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Agricultural Labor

by Kasia Ahern

Farm Labor and Leisure on Beaver Island:  How did the farming industry of late 19th century America affect the structure of farm life on the Gallagher homestead? And, what did the farming lifestyle mean for the labor divisions and leisure time of those living on the Gallagher homestead during the late 19th and early 20th centuries?

The organization of farm labor in America changed significantly during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During the early 19th century, farming required a large amount of strenuous manual labor and the industry was built upon a “large number of diversified farms in rural areas where more than half of the U.S. population lived” (Dimitri et al. 2005).  This contrasts significantly to the current agricultural sector, which consists of  “a small number of large specialized farms in rural areas where less than a fourth of the U.S. population lives” (Dimitri et al. 2005).

With the onset of industrialization, the number of farmers decreased significantly and most farmers made the shift from subsistence farming to commercial agriculture.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “about 38 percent of the labor force worked on farms” at the turn of the 20th century, and by the end of the century, “that figure was less than 3 percent” (Fisk 2001). This shift in the economy led to a shift in labor organization among family members on the farm, including children. At the start of the 20th century, child labor was still common in America and most families needed their children’s work and income in order to stay alive (Fisk 2001). As farming became more mechanized during the early 1900s, however, children of farmers were more inclined and even encouraged to move to cities and work in the professional or specialized industries that were thriving in urban America.

Original painting by Steve "Reno" Allen. More Beaver Island art available at renosgallery.com/beaver_island.

As a response to the rapidly changing economy during the late 19th century, a progressive farming movement emerged in an effort to adjust to the newly industrialized country as well as to improve the working conditions for farmers, who were becoming marginalized in the workforce. This movement brought about some significant social changes in terms of the division of labor and gender roles on the farm (McMurry 1988). 

During the mid to late 19th century, the advancement of the farming technology seemed to impact the men’s work more than that of the women. While the men’s work became increasingly easier on the farm with the use of improved machinery to aid them, the women’s labor generally did not. For example, not only did the women still have to milk the cows and process food, “even the improved cook stove [that became available during this time] required hauling wood and careful attention to fire building” (McMurry 1988:91). 

At the same time, however, the gendered labor divisions on farmsteads were not as rigid as they were in other industries during the later half of the 19th century. The idea of women’s work and men’s work on the farm blurred and overlapped much more than it did in other industries of the time. For example, after 1857, “as raising chickens and pigs became more profitable, men began to take over what was heretofore generally regarded as women’s work” (Adams 1990:98). This seems to be due to the reality that the farm work had to be completed within a short period of time. It made economic sense for the men and women to share the labor on the farm. As a result, “the concepts of men’s work and women’s work became only academic” (Adams 1990:97). 

As their work roles changed during the late nineteenth century, women sought a change from the traditional idea of women’s housework on the farmstead as being “outside the domain of the capitalist economy” (McMurry 1988:99). Many women wanted to be incorporated into the economic sphere and get monetary compensation for their work because they saw their work as “economically productive”. To some degree, the progressive farm movement helped encourage the changing ideals for women in the homestead.

How does this compare to farming on the Gallagher homestead? In contrast to the general trend of American farmers switching to commercial agriculture at the turn of the 20th century, the Beaver Island farmers seemed to do well maintaining their subsistence farms through to the middle of the 20th century. Subsistence farming was an important part of the island’s economy, particularly from the 1860s through the 1950s (Connors 1999:118). The U.S. Census and other records show that the Gallagher homestead on Beaver Island had been worked as a subsistence farm between the years 1882 to 1930, first by John Early and then by his son, Patrick Early.

The Gallagher homestead could be seen as an incorporation of both early traditional and late 19th century contemporary adaptations to farmhouse structure and organization. Looking at the layout of the Gallagher homestead itself, the placement of the house away from the roadside was consistent with the progressive farmer’s emphasis on an efficiently run farm. Having a house away from the roadside decreased the likelihood for too many casual visits from neighbors to interrupt time spent working on the farm (McMurry 1988:85).

