Photographer John Collier, Jr., working for the United States’ Farm Security Administration, took the below photo in 1942.
His original caption read “Boiling wash water on the McClelland farm, Escambia Farms, Florida.”
The photo provides a glimpse into what life was like for families in Northwest Florida, and all across the country, living through the struggles and hardships of the Great Depression.
It was during the Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 through the beginning of World War II, that the nation saw unemployment rates that never went below 14 percent and, for four years from 1932 through 1935, did not dip below 20 percent. During the worst years of the depression, one in four people were out of work and unable to feed their families.
Collier was hired for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) as a photographer to document the hardships and conditions around the country during the Great Depression.
The FSA was created in 1937 from an earlier agency named the Resettlement Administration, or RA. The RA had been created by a 1935 executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help struggling farmers and sharecroppers by providing loans, purchasing depleted farmland and resettling destitute families into government-designed communities.
In Northwest Florida, the RA established and constructed an agricultural community called Escambia Farms in northern Okaloosa County, near the town of Baker.
The Escambia Farms project was part of Roosevelt’s New Deal social experiment that attempted to relocate struggling urban and rural families to new communities. As part of the relocation, the federal government provided government-backed loans to farmers.
The purpose of the community project was, according to the government, “to promote farm ownership among tenants who could not otherwise buy farms to give the families residing on the Pensacola Land Utilization project an opportunity to move to farm land, and to demonstrate the possibilities of developing cut-over land into productive farms.”
Escambia Farms, created in 1933, encompassed nearly 13,000 acres of land in northern Okaloosa County and cost nearly $500,000 (more than $9 million when adjusted for inflation) to build. Each farm in the community averaged 95 acres and had a four or five room wooden-frame house.
Archived FSA records show that 72 white families from surrounding communities, mostly in neighboring Pensacola, were relocated to Escambia Farms in the 1930s. Most of the families had previously made their living off the lumber industry that once thrived in Pensacola and along the Gulf Coast in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
For the families that resided in Escambia Farms, the federal government required that farming provided the only source of income.
During the first year of operation in 1933, the first crops were planted with the growing of sugar cane, peanuts, corn, and hogs, grazed on peanuts for income that was to be, in part, paid back to the federal government in exchange for the land they farmed. Individual gardens and the raising of poultry and beef provided sustenance for families.
The Cooperative Farms Association, which included the small general store, was organized to purchase farm supplies and to sell farm products in volume. A school and community center was also built by the federal government in January, 1939, with an enrollment of 229 children and 9 teachers. About a mile from the school was a commissary, gristmill, can mill, and cold storage building.
At one time, the population of the community was 400 in the early 1940s. With the start of World War II, families began leaving the farm. More than seven decades later, Escambia Farms is largely forgotten, known little more than by a marker on a map.
The photos below, available from the Library of Congress, are part of Collier’s photo report from his visit to Escambia Farms in 1942.