FARMS LOST AND FOUND
The history of 20th-century farm life in America comes alive in home movies. The introduction of 8mm cameras and film in 1933 made home movie-making affordable for many rural families, and thousands picked up cameras to record the rhythms and activities of daily life and special events on the farm and in the towns. This project seeks to collect, digitize, compile and redistribute home movies made by farmers and shot on farms between 1925 and 1980. Its two main objectives: to build a publicly accessible archives of historical farming footage documenting farm life and the working of the land, and use this material to present compiled programs in front of live audiences who will be encouraged to talk their way through the material — to identify and explain places and practices, ask questions of each other, and compare past, present and future.
The period between 1925 and 1980 coincides with a profound period of change for American agriculture, when mechanization, market forces and federal policy conspired to transform these farm families' relationships with the landscape. The archives of home movies we rescue from indifferent storage in basements and attics will comprise a veritable encyclopedia of farming techniques and rural life, and serve as a practical repository for today’s agrarians occupying many of the same landscapes as their forebears. We seek to use these films to encourage today’s agrarian futurists to study and emulate lost techniques worthy of revival, to show (among many other things) traditional building techniques and feeding practices, visible diversity of the meadows and non-chemical management of fencerows, what farmers wore while working and partying, and the continuities and differences between farm life in the past and today.
This series was instigated by Rick Prelinger, longtime moving image archivist, writer, filmmaker, film professor at UC Santa Cruz and (with Megan Prelinger) co-founder of Prelinger Library, longtime collaborator with The Greenhorns. After presenting 18 urban history programs (produced principally with home movies) between 2006-2015 in San Francisco, Oakland, Detroit and Los Angeles, Rick sought a way to bring this participatory community history method to rural audiences and to explore the rich archives of images showing the working landscape in collaboration with motivated (and vocal) audiences. But the root of this project actually dates back to 1991, when Rick presented two hours of rediscovered amateur film footage shot in 1938-39 in Britton, the northeastern South Dakota town where it was shot, before an audience who recognized their relatives and themselves at cornhusking bees, cattle auctions and holiday celebrations. Since that time Rick’s been convinced that historical moving images can be the kernel of intense community-building experiences, especially when audiences are actively involved. Rick currently operates Prelinger Archives, a repository of 14,000 home movies depicting everyday life, work, landscapes and ceremonies in America. He has collaborated with many community organizations to make urban history films, and received a Creative Capital grant in 2012 to make NO MORE ROAD TRIPS?, a feature film made from home movies documenting a dream road trip across North America, 1925-70.
Why Home Movies?
Home movie camerapeople documented almost every event and activity in mid-20th-century America. Rich in emotion and evidence, the surviving body of home movies constitutes an infinitely varied encyclopedia of people, places and activities, often spontaneous and unrehearsed. There are home movies from every state, town and neighborhood; films of homefront America during foreign wars; films shot at churches, schools and city halls; films of county and state fairs, cattle auctions, and harvests; films of trains and cars going by; films of housewives, heroes and hoboes. Home movies are the most vivid evidence of the contours of daily life, the appearance of our homes and workplaces and the body language of earlier generations. And while home movies evidence the past, they also point to the future. Many of today’s emerging farmers look to their forebears as practitioners of agricultural techniques worthy of rediscovery, and look for documentation of past practices. Home movies will play a key role in finding the way to the future through the past.
Rick is delighted to work in collaboration with the Greenhorns a young farmers organization, already familiar at the library through its publication of the New Farmers Almanac, which is rich with archival and found materials most of them from the Prelinger library. Our collaboration is both in collecting the materials, assessing thematic threads, and in distributing the evolving remix-kaleidoscope in community settings across rural America. Thanks to the momentum from our 2015 “ Grange Future Tour” we're planning Grange Future tours in Oregon and the Northeast in partnership with the Rural Academy Theater, a troop of populist puppeteers. The Adirondack portion of this tour, in particular, has a full set of programming attached, from draft-horse trials with partners DAP-net , lessons in silvi-pasture and forest-sports at Paul Smith's College, practical workshops on affordable historic preservation techniques for farmers restoring old farmhouses in the Champlain valley, to a lecture on this history of cooperation at our local grain-mill. ( and much more)
Statement of Intention:
We will begin by soliciting home movies from farm families and their kin and reviewing films already in the Prelinger collection. We estimate that we already have 250 home movies depicting some aspect of farm and rural life. In exchange for permission to use these materials in public programs and for research, we will scan the materials to HD video and (if desired) return original materials plus video files to the families that made them. The HD video files we create will form the nucleus of the Rural Reels archives, which we’ll tag by location, family name, region, technique, activity and more.
The archives itself will be the base for a regular series of public programs that we’ll present before live audiences, who we’ll encourage to talk their way through the show. In partnership with Internet Archive, a nonprofit digital library, we will also place raw historical footage online for research and screening together with the tags and annotations we and our audiences create.
