Business and Labor

Farm Auction in Derby, Conn., 1940

The farm auction was a sad but common sight across the United States from the mid-1920s through the 1930s. Though New England farmers didn’t suffer as much as those in the South and Midwest, plenty of them lost their farms to a combination of mortgage debt, overexpansion and falling prices for their products.

Some historians say Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal won support from the public because of his programs to help farmers. Roosevelt, a shrewd communicator, made sure his small army of government photographers captured farmers’ distress. He did it to build public support for continued government intervention in agriculture.

A photographer named Jack Delano took these photos of a farm auction in Derby, Conn., in September 1940.

Derby Farm Auction by Jack Delano. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Delano worked for the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal program that later evolved into the Office of War Information. Photographers for the FSA/OWI took iconic photos of America during the Great Depression and World War II. Other well-known photographers for the agency included Walker EvansDorothea Lange and Gordon Parks

Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

E. S. Beardsley in action. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Farm Auction Epidemic

The farm foreclosure crisis began with a heady optimism that followed World War I. Prices for farm products rose, and a mania to buy farmland seized America. Many farmers took out bank loans in the 1920s to pay for land and equipment. Then, when prices plummeted during the Great Depression, farmers couldn’t afford to repay the loans.

Between 1929 and 1933, a third of all U.S. farmers lost their farms to foreclosure.

Connecticut didn’t suffer quite as much as the Upper Midwest or the South. In 1926, for example, 9.9 percent of Connecticut farmers lost their farms to foreclosure. But in Montana, 61 percent of farms went back to the banks that same year. For the next five years, the percentage of foreclosures in Connecticut ranged between three and six percent. But then during 1932 , the worst year of the Great Depression, banks foreclosed on 8.9 percent of Connecticut farms.

 

Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Two harnesses. auctioned off. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Things improved slightly for Connecticut farmers in 1933, another bad Depression year. Lost to foreclosure were 7.1 percent of the state’s farms. That year, In 1933, Roosevelt persuaded Congress to pass the Agricultural Adjustment Act. The new law gave price supports to farmers so they could have decent purchasing power — and keep their farms. Only 5.2 percent of Connecticut farms got taken back by the banks that year.

Foreclosures then dropped steadily. By 1940, when local auctioneer E.S. Beardsley sold off Anthony Yacek’s farm and household goods, only 3.2 percent of Connecticut farms went to foreclosure.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Dress model and furniture. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Polish Farmers

Anthony Yacek had Polish ancestry like many residents of Derby, the smallest municipality in Connecticut.

Many Poles came to New England to escape poverty and starvation around the turn of the century. In a typical pattern, they found work in textile mills and then used their savings to buy cheap land viewed as useless for farming. The Polish farmers turned the land into thriving onion and tobacco farms.

Farm Auction Photos

Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Suffering through the Derby farm auction. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Delano’s photos capture an in-between time in rural America, when the outlook brightened for farmers even as the country headed for war.

Women, above, wait while their husbands bid at the auction. They look like they’d rather be elsewhere. Perhaps they knew the Yaceks and found the farm auction depressing. Or perhaps they’d lost their own farms.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Lunch. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Onlookers brought their own food, made at home no doubt, and sat on the ground during a lunch break.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

E.S. Beardsley. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Delano called auctioneer E.S. Beardsley a typical New Englander. “A great talker, he is active in local politics and in church work,” Delano’s caption reads.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Old couple. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

“An old couple listening to the auctioneer at the sale of Mr. Anthony Yacek’s farm,” read the caption by Delano, 26 at the time.

This story was updated in 2021. With thanks to Alston, L. J. (1983). Farm Foreclosures in the United States During the Interwar Period. The Journal of Economic History, 43(4), 885–903. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2121054.

To Top