never idle.” But just one generation removed from slavery, she chose to focus her energy on her family, home and farm. Check out this blog post for more of her story.

Across the centuries and across the continent, women like Anna Daggett, Catherine Firestone and Grace Mattox performed essential tasks that sustained their families and kept their farms viable.

Debra Reid is curator of agriculture and the environment, and Saige Jedele is associate curator at The Henry Ford.