Our goal is to create a collection and presentation from a relatively short period of American family farm life. We will create an archive of these ephemeral, amateur/ home-movies made during the 1920's-1980's covering two distinct periods of prosperity and crisis. The films were usually created as a familial archive, which makes them tender portraits of a past-present. Because they are farmers, the relationship with place, with the work and mechanics of agriculture is often quite central to the films. We will be delving into the collection to discover the themes and topics prominent in the minds, and view-finders of the filmmakers. While we have some expectation based on …. because this is a collection that has only just begun, it is still a mystery what will emerge.
This present moment, ' between the generations' is an overlap in demographic experience and also land-ownership. Farmers alive today remember horses on the landscape, and often cared for those animals as children. They remember buying their own farm, and seeing a large family supported by relatively smaller landbase. Today, similar farmers have no hope of buying a farm, or supporting a family-- and with an estimated 400 million acres of US farmland in ownership transition over the next 2 decades-- the question of who will own, and farm this land remains largely unanswered. If current trends indicate the direction of travel, this land will become consolidated into larger and larger parcels, owned by absentee investment groups, equity funds. This would follow on the heels of a previous era of concentration- particularly poignant through the farm-crisis of the 1980's where more than 1/3 of family farms went out of business-- and the resultant simplification of farming systems. Finding a way to talk about the cultural, and political economy impact of this disorienting trend is challenging, we think home-movies are a good way in. Though the memories and memorabilia of the generation of farmers who bore witness-- we can learn how devastating loss-- of farming-life ways, hedgerows, barns, small-town life, small town shops and services, and even the health of the streams and rivers.
Archiving the work of former generations, should not be limited only to film or cultural documentation--- similar efforts are needed in documenting and preserving a living lineage of mechanical, political and biological systems as well. The Grange is well suited to these practices, but time is short. In the northeast, this past, (coldest on record) winter killed many of the stately trees, from in front of our early farmhouses. These locusts, oaks, beeches, elms, hickories, pears, apples, planted by the first and second settlers in many areas, were planted within a farm-system which is now almost totally displaced. Many of these trees are still standing, quietly bearing un-harvested fruit, setting out a hopeful set of seeds, waiting to be re-discovered and preserved. These trees hold more than a cultural lineage of cider-making, and pork-fattening, as grand-mother trees, used as hitching posts and cradle-swings, they hold the latent genetics of a non-chemical agriculture, and the flavoring for hard cider.
Agrarian Futurism is on the rise, as young farmers envision and enact a kind of 'scar-tissue' approach to repairing and revising many of the abandoned practices and diverse, wild-edge land-use techniques. These patient orchards, which sat and waited under brambles are now being re-discovered, and re-awakened by top-workers making home-brew hard cider, and madly propagating their 'found' varieties. These apples are the target of a new generation of ' fruit explorers, ' no longer scouring the colonies for botanical conquest, but instead scanning historic letters+ correspondence with nurseries, the backyards of Quakers, and keeping a wild-eye open to the emergent genetics from abandoned hedgerow-trees. This is the active, production-oriented, historically literate agrarian movement we are working to serve.
Timeline/ Description of the Project:
# hours/ budget
Soliciting for materials
The following is a list of places where we will reach out for materials and advertise our growing online archive.
Agricultural History Association
The "show" will evolve over time, as more material is added and examined-- it will iterate as it travels, growing like a snowball, and attracting contributions from the places it visits. A perfect late-evening activity, this video presentation can fit into a multi-aspect traveling exhibit about rural lives and livelihoods, extending the conversation from recent and more distant history, towards the future actions and actors on the land. We will use the show as an attractant to community organizing efforts around the revival and enlivenment, particularly, of a 150 year old farmers organization, known as the Grange, or "Patrons of Husbandry". The range of activities of Grangers, and farmers over the last century extend beyond the field's edge, from co-packing, warehousing+cold-storage, milling and combine-repair-- the activities we'll see in the films reflect very much the mission at hand in these small towns, as we move from a period of monoculture, into a more diverse, resilient and multi-layered production. We feel this institution of the Grange, particularly, with its modest kitchens, piano, dance/ lecture halls and populist agenda holds a crucial social potential, and holds it already in a fraternal commons, without mortgage. Along with the physical infrastructure, the grange offers a scaffold and pattern of kinship and community purpose which has proven a crucial understory for cooperative efforts, particularly the cooperative effort of rebuilding infrastructure of small and medium-sized farms. The future, if it is pleasant, will require us to learn, and re-learn many new skills, and to repair, rebuild and invent a resilient farming, a design process we can cherish.
Rick Prelinger, Prelinger LIbrary
Agricultural Home-movies from your basement or attic.
Have you seen a collection of carefully labeled, mysterious yellow boxes of film-reel in your back cubbord or barn?
Probably, you've never even watched these films, since they're not on a digital, VCR format, but don't' want to throw them out?
Well then, we're a match!
We are a young farmers organization working in collaboration with experienced archivists in a large-scale project to collect, compile and digitize family farm videos from the early period of home-movie making.
If you have such farm films, we can create a digital version for your personal use, in exchange for access to selections that we share with a broader audience.
We're interested in the farming practices and family stories in these videos and happy to be helpful in making sure they don't end up in the garbage pile, lost from history!
Learn more at our Rural Landscape Archives Page