Rural America: Farm Life as Photographed by Pete Wettach

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4-H in the 1950s, when projects were homegrown rather than purebreds. Dad and the kids went to the barnyard to pick out the best shorthorns from the herd and those became the 4-H project for the year. There was more to the project than a chance at a trophy. The focus was on the fundamentals of feeding, grooming, training and economics.
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 A good day on the farm: This farmer had the complete package – his boy, his dog, his pipe and his Farmall tractor.
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Grand champion lamb at the Henry County (Iowa) Fair. The boy’s hat dates the photo to the 1920s.
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The family worked together in the garden as well as on the farm. Here, a late summer tomato harvest is shown. The tractor and denim cap date this photo to the 1930s.
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Two eras overlap: Tractors and draft horses work side-by-side in this combining scene from the early 1940s.
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Shocking rye. Bundles were set up with grain heads in the air. Here, the farmer is flaring the last bundle to form a water-repellent “cap” that goes on top of the shock. Shocks were left in the field to dry before threshing.
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Livestock never take a day off. Here, the farmer feeds the “spring chickens” on Sunday morning before church.
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Putting up loose, long-stemmed hay with a harpoon hay fork. Between 200 and 400 pounds could be lifted with one stab of the fork.
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Putting up square bales with tractors. The boy driving the tractor on the hay fork gets the rookie’s job. An experienced farmer would place a 10-foot 2×4 on the ground in the driveway and explain the process. “Under no circumstance do you go beyond this point,” he’d say, “or you will pull the hay carrier right out of the end of the barn.” Clear instructions were an integral part of safety training on the farm.
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“Pitching and loading” clover hay. The man on the ground was the pitcher and the man on the wagon was the loader. All slept well at night after a day making hay.

If you want to revisit farm country of the past, photos taken by an amateur photographer are as close as you will get to the real thing. A.M. “Pete” Wettach’s lifelong fascination with photography presents a richly textured time capsule of life on the farm in Iowa over the course of six decades.

Wettach (1901-76) worked as a county supervisor for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s and 40s. As he made his rounds, he took photos of farmers, their families and their farms. Those shots, added to others taken before and after that job, culminated in a collection of more than 50,000 negatives and 10,000 prints.

No subject was too small to capture Wettach’s interest. His pictures of rural America cover a wide range: From feeding chickens to baling hay, literally every aspect of farm life was fair game for the amateur photographer. In the process, he showcased the determination, industry and resourcefulness of the American farmer during a period of immense challenge, major societal changes and technological evolution.

Today’s shutterbug stashes a digital camera the size of a business card into a shirt pocket. Wettach, however, toted a 12-pound Graflex camera that allowed the photographer only an upside-down view of his subjects. Born and raised in New Jersey and a graduate of Iowa State College (with a degree in animal husbandry), the self-taught hobbyist blended a passion for farm life with unblinking focus. The result: a remarkable catalog of the family farm in America. Browse the Image Gallery to see more.

For more information:

Images reprinted courtesy of the Iowa State Historical Society, Iowa City, Iowa, home of the Wettach archive of 50,000 negatives and 10,000 prints.

A gallery of Wettach images are on rotating display at the Johnson County Historical Society Museum, Coralville, Iowa: exit 242 on I-80, then one block south and one block east. Call (319) 351-5738 for more information.

Farm Collector Magazine
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