In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a small farm in Colchester, Conn., was a dream for many Jewish immigrants trying to eke out a living in the tenement slums of New York’s Lower East Side. Colchester and other Connecticut towns attracted hundreds and hundreds of Jewish farmers.
Land was cheap in Connecticut and help was available for Jewish immigrants who wanted out of the city.
By the end of the 19th century, Yankee farmers were abandoning their farms in Connecticut. It was too hard to scratch a living out of the state’s rocky soil, help was hard to find and farmers could earn more money in the cities. So many farms were on the market during that period the Connecticut State Board of Agriculture published catalogs of farms for sale.
Baron de Hirsch
Meanwhile, European immigrants were coming to the United States by the millions. Jews fled Russia and Eastern Europe to escape persecution, arriving in America with little money. Jewish relief societies in the United States then tried to help them. In 1889, a wealthy German Jewish banker named Baron Maurice de Hirsch donated $2.4 million for resettling Russian Jews in the United States. The Jewish Agricultural Society in New York and the Baron de Hirsch Fund gave Jewish farmers small loans to establish farms.
Jewish farmers settled in clusters in Colchester, Norwich, East Haddam, and Newtown. By 1928, the Jewish Agricultural Society estimated Connecticut was home to 1,000 Jewish farms and 5,000 Jewish farm families.
Life was hard on the farms, and many farmers worked part-time in small local industries. In the photo above, farmers worked part time in the Levine coat factory. Mary Dralick, pictured at the top of this page worked as a sewing machine operator at Levine & Levine Ladies Coats. She was shown on her father’s farm, where she helped with the milking and the chores after a day of work at the shop.
Picturing Jewish Farmers
In 1940, Farm Security Administration photographer Jack Delano went to Colchester to photograph the Jewish farmers. He was Jewish, and he wanted to illustrate the plight of the part-time farmer. During the Depression, people who both farmed and worked part-time in light industry weren’t eligible for federal relief programs aimed at helping farmers.
When Delano went to Colchester in November 1940, one-quarter of the town was Jewish – down from half in 1920. Colchester’s Jews ran dairy and poultry farms, clothing factories and retail stores. Delano took the photo of Mr. and Mrs. Abraham Lapping, Jewish poultry and dairy farmers. “They run a small farm and take in tourists during the summer,” wrote Delano.
Delano also took photos of Colchester’s synagogue and Hebrew School, below.
Below, children at the Hebrew school examine a map of Palestine.
Connecticut was close enough to New York that its Jewish farmers and small businesspeople could maintain family and social ties with the city. Some found a market for their products in New York.
Alphonsine and Jacques Makowsky fled Germany and then settled on a poultry farm in northeastern Connecticut to raise African guinea hens. A fire destroyed their henhouses and so they began to cross breed Cornish gamecocks with hens. The result: the Cornish game hen. The Makowskys then sold as many as 3,000 a day to New York restaurants like the 21 Club.
With thanks to the Connecticut State Library, Jewish Farmers in Connecticut, and Picturing Faith: Photography and the Great Depression, by Colleen McDannell. This story was updated in 2021.