Monday, January 4, 2021

Capturing the Local Faces of the Great Depression

by Erin Doane, Curator

In September 1940, Jack Delano, a photographer with the Farm Security Administration (FSA), arrived on Rumsey Hill near Erin, New York. His job was to document the challenges of rural poverty during the Great Depression. The FSA was a New Deal agency created in 1937 to help combat rural poverty. It emphasized rural rehabilitation programs that included purchasing submarginal land from poor farmers and resettling them on group farms. The agency’s most famous initiative was its photography program, which actually began under the preceding Resettlement Administration. When people today think of what American looked like during the Great Depression, it’s likely they’re thinking of images taken by FSA photographers.

Mrs. Garland and her little boy, Rumsey Hill, near Erin, New York

From 1935 through 1944, eleven photographers under the direction of Roy Stryker traveled throughout the United States documenting and humanizing those who struggled living in rural poverty. They photographed families from the dust bowl of the Great Plains, to shanty towns in California, to the submarginal farmland in northern Chemung County. In the nine years the program operated, 250,000 images were taken. Fewer than half of those survive and are now housed in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. You can view and search the collection online by visiting

Jack Delano was a Russian Jew who moved to the United States with his parents and younger brother in 1923 when he was nine years old. As a youth, he studied music, illustration, and photography. He was the ninth photographer hired by Stryker for the FSA photography program and he worked for the agency until 1943. He was 26 years old when he made his way to Rumsey Hill to document the farm families living there. There are 36 images from that time available in the Library of Congress’s digital archive Several of the images include information about the subjects. The following are some of those images and the descriptions that accompany them.

Mr. Jimson

Mr. Jimson, one of the oldest residents of Rumsey Hill. His family has been there ninety years and he knows everybody in the area. Has a ninety-acre farm in the submarginal farm area of Rumsey Hill, near Erin, New York.

Mr. Jimson

Mr. and Mrs. D’Annunzio

Mr. D'Annunzio, Italian farmer who has been living on submarginal area of Rumsey Hill for a year. He was an unemployed auto mechanic in the city. Hasn't farmed much. Is trying to fix up the old house and roof before winter comes. They have been living in Rumsey Hill for a year.

Mr. and Mrs. D’Annunzio in front of their house in Rumsey Hill

Mrs. D’Annunzio

Mr. Miller 

Mr. Miller, farmer and minister. He is the only Negro farmer in the submarginal area of Rumsey Hill, near Erin, New York. He came about seven years ago after having farmed in Tennessee and New Jersey. His farm is on the very crest of the hill and he is doing a little better than most of his neighbors. His two boys go to high school and his wife works in town.

Mr. Miller

Young farmer working in the field of Mr. Miller’s farm

Mr. and Mrs. Ben Harris

They come from Luzerne County Pennsylvania. Have goats, and sell goats milk. Do hardly any farming. Live in the submarginal farm area of Rumsey Hill, near Erin, New York.

Mr. and Mrs. Harris

The Harris home

I didn’t find any more information about most of the people in this series of photographs, but I was able to learn quite a lot about a farmer named Uhro Maki and his family. So much, in fact, that they warrant an entire blog post of their own. Look for it here on January 25, 2021.



  1. I love our local history posts!

  2. So informative!
    With so many of our factories contributing to the war effort,it's hard to imagine people not adhering to the blackouts.I remember sitting on the sofa with my Mother.