By the 1920s and 30s, there was widespread agreement that small-scale farming in New England was in steep decline. Yet a surprising number of people went “back to the land” in those decades, many of them prompted by the hardships of the Depression years and the availability of cheap land. They were also inspired by dreams of self-sufficiency, desires for a closer connection to rural living, and concerns about the directions that capitalism seemed to be headed in. Among the families who came to Wendell in search of these things were the Lewises of Maine, who bought an old Yankee farm on West Street in 1932 (above) and proceeded to teach themselves how to be farmers.
“They didn’t know how to milk a cow,” recalls Ted Lewis, one of the large family of Arthur and Inez Lewis. He and his siblings joked, “Don’t ever let Dad sharpen the saw, because it’ll never cut again.” But farming seemed preferable to struggling in the deeply depressed regional economy, where Arthur, a housepainter by trade, had been unable to find steady enough work to support the family. At least on the farm, there was food: like members of other rural families, Ted reports, “We never went hungry.”
The farm had been owned since the mid-nineteenth century by the Hudsons, who were among Wendell’s smaller-scale farmers. Nathan Hudson was born in Hingham, and his presence in Wendell by the 1860s suggests that he may have been part of a still earlier “back to the land” urge. After establishing himself on his farm, he married a woman from Ware. Like their neighbors, they had a diversified farm operation, producing primarily corn, potatoes, butter, hay, and meat. But unlike many farm families, they had only two children, a son and a daughter, neither of whom ever married. Nathan’s wife Melvina died in 1905, her son ten years later, and by 1910, the daughter, Cora, was living by herself on the family farm.
She continued to farm actively, but the combination of lack of help and a difficult economy–hard enough even in good times, with increasing competition for the products of small farms, but far worse when the Depression started in 1929–seems to have made it impossible for her to hold onto the property. By the time the Lewises became acquainted with the area, through farm-sitting for nearby friends, Cora’s 70-acre farm had been taken by the town in payment for back taxes. The Lewises were able to buy it for a price they could afford, and they let Cora stay on in an old schoolhouse on the property for some time, before she moved on to rent a room from other West Street neighbors.
Ted Lewis recalls that most of the farms in Wendell during his boyhood were producing food mainly for their own use, just as most of the earliest farmers in the area had done. Dairying and picking wild blueberries were the two main things that farm families did to earn cash. Most families had cars, but not tractors; horses were still the main source of draft power on the farm. The Lewises didn’t even have a horse, but used human muscle power for plowing, weeding, harvesting, and cutting wood for fuel. The level of work involved, plus the narrow margins of economic survival, encouraged a sense of thrift that earlier Yankees would have recognized and approved of. “You were taught not to waste,” Ted says.
The family had a pig each year and also raised chickens, cooking everything on a wood stove. The cows ate grass in the summers and hay, supplemented with beet pulp that the Lewises purchased, in the winters. In addition to picking blueberries for both home and commercial use, the Lewises and others gathered wild grapes, a favorite source for jelly (a sizable grapevine is still a feature of the front yard).
Ted Lewis married a woman from the neighboring farm and they eventually moved farther south on West Street, where Ted still lives. A long-time volunteer in many areas of town government, Ted has a long perspective on the changes that have taken place in Wendell over the past eight decades. Asked how he thinks the 1970s “back to the landers” compared with his parents’ homesteading efforts in the 1930s, he acknowledges that they seem similar in many ways. “I think they all tried to learn and grow,” he said. “They were people who wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of the cities, and Wendell has always been a very rural place where you could do that.”
For further reading
- On earlier cycles of homesteading in the US, see Dona Brown, Back to the Land: The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011).
- Photos by Cathy Stanton. Thanks to Kristina Stinson for permission to photograph the property.