Book Review: Once Upon a Farm
reviewed by James Slining of Union Grove, NC
While recently browsing the shelves at the local library I found a book by Bob Artley. The author grew up on a general farm in central Iowa in the midst of, first the farm depression, and then the Great Depression of the last century. As was common at that time, he was part of the farming enterprise as a child. By necessity he was put to serious farming tasks as soon as he was able. Fortunately for us, he also developed a serious interest in drawing and sketching. As Bob grew older his sights were increasingly set toward that type of work.
This background provided the world with a person tailor-made to depict a rural economy that has largely disappeared in this country. This he did in a series of illustrations published in several mid-western newspapers. These finally culminated in several books, of which one is Once Upon a Farm.
The book depicts the rural material culture of his era through the use of lush, detailed illustrations. The pages are dominated by beautiful watercolors reminiscent of Carl Larson. Each scene centers on one aspect of rural life. Details about the scene are related with uncluttered pen and inks. These are all tied together with Artley’s narrative that is neither sugar coated nor sour. While the author describes his childhood as happy and stable – and clearly enjoyed his early years – there were tasks that he found distasteful. It is a story told through the eyes of a boy growing-up; refreshingly honest and personal. The result is a balanced description portraying life before rural electrification as both trying and rewarding, hard and pleasant.
There are several other aspects of the book which make it exceptional. Being autobiographical, it is about a particular farm circumstance. It does not try to make sweeping assertions about American agriculture in the 1920-‘30’s. Rather, it is that story in microcosm. This allows Artley to stick to many first hand details about a single place. In so doing, he is able to show how all the details add up to the whole; the relationship technology, crop and livestock selection, markets, (and a host of other details) have with other aspects of a rural society. For instance, he first maps this particular farm: its relationship to neighbors and towns, to the school. He then shows how the farm relates to itself, showing the fields and buildings, and (with an “aerial” ¾ view) the relationship of the buildings themselves to the work flow.
Along this same theme is another unusual feature: the use of exploded views to describe what goes on within the buildings. There are many books about rural architecture depicting barn exteriors. But few explain how they “work.” With these drawings, even a child can gain a lot of insight. As occurs throughout the book, the viewer is then given a closer look, learning the details of daily life. In this way the reader can see the spatial relationship, and understand how each part supported the whole effort.
In a phone conversation with the author, I asked how he researched the objects in the scenes. He discussed several primary sources such as period catalogs, manuals, and the like. Then in a matter-of- fact way he stated he often merely looks at the original machinery still at the farm. The farm is still in the family, and Bob frequently visits there. Many of the buildings are still intact – in fact a contemporary view of the farm is included at the end of the book. So not only can Mr. Artley rely on the memory of his childhood experiences, he can still access much of the material culture of his subject as a resource.
As stated earlier, many of the drawings in the book were first run in newspapers. In the introduction of another of Artley’s books it is told that many of the older farmers in the region would call when an error was found in an illustration. Once Bob had incorrectly drawn a three horse hitch that “would not pull the hat off your head,” the phone rang off the hook within hours of the edition hitting the streets. So there is a sort of informal peer review underlying many of the book’s illustrations.
All of this adds up to a fantastic resource for students of agricultural history. But because it is not a nostalgic coffee table book, it will also prove indispensable for those wishing to understand and reclaim earlier methods (perhaps somewhat altered) for use in today’s farming endeavors. With its excellent drawings it will be an appealing educational tool for both young people and older folks alike. Just recently my 11 year-old son asked me to get him a book about farming. When I asked what kind of book he had in mind, he said “one that will tell me how to do it.” I had just the book in mind!
Once Upon a Farm, by Bob Artley
Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna LA, 2001