Arthur Rothstein was a depression-era photographer. He was the first photographer hired for FDR's Resettlement Administration. He was a born and raised New Yorker.
Festus Hudson was a merchant farmer. He was born and raised in Nethers Mill, Virginia, at the foot of Old Rag Mountain. On my father's side, he is my great uncle.
Urban intellectuals were an essential part of the New Deal Coalition.
Farmers, and southern whites, were essential parts as well.
Since that time, southern whites have been stripped off from the Democratic Coalition. This is a problem.
This diary is about the time Arthur met Festus, in 1935. This is a diary, for Father's Day, about heritage and identity.
On his first assignment for the Resettlement Administration, Rothstein was sent to document the lives of some families about to be evicted from their homes to make way for Shenandoah National Park.
Well, there were great advantages, of course, in being a provincial New Yorker, because everything seemed fresh and exciting. Now the first assignment, if I remember correctly, was in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. We had a group of people there that were being moved out to make way for a national park, Shenandoah National Park, and these people were all people who lived in the hills and the hollows of the Blue Ridge Mountains not far from Washington, about eighty miles from Washington. I went out there and was in a cabin on the top of a mountain for a few weeks, walked around and became acquainted with these people. At the beginning they were very shy about having pictures taken, but I would carry my camera along and make no attempt to take pictures. They just got to know me, and finally, they didn't mind if I took a few pictures.
Here are a couple of his early photos:
These are two fairly famous examples of depression photography. My Great Uncle, Festus Hudson, is on the right, tilting back in his chair.
It feels odd and unsettled to look at a famous depression photograph, and see kin in it.
It is also odd and unsettling for an urban intellectual to know from clan. You will find Corbins and Nicholsons, feuding on the internet about old murders, to this day. Guy next to Festus is a Nicholson, and no mistake.
Note, in the two photographs, the intensity of the gaze back at the camera. Who are you, viewer? The whole porch is intrigued by your outsiderness.
The photographs in this diary are clickable to higher resolution versions. Click the second photo, and look the citizens of Nethers in the eye. Unsettling, no? The guy on the right is me. The guy behind the camera as well. The citizens hanging on the porch, are us.
We are all the migrant mother, in the dustbowl photograph. Florence Owens Thompson is our name.
We are all the negro man going in the colored entrance of a movie theatre, under a high Mississippi sun. Our name is not known.
We all just want a basic fairness and equality. We all want and expect it of our government, here.
Arthur Rothstein, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, all of them: they took the photos that we might remember this.
What you've got are not photographers, they're a bunch of sociologists with cameras.
On his first assignment, Rothstein developed some of the techniques he would use all his career. Taking advantage of the new small camera. Classical composition, to give people dignity. Attention to the relation of land and people. Attention to detail about economic and material circumstance. Attention to detail about work.
Here are some people who lost their homes:
Here are some homes that were lost:
Nethers Mill, on the Hughes run, up the Rappahannock from Culpeper, is at the junction of three mountain hollows: Corbin, Nicholson, and Weakley.
Two years before Rothstein's trip for the Resettlement Administration, a sociologist and a journalist came to the same area with a similar purpose: documenting lives, and propaganda in favor of removal of inhabitants for the park.
The book, Hollow Folk, is now seen more as American tall tale than legitimate academic sociology. It's mostly a knee slapper of a scientific work.
At the time, it was read like it was Margaret Meed reporting from tribal Samoa.
When we read of the scientists ... who invaded the hollows of the Virginia mountains less than one hundred miles from the National Capital to study the natives, our worst forebodings may be aroused, to be quickly and completely dispelled by the sympathy and skill of the record quite as much as by its great scientific value. For here is a book to be read, marked, and inwardly digested. It is for all of us, not merely the anthropologists.
--Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (1934)
Study the natives!
A modern academic, perhaps ironically a student of fiction not social science, and writing a book on the New Deal and the rural poor, fell for it hook line and sinker. In talking back to the 1933 book, about cultural bias and IQ tests, he points out:
Clearly, a community with no ties to the outside world--where property was unowned and uninsured, where the people paid no taxes and subscribed to no political party, where residents could not afford to order from Sears Roebuck ... and where people could neither read nor write--was indeed unlikely to "associate mail with the definition of post-office".
--Poor Whites and the Federal Writers Project (2006)
Attitudes about Government
There was opposition about the removals for the park. It was not an anti-government opposition, it was not an extreme individualism, it was not anti-outsider, it was not anti-progress:
While the park is progressing,
When the people out of the cities
Come to see the beauties of the park.
--John T. Nicholson
I ain't so crazy about leaving these hills but I never believed in being against the Government. I signed everything they asked me.
Be assured I oppose not the park,
Though sad is the thought,
At the age of seventy-three
Having to depart from the park.
