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Kidwell Farm: Living Through the Depression


The Subsistence Dairy Farm

The Great Depression of the 1930s hit farmers hard. The large tracts given as grants to prosperous Tidewater families had been leased out, farmed as big agricultural "plantations," and later carved up into smaller, more-manageable plots. Years of growing tobacco and cotton had drained the soil of nutrients. At the turn of the century, there was little in the way of fertilizers, control of disease and insects or "scientific farming," elements that were still to come. Fairfax County, although relatively prosperous, could not compete profitably with its neighbors through truck gardening. And there was no money.

The land, farmers found, was far better used as pasture fields for grasses and crops with shallow roots. The plentiful water supply from the streams and runs that spread across the area, the watersheds we see today, was a decided boon. The farmer still had the prestige of being a homeowner and the pride of working his own soil. He depended on his own judgment and initiative to cope with the varying responsibilities he shouldered. He was self-reliant within his own close community.

Dairy CowsDairy farming was ideally suited to these conditions. It could be managed with only a small labor force (the farmer, his family and perhaps a laborer). Women were knowledgeable about cows, having long been in charge of making butter, and raising chickens for their eggs and as the Sunday dinner. Children could help out with chores before and after school, with boys doing the outside work and girls learning to cook and can vegetables. Plus--and importantly--a dairy produced a crop that guaranteed the family an immediate income when it was sent to market.

In Fairfax, perhaps the most major factor to encourage dairy farming was the two railroad lines that ran into the urban areas of Washington, D.C. The train at Herndon brought Fairfax farms into the Washington "milkshed," the area in which milk can be shipped without spoiling. Cows could be milked twice a day and the big cans sent to the nearby Herndon train station. There it was shipped to distributors who collected the milk--required by law to contain four percent fat!--and took it to a pasteurizing plant in Alexandria, where it was made into milk, butter and cheese for the growing Washington market.

Plowing the fieldBut it was an unforgiving way of life. In the Floris community where Kidwell Farm stood, the farmers were up by 4:00 am and were milking by 4:30. It took a good man 7 minutes to milk one cow. There is a report that once seven people milked 40 cows in 1 1/2 hours. The milk had to be put in 10-gallon cans and be ready for the morning milk run to the train station. Inside the farmhouse the oil lamps were lit by 4:30 as wives started the wood stoves where they cooked big breakfasts to eat after the milk run.

A dairy farm required more than milking cows, as hard as that could be. A farmer, his wife, their children and perhaps a hired hand all worked hard and played specific roles. Working together they could raise cows, use the manure for growing crops to feed the animals, have a garden and perhaps an orchard, raise chickens and hogs for meat, and if the weather and the crops were good enough, supply all their own food needs. Most of the harvest was used right on the farm.

Ellmore family memberThe Bradley family was one of early families that came and stayed over the generations in Floris. In a recent book, Stories from Floris (Floris Friends, 2000), Elizabeth Ellmore speaks of family members' moving there from Yorkshire in the 1860s when they bought 150 acres and moved into a log house on the property.

"It might be said that the David Bradley family is a classic example of a group which brought to a new home little in the way of this world's goods but brought instead integrity, ambition, the Yorkshireman's traditional ability to 'hold household' and determination to make life better for children and community."

By 1930 the small village of Floris, formerly known as Frying Pan, had a blacksmith shop, a general store, a boarding house, three churches, two schools and several residences, along with the surrounding farms. It lay at a crossroads stemming from Old Ox Road, laid out by Robert "King" Carter in 1729 in his pursuit of mining. Centreville Road, the Frying Pan Baptist Church built in 1791 and the Frying Pan Branch were other border markers.

Members of those farming families such as the Middletons and the Ellmores look back with pride on that time. In Stories from Floris, Clara Middleton Leigh spoke of her "great satisfaction that we see our grown children display characteristics that had their beginnings on their grandparents' farm. The responsibilities and discipline of a farm have molded their characters.... Perhaps as they look at the delicate stitches in the quilts made long ago, they will remember the values taught them and will be able to pass these on to their own families."

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