Another trend for the progressive farmhouse was to have a kitchen that was “isolated, specialized, and reoriented” in order to improve efficiency in the home (McMurry 1988:128). The Gallagher house is interesting because while it is consistent with the progressive trend of not having many hired laborers on the property, the farmhouse kitchen was designed with a more traditional layout. In the Gallagher house, the kitchen was not isolated from the rest of the house. It appears to have acted as an open, multi-purpose room that connected to the living room. One possible implication for the way the kitchen was set up is that it could be a reflection of the flexible labor division between husband and wife. Although, it is difficult to say whether the organization of the home influenced the gender roles and relations on the farmstead, or vice versa.

In the census data from 1860 to 1930, none of the women on the homestead were recorded as having any occupation; however, this only means that the women were not compensated monetarily for their labors. The women on the Gallagher homestead most likely worked at maintaining the household as well as helping out on the farm. As was mentioned earlier, the traditional gendered labor divisions were often blurred on small farmsteads because there was so much work to be done that it did not matter who did it, as long as it was done efficiently. The women on the Gallagher homestead likely worked a significant amount in the home and on the farm, particularly given that the families in residence were so small.

When considering how leisure time might have been spent on the Gallagher homestead, it is the lack of archaeological data, or the “negative data”, that actually seems to tell more about the extent of the residents’ leisure time. Throughout the excavation of the homestead, no leisure items or children’s toys were recovered. For instance, no checkers or chess pieces, musical instruments, or playing cards were found. The negative evidence for children’s toys is consistent with the fact that there were virtually no children on the Gallagher homestead between the years 1860 and 1930. According to the U.S. censes of those years, only one child, Patrick Early, was recorded to have grown up on the property.

This is a very interesting aspect about the Gallagher homestead because it seems to be inconsistent with the make-up of the other Irish families on Beaver Island. Compared to the Irish families in urban areas, most Irish families on Beaver Island were larger and had many children. In fact, Connors notes that “because women rarely remained single and large families were needed to assist parents on the subsistence farm and on the fishing grounds, most island women were pregnant for one-third of their twenty-five childbearing years” (Connors 1999:157). The family composition on the Gallagher homestead seems to resemble that of a family in an urban setting, rather than on a rural farmstead.

The small family size and lack of hired workers on the farm are indicative of the possibility that those living on the homestead did not have very much leisure time. It was likely that both the men and women of the household were kept very busy each day with work considering how few the number of people was that were living on the farm at any given time. The lack of archaeological evidence of leisure items may be another confirmation that the family did not have much time for leisure activities.

Further insight and investigation into the Gallagher homestead will be necessary to develop more concrete conclusions about leisure time as well as labor divisions on the farm. Some questions of interest that have emerged as a result of this initial research include:

1. What was the original layout of the farm buildings on the Gallagher homestead?

2. What were the labor divisions like on the farms of Árainn Mhór during the mid-19th century and was there any evidence of the same divisions on Beaver Island?

3. Were there any photographs taken of farmsteads on Beaver Island from the late 19th and early 20th centuries?

4. How did people on Árainn Mhór typically spend their leisure time during the 19th and early 20th centuries?

Literature Cited

Adams, W. H. “Landscape Archaeology, Landscape History, and the American Farmstead.” Historical Archaeology 24.4, Historical Archaeology on Southern Plantations and Farms (1990): 92-101.

Connors, P. America’s Emerald Isle: The Cultural Invention of the Irish Fishing Community on Beaver Island, Michigan. Doctor of Philosophy Loyola University Chicago, 1999 Ann Arbor, MI:118-157.

Dimitri, C., A. Effland, and N. Conklin. “The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy ” Electronic Information Bulletin 3 (2005): July 29, 2010. United States Department of Agriculture: Economic Research Service.

Fisk, D. M. “American Labor in the 20th Century.” Compensation and Working Conditions.Fall 2001 (2001) United States Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

McMurry, S. A. Families and Farmhouses in Nineteenth-Century America : Vernacular Design and Social Change., 1988: 66-128.

“Names and Places of Beaver Island.” The Journal of Beaver Island History 1 (1976): 201.

United States Bureau of the Census. 1880-1930. Population Schedules. X-XV Censes of the United States, Bureau of the Census, Washington DC.

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