35 Farming Rules from The Great Depression in Surry County

Workers on the Savedge Farm in Surry County, Virginia are loading a carat with peanut vines and moving them to the peanut-picking machine. Image courtesy of Mary Alma Savedge.

Workers on the Savedge Farm in Surry County, Virginia are loading a carat with peanut vines and moving them to the peanut-picking machine. Image courtesy of Mary Alma Savedge.


This article is written from memories of a young observer who was brought to Surry County in January 1932 as a three-week-old baby. My memories are therefore of the aftermath of the event, which lasted until World War II. Actually, it was only after the war that a more normal life resumed.

The thoughts to begin writing this article started upon cleaning up an old cultivator from our farm to put into Rogers' Store Museum. It was one I remember using in my youth. Called a sweep, cotton plough or middle buster, it was used to "lay by" (last cultivation of) crops. As I tried to scrape off the loose rust I noticed that in several places the bolts holding it together were entirely too long, with several larger nuts acting as washers. In a few places, a bolt was missing, although there were enough there to hold it together.

This brought back many memories of how we farmed, lived and survived during this period of great economic woe. I will attempt to give some as I remember them and the times. I will present them as "Rules" used to survive.

The first rule was, above all, pray and go to church. Other "rules" and memories included:

  1. Keep a box of all the old bolts, washers and nuts you have. You are going to need them. The same holds true for nails. I can remember my dad scratching through these boxes until he found enough, often different sizes and lengths, to do the job. Save any piece of wire.It is so useful. I do the same thing today.

  2. Keep a junk pile out back of all the old machinery that is worn out, obsolete and unusable. This becomes invaluable. Enough hunting and poking around often would provide a piece of iron that you could patch something you need.

  3. Never throw away any lumber. Just because one end is rotten does not mean it cannot be used for something.

  4. Save the seed from the biggest and sweetest watermelon and cantaloupe. This holds true for all the crops you raise. Keep your best corn and peanuts for seed. If a neighbor has better seed, try to arrange a swap.

  5. Keep all of your machinery well lubricated. Save used motor oil. Dip plough points and moldboards in used oil when you finish using them, they will be slick and ready to work next year.

  6. Treat your mules and horses well. Feed them enough and do not overwork them. You cannot make it without them.

  7. If it is likely to frost at night, pick all the tomatoes, etc. you have. Put them in a dry warm place on some old paper. They will last a while. Hill your potatoes so they do not freeze.

  8. Help your neighbors. It is the right thing to do and you might be the next to need help.

  9. If your neighbor is sick, plant his crops for him. After all, if his crop does not get planted, he has no hope of making it. If necessary, raise and harvest them too. I remember 5-6 tractors ploughing a sick neighbor's farm at one time.

  10. Learn the skills necessary to keep machinery going. If a babbitt bearing in the peanut picker wears out before lunch, pour a new one over lunchtime so you don't lose time harvesting your crop.

  11. Keep a good relation with the local country store. It's likely one of few places that will give you credit. Often they can order things you need that they do not have in stock.

  12. Save and refill your used shotgun shells. It is much cheaper than buying new ones.

  13. Hunting is much more than just a sport. It provides a variety of different proteins to the diet. Be generous with what you get.

  14. Fishing also provides protein and can be done over most of the year. Be generous.

  15. Look for any opportunity to bring in some cash. If there is a market for fur, run a trapline.

  16. If the county is paying 50 cents a day to work on the roads, and another 50 cents to provide a team and wagon, do it. After all, some things require cash.

  17. See if your neighbor without a car needs anything from town before you go.

  18. Know that if you keep ringing your dinner bell anytime, night or day, your neighbors will know you need help and come running.

  19. Learn that you don't have to buy paint to paint the house, mix white lead (illegal now) and turpentine to make it.

  20. In off seasons, keep your ditches open. You will make better crops.

  21. Cut and stack more wood than you expect to need for heat and cooking this winter. It's better to have some get old and full of bugs than to run out.

  22. Learn how to use dynamite to blow out those stumps that keep on breaking plough points.

  23. Learn how to have fun without spending any money.

  24. Beware of traveling salesmen with miracle products to sell.

  25. You felt fortunate if you had a neighbor with a crank telephone.

  26. First things first! A neighbor farming approximately 60 acres had no automobile, but sent their two children to college, where they graduated.

  27. Avoid debt. After all, local families had lost their farms for small debts ever since the times after the Civil War.

  28. Take care of family. Kinfolk without jobs, elderly relations, kids without parents, take them all in.

  29. Clothes from feedbags, sheets with seams in them, shoes with glue-on soles, hand-me-downs, patches.

  30. City folk were often in worse shape. They came back home to the farm to survive. Food, shelter and love, we had.

  31. When the school bus broke down, a farmer would deliver the children in a wagon behind his tractor.

  32. Peanuts sold for as little as fifty cents a 100 lb. bag. They often did not even weigh them but it was some money.

  33. Try to cut and stack enough hay for a year and a half in good years. Next year you may have a drouth and need it. Year-old hay is better than no hay.

  34. An Aladdin lamp was considered a luxury.

  35. Small indulgences: I remember the first nickle candy bar I had all for myself, a Baby Ruth, bought by my uncle Wallace Lafoon at the store at Rt. 615 and Rt. 40.

These are my memories, tales told, stories related, and perhaps some exagerations. It shows how we made it through tough times. But there is something unusual about the story. I did not know we were poor! As I grew up, there was little difference in how we lived as sharecroppers and how our neighbors who owned their farms lived. Having no basis of comparison, my memories are of a loving, caring community. It was the way things were. We were interdependent and caring.

There was no safety net, except our neighbors. There was no one who was rich, or even close. Those who had more, gave. Those who had less, also gave.

Thank you for reading! Help us continue publishing more historical pieces on Surry County, Virginia by contributing a donation to the Surry Historical Society.

James E. Atkins