• Notes From The Frontier

An Iowa Christmas During the Depression


In the fall of 1936, during the Great Depression, the photographer, Russell Lee was hired for the federally sponsored Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographic documentation project of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. He joined a team of the nation’s premier photographers, including Dorothea LangeArthur Rothstein and Walker Evans. During the winter of 1936, Lee traveled across the Midwest to document the impact of the Great Depression on farm families.


During one of his stops in rural Iowa, he met a tenant farmer named Earl Pauley who rented a 185-acre farm near Smithfield, Iowa, in Woodbury County in the western part of the state. Earl Pauley invited Lee to visit their home on Christmas Day. Here, Lee captured some of his most famous pictures of the face of poverty during the Depression.

The Pauley family Christmas dinner consisted of boiled potatoes and cabbage.


A special treat just for Christmas: apple pie. Father helps the kids peel apples for Momma’s apple pie. Christmas 1936.


Earl Pauley built this dugout shanty into the side of a hill after the first family home burned down.


Two of the little Pauley girls look out the window. The Pauley home was

constructed with leftover wood and cardboard for insulation.

Mrs. Pauley with her two little girls. She made their dresses out of patterned flour sacks.


The Pauley baby was the fourth child in a farm family that could barely feed their existing children.


Frank Moody, his wife and seven children lived in this dugout they built on their 80-acre tenant farm, also in Woodbury County, near Miller township, Christmas 1936.


Mrs. Frank Moody with three of her seven children on their eighty acre farm Woodbury County, Iowa, Christmas 1936.


Skeleton of horse on the William Butler farm near Anthon, Iowa, in Woodbury County, that died of starvation and poor feed. December 1936.


Makeshift livestock shelter on the Charles Banta farm in Woodbury County, Iowa. Note the terrible soil erosion. December 1936.


Man reading to fellow inmates at the homeless men’s bureau in Sioux City, Iowa, Woodbury County, Christmas 1936.

Outhouse on the William McDermott farm in Woodbury County. December 1936.


Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Ostermeyer were original homesteaders in Woodbury County. Andrew, age 81 and his wife, 76, lost their farm to a loan company during the Depression. December 1936.


© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER

Posted December 25, 2019

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  • Notes From the Frontier