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Frank Sadorus, Illinois Photographer
Sadorus, Illinois
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ISM System :The Sadorus Farm

The Sadorus Farm

Wheat Harvesting

Between the colonial days of America to the watershed year of 1934, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Agricultural Adjustment Act in an attempt to relieve the economic stress of owner-operated farms, a gradual change in approach and attitude towards our farmlands, the nation's heartland, took place. It reflected a change from a stewardship ethic, an agrarian philosophy, to one based on efficiency, commerce, and productivity.

The Agrarian Tradition
The agrarian tradition corresponded to the Jeffersonian ideal of the "independent yeoman farmer" and blended two traditions. The first tradition, "farming-as-a-way-of-life," emphasized the intrinsic goodness of dealing with the land. Farming was a contributor to the development of responsible citiziens through the encouragement of social virtue, economic prosperity, and democracy. Agriculture, the nation's basic industry, reflected America in microcosm.

The Efficiency Tradition
The second tradition was known as the efficiency tradition, the productivity, or the entrepeneurial tradition. It corresponded to the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps success stories of Horatio Alger and the advice of Benjamin Franklin on the rewards of persistence and perseverance in Poor Richard's Almanac. Farming was an occupation, a way of making a living that was "instrumentally good" in that it contributed to material well-being. Land was a means to an end, a resource to be gainfully and efficiently employed to promote the best future for oneself and for the nation.

Consequences of Attitude Change to Small Farms
These two traditions were intertwined in a Gordian Knot, each expressing something of the American experience and validating images that Americans held of themselves and the nation. New methods of industry and modernization led to the great transformation of farming and rural life that today allows room for both small farms and corporate farming. This is exemplified on the plains of Iowa and California's Central Valley.

Even as pioneers such as "Grandpap" Sadorus were migrating to the Illinois prairies in the early 1800s, a new system of manufacturing was being developed on the east coast that emphasized mass production, low cost, and interchangeability of parts. This system created a variety of products, many of which were used on farms to increase the productivity of laborers in planting and harvesting. An increasing percentage of the population found employment in this new manufacturing sector and a decreasing percentage in crop production. Specifically, in 1800, the percentage of the population involved in agriculture was 75 per cent. By 1900 it had decreased to less than 40 per cent. In 1900, the number of Illinois farms reached its peak at 260,000, with the average size being 125 acres.

The 104-acre Sadorus family farm was sold in 1917, coinciding with the end of World War I, when the peacetime economy made prices fall. Small farmers made less money. Loans were harder to repay. Selling the family farm became increasingly common as larger numbers of farm children left farming to pursue new career opportunities in manufacturing, medicine, law, science, government, and entertainment.

What did the loss of the farm mean in a human sense? For some farmers, it was an opportunity; for others, it was a difficult but reasonable decision reached after careful consideration. For the unluckiest, like Frank Sadorus, it was a heartbreaking decision made against their will by others. Some did not adapt to change as well as others. What happened to those who could not, or would not, make a transition to a new career or retirement?

Failure to Adapt
The death of Frank's father on June 17, 1911, was in Frank's own words, "a turning point in our lives." Within a year Frank had all but stopped photographing (the few images that exist from between 1911 and 1917 are dark and foreboding). At some point, the family began to debate selling the farm. Frank alone resisted. (An inscription on the back of an image of the farmhouse dated 1912, he penned, "Home Sweet...Damn.")

In 1917, when the estate was settled and the farm was sold, his sister, Mary, and his brother, Elmer, retired from farming to build a new house in town with their mother Phoebe. Frank moved into a two-room cottage on the edge of town and packed away his photographic equipment. He was away from his family and the farm for the first time at age 37.

Within three months he was committed to the Kankakee Mental Asylum by his mother, brother and sister. The court official described him as "troubled with delusions and hallucinations with pronounced tendency to worry... primarily concerned that someone was trying to harm him." The examining physician described him as "well-mannered" with a kind disposition. According to the records, his "symptoms" appeared a week before the commitment. He remained at the asylum until his death seventeen years later.

It was not uncommon at the time for "difficult" or "odd" family members to be put away conveniently in institutions. In 1921, there were 27,514 inmates under the Department of Public Welfare. While 17,596 were classified as insane, other categories of people institutionalized included the feeble-minded, epileptics, the deaf, the blind, prisoners, and old soldiers.

Related Activities:
Farm Jobs (html) (pdf)
Farms in Art
(html) (pdf)
Farm Mechanization (html) (pdf)



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