It was 1935 and the country was deep into the worst economic depression it had faced in a very long time. Florida had actually gotten an early start with one of its perennial land booms and busts in the 1920s. Followed by the bank failures and the stock market crash of 1929, folks in the panhandle were struggling to get by. While times weren’t good for most, if a family owned some property they could at least grow food and maybe make a cash crop to sell. Though by this time in the 1930s, even cash crops didn’t generate much income. Franklin D. Roosevelt had only been President for two years when he took the recommendation of one of his administrators and created the Resettlement Administration by Executive Order 7027. The purpose of the Resettlement Administration was to relocate both urban and rural families to cooperative communities planned by the Federal Government.
The Resettlement Administration acquired 12,915 acres of cut-over forest in northern Okaloosa County where they created a “planned” community of 95 acre homesteads they called Escambia Farms. Initially 72 white families were enlisted for the project with an additional few black families on the periphery. According to the government the purpose of the project was to promote farm ownership for those that would otherwise not be able to buy a farm and to give families in the Pensacola Land Utilization project (it was being converted to forest land) an opportunity to move and acquire a farm. They also hoped to show the possibilities of developing cut-over land into working farms.
The families were strongly encouraged to accept a loan from the government to purchase their farms and to buy equipment. Most of the men in these families had worked in the turpentine and logging industries and none of the families had ever farmed before. Twenty-one of the families took the loans and the rest signed leases for three to four years. Buildings provided by the government included a four or five room frame house, an outhouse, a barn, a smokehouse, a poultry house and a deep well.
In addition to the buildings on the individual homesteads the government built a school and employed nine teachers. The school served the Escambia Farms community, as well as surrounding areas starting around 1938/39. In addition, the school also served as a community center and theater and provided special courses in home economics and vocational agriculture to the new residents of Escambia Farms. There were four large kitchens in the school that could be used for canning vegetables and other produce.
The new farmers were members of the Cooperative Farms Association. The Association operated a small general store and a machine shop for equipment repair. The store served as an outlet for selling homestead products and purchasing supplies and equipment. The government’s estimate of cost to develop Escambia Farms was $445,217 in 1933 dollars ($8,177,540.37 in 2016 dollars). Of that, $104,217 was spent on construction of roads, community buildings and land costs. The cost of the land averaged $4.57 an acre. The homesteads, including all of the provided buildings, was estimated to cost an average of just under $4,000.
For the families moving to Escambia Farms it was expected that the first year would be dedicated to clearing the land and getting ready for full time farming. Since all were new to farming and were required to use a scientific approach to land conservation and farming, they also spent a large part of this first year in the classroom. The homesteaders were not allowed to engage in outside work beyond the project boundaries, so during this first year most of the families also had to rely on “relief” payments and what they could grow in their gardens and raise from their farm animals.
The project may have meant well but it never really worked well. For the families who had leased the farms, they began to move away when their leases were up. These families were new to farming and for anyone who has decided to learn to garden, those first few years of trying to get food to harvest stage is harder than raising a baby. There is a lot to learn and much to juggle. The agriculture economy was in a severely depressed state across the country so making a living by producing farm goods, if you could produce them, wasn’t assured. And regardless of the government’s interest in proving the worth of cut-over forest in developing farm land, it takes a lot of time and much know-how to move sandy, cut-over soils to productive farm land. There was also a fair amount of opposition to the project from Southern Democrats who opposed anything that looked or smelled like socialism. They were also deeply concerned about the government financing land and equipment for “farmers, farm tenants, croppers or farm laborers”. They worried this would disrupt or destroy the tenant farming and sharecropping that the southern agricultural system had been based on since the abolition of slavery.
And finally, there was the social constraints of bringing in greenhorn farmers into an area of farmers and providing them items and relief payments that the locals did not have access to, even though they too were suffering. According to my mother, that created some hostility toward these families that did not quickly dissipate. In time the project failed. Some families stayed and became a part of the larger community above Baker. Others moved on.
As a kid I remember seeing the school once or twice where my Mom attended from the middle of 5th grade until graduation (She graduated in 1946, a class of 14 with only 2 boys, one of whom – Archie Palmer – was her date to the senior picnic.). The co-op store was still a store in the 1970s, though no longer managed by the co-op. One of my favorite memories was probably the last time I went to the store. I took my grandfather over in my old, beat-up AMC Javelin to buy some pvc pipe to put down in his worm beds for irrigation. We got them outside and realized they were too long to go into the back seat and out one of the side windows so we had to tie one end of the pipes to the front bumper and the other end to the back bumper. I could only go about 5 miles an hour back to my grandparents’ house. Any faster and the pvc pipe would begin to bounce so much we felt like we were becoming airborne. I think we laughed all the way back to the house and certainly got a bemused look from some of the folks passing us. But we got there and he installed them and planted corn in the worm beds. He was so proud of that corn patch. A few years later on the day we buried Granddaddy we had to come back to the house and we all pitched in to put up the corn from that year’s harvest. The ears were the length of my forearm. Biggest ears of corn I have ever seen.
I think there are some lessons to be learned here. 1) Communities do better if they develop organically or naturally; they really don’t function well overly planned, especially from outside. That applies to nearly all human aggregations. 2) Learning to farm (or garden) is more than book learning. If you want to learn to raise food start a few years before you anticipate needing to actually eat or sell much from your efforts. 3) If you buy poor land and want to raise vegetables, plan on giving yourself five more years beyond #2 above, if you are lucky. Learn to amend your soil with organic matter not just store bought chemicals. Worms can be very helpful here. 4) If you plant corn, plant the rows in a worm bed. 5) If you go to the store to buy multiple somethings really long and you are in a small car, expect to be challenged in getting back home and be sure the “somethings” are flexible!
Until next time when we will look at some of the events in Milton and Bagdad during the Civil War.
- Utopian Communities of Florida: A History of Hope by Nick Wynne and Joe Knetsch, The History Press, 2016, Kindle edition
- Library of Congress: Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, Escambia Farms. All of the photographs of Escambia Farms were taken in June 1942 by John Collier, photographer.