Monday, May 20, 2013

Travelin' Down Highway 83 with the Farm Security Administration Photographers

From 1937 to 1943, the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information employed 11 photographers to go out and document the hard scrabble life of rural American during the Depression and war years.

It takes some time, but those curious enough can get some glimpses of life along Highway 83 in those days online in the Library of Congress digital photography collection.
By far, my favorite of the photographers is John Vachon. Others were more famous or more technically adept, but Vachon took hundreds of pictures of my home state of Nebraska over the years. I first came across his work while looking through Library of Congress pictures for my first nonfiction book, The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder: And Other True Stories from the Pine Ridge-Nebraska Border Towns.
He took a pair of dramatic pictures of the now controversial town of Whiteclay, Nebr., in 1942 when he was taking pictures for the Office of War Information. I was thrilled when Texas Tech University Press went with my suggestion and chose one for the book cover. The designer Lindsay Starr won a Nebraska Center of the Book award for her adaption of the cover.
Vachon worked as a clerk in the FSA office, filing and organizing the photographs for a year, until he decided he would like to take a crack at photography himself. Apparently, looking at all those photographs for 12 months gave him a good eye for composition. He graduated to full-time photographer and his first solo trip out of the Washington, D.C., area was to Nebraska.
I have come across photos he has taken in communities along Highway 83 on three separate trips in 1938, 1940 and 1942.
Minot, Bismarck, and Max and are among the towns he portrayed in North Dakota. (Above and left is the state capitol building in Bismarck in 1942.) 
In the winter of 1940, he traveled through South Dakota as a blizzard bore down. (See picture of Murdo, SD below and left)  One can find pictures of Selby, Pierre, Murdo, and Mission in that state. Vachon would have traveled parts of Highway 83 as he went from town to town, although he did a lot of east-to-west traveling, too. Here is one he took south of Minot, which I appropriated for my Murder on Route 83 short. (Below)
Pictures of North Platte, Nebr., back when parts of it were still seedy, are some of my favorites. There are several 1938 saloon pictures including this one of piano player Mildred Irwin at the Palace Hotel (Above). He didn’t venture too far north or south on that trip because Highway 83 was still undeveloped.
Other legendary FSA photographers such as Dorthea Lange and Arthur Rothstein took pictures in areas along present-day Highway 83. Below and right is one Lange took of a migratory laborer’s wife near Childress, Texas in 1938.  Rothstein visited FSA camps in the Rio Grande Valley in 1942. Bottom left is one he took of a camp worker in Harlingen, Texas in 1942.
Last year, inspired by the 100th anniversary of the birth of Woody Guthrie and Vachon’s pictures, I created this video. A few Highway 83 pictures are among them. (CLICK HERE TO WATCH)
Some 164,000 of the FSA photos are digitized in the Library of Congress collection and available to view. I can spend hours looking through them.



 Stew Magnuson (stewmag (a) is the author of Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding: The American Indian Movement, the FBI, and their Fight to Bury the Sins of the Past published by the Now & Then Reader. It is available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iTunes. Buy it in paperback on or bookstores such as Plains Trading Company Booksellers, in Valentine, Neb., on Highway 83.   

Murdo, SD, 1940 (LOC: Vachon)

Wife of migrant worker, near Childress, TX, 1938 (LOC: Lange)

FSA Camper, Harlingen, TX, 1938 (LOC:Rothstein)

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