Officials of the park,
Who I honor in the right,
I am not finding fault,
This I hope you understand,
As I am only quoting facts.
--John T. Nicholson
Notes about Whiskey
Moonshine usually gets explained as being against the revenooer man. It is more complex than that.
Here is Nicholson Hollow, the infamously ungoverned Free State Hollow, caught in the act of not defying Government:
14 Oct 1869
To Acrey Nicholson
One jug, jointer - .55
two reap hooks - .30
stone pot &c - .35
one crow bar - $1.00
four stone jars - $1.00
nine & 2/3 barrels of corn at 3 - $29.00
one hog running out - $1.35
four bottles - .25
one revenue stamp to put on bond - .05 - Total 33.85
Shipping bottled whiskey up from Kentucky, apple brandy across from France, is expensive and wastefull. You just distill it yourself. A local farming economy.
They grew corn. They grew peaches. They grew apples. These are hard to keep. They are hard to transport. Pigs, that intriguing $1.35 hog running out, can eat spent mash.
Inventory of the personal estate of Wm C. Nicholson, Dec.
1 feather bed & beding & piselar - $5.00
1 large Iron pot & skillet 7/6 ---- 1/6 1 small s. wheels 3f - $2.00
1 cupboard 12f- 2 pine chest 7/6 1 rifle -- 2 straw beds - $13.25
200 lb bacon @ 10 1 still $6. 30 gal brandy -- 2 empty b-------$40.30
Feby 25th 1854
They weren't hiding the stills in the backwoods. They were inventorying them in their estates.
Until Prohibition. Here is the clannish feud, still raging on the internet, I have spoken of:
At the trial of Nicholson it was shown that he had made a journey from his own home in Rappahannock to Corbin's home in Madison for the avowed purpose of wreaking vengence on Corbin because, as he alleged, Corbin informed against him in connection with a raid on his place for illegal distilling.
It was shown that Corbin had been called on by Federal officers to aid in the search and was innocent of giving any information. On reaching Madison Nicholson learned that Corbin had gone to the farm of J. K. Weakley, and proceeding thither, shot him dead.
Corbin's widow was left with 17 out of the 22 children born to the couple.
--The Washington Post (1923)
Coda: Orienting Yourself in the Current Time
The Weakley farmhouse, in Nethers, site of the murder, would be next the white home seen in the first photo, which once belonged to my Great Great Grandmother, Hettie Frances Nethers.
Otis Hudson, Hettie's son, Festus's brother, took off for a railroad job in Chicago just before World War I. From which you eventually get the urban intellectual New-York-City-loving art-appreciating me.
Appalachian whites many of them have abandoned the Democratic Coalition and New Deal values. We can fret about this: What's the Matter With Appalachia?
But taking "us" to be more Arthur than Festus, we can fret What's the Matter With Us, too.
City-dwelling Arthur Rothstein breathed a natural American air of belief in equality and trust in government.
Backwoods-living Festus Hudson same.
We have all backslid on these older shared and unifying American values. We need a New Deal.
A Smithsonian interview with Arthur Rothstein about his work for the Resettlement Administration, and discussing this trip.
In The Case of the Inappropriate Alarm Clock, Errol Morris talks about photography and propaganda. It starts with the story of Rothstein and the cow skull, one year later than here. It sets Rothstein against Walker Evans about manipulation, and then deconstructs Evans.
Arthur Rothstein at Shorpy, a photography site.
Mountain Residents, a photo gallery from the National Park Service.
A Civil War era map, showing the Nethers place and surrounding homesteads.
Archaeology of the Displaced in Shenandoah National Park, a nicely done summary. If anthropology about your 1930s forbearers is funny, archaeological expedition of them is even funnier. Half the suitable containers had a proper revenue stamp. Teeny Nicholson (photo above, in bonnet) had nice china. I presume the Max Parrish print referred to, hung on a poor mountaineer's wall, was his standard trendy au courant sophisticated and ever so popular girl on a rock.
Ethnicity and Identity Formation, more about the archaeology. In context of discussion of identity, one Hettie Hudson, my Great Great Grandmother, Hettie Frances Nethers, her 453 acres up Weakley Hollow, is academically cited as the high end of landholdings in the area.
A history of the creation of the park, discussing the removals.
A school project about the area and the removals. Very nicely done.
Poor Whites and the Federal Writers Project, the modern academic work dissing Hollow Folk, explaining its influence on the Writers Project, and buying in on some embarrassing details.
Knickerbocker at the New York Times spills some secrets about where, outside the City, a man might find a drink in 1922.
A current resident spills some secrets about how Knickerbocker in his City in 1922 might so easily find a drink. It starts with mules in Nicholson Hollow.