Amrys O. Williams
Associate Director and Oral Historian
Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society
Hagley Museum and Library

Collecting and Extending Agricultural History

The agricultural fair has long been one of the key spaces where farming knowledge, practices, and products have been shared and circulated, and where the public has engaged with agriculture and rural life for edification, entertainment, and community.  However, the scientific, technical, and business sides of farming have been the dominant forms of agricultural knowledge on display.  Any historical representations of farming that appear in the fair context tend toward the triumphalist and the celebratory, or embrace a misleading romantic view of America’s agrarian past.  Despite these challenges, I believe that the fair represents a ready-made site for public historians to interpret agricultural history, and a useful set of metaphors for our work.  The fair calls us to think of ourselves as extension workers in the humanities, bringing a historical perspective into conversations about farming past, present, and future.

My research on the history of 4-H clubs and extension work in the U.S. and overseas in the twentieth century has informed my thinking here.  While there are plenty of criticisms we can level at the Extension Service and its legacy for rural communities, I also believe that, at its best, extension represents a potentially democratizing approach akin to engaged public history.[1]  Successful extension work has never been the province of scientific and technical disciplines alone, nor has it been exclusively a one-way movement of information from research centers to rural peripheries.  As I hope to show in my book, 4-H and extension work are not only about how outside experts modernized rural America, but also about how rural Americans and landscapes influenced modernity.  Through 4-H projects, cooperative demonstrations, and fairs, rural people and technical experts have long been both making and circulating knowledge about agriculture and rural life in forms as diverse as farmers’ bulletins, calves and pigs, ears of corn, loaves of bread, dresses and aprons and stacks of canned goods, vegetable displays, instructional placards, farm account books, annual reports, and people themselves.

My experience doing place-based public history in conjunction with students, scientists, and community members through the Under Connecticut Skies project has also given me reason to believe in the participatory project approach that I feel extension represents.  By forging collaborations between scientists, students, community members, historians, archivists, and artists, and embracing public programs that ranged from the scientific to the artistic, the theatrical to the historical, we were able to communicate our stories about the role of a college observatory to many more people than those who routinely visited for stargazing.  The project had a lasting influence because it brought a historical sensibility to people—astronomers, stargazers, undergraduates—not already trained as historians, and led them to document their own history in collaboration with archivists.  That, to me, was extension at work.

I am attempting to bring the spirit of extension to Hagley, where I am developing oral history collections that document recent agricultural history, interpreting those oral histories through a new Hagley podcast, and thinking about oral history as a way of engaging agricultural communities.[2]  I am currently starting an oral history of the mushroom industry in Chester County, Pennsylvania.  Today, over half the mushrooms in the United States are grown in and around the town of Kennett Square, which proudly calls itself the mushroom capital of the world.  My aim is to collect interviews with individuals whose experiences capture the many different kinds of work and knowledge involved in mushroom cultivation, and how those processes have changed over time.  These include: owners of mushroom-growing businesses of different sizes, most of which are multigenerational Italian-American family concerns; mycologists and other scientists and technicians working in laboratories at mushroom companies; professors, researchers, and extension workers at Penn State; mushroom industry advocates at the American Mushroom Institute; business people whose companies provide lumber, machinery, tools, heating and cooling, trucking, composting, spawn, and other services; recipe developers and chefs who promote mushroom consumption; and the workers who labor in the mushroom and packing houses, most of whom are Mexican immigrants.  Capturing the labor story will be the greatest challenge, but I am hoping to work with a student at a local college who can conduct Spanish-language interviews, and to collaborate with local worker organizations to ensure that the experiences of mushroom laborers are documented as effectively as those of their employers.  I hope the mushroom project will lead to broader collecting at the intersection of agriculture, business, and technology, documenting the increasing role of molecular biotechnology in the late twentieth century, and the shift in agricultural research from the public to the private sector.

In my own research and writing, I am revising my book manuscript on 4-H clubs with an eye toward reaching a broader audience, including current and former 4-H’ers, and thinking about other forms of more popular writing and presentation that can connect my historical knowledge to contemporary issues, such as the recent report of the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity and the Farm Bill.  (I recently submitted an Op/Ed on the Country Life Commission to the New York Times.  Though I never heard back, it made me realize both how relevant agricultural history is right now, and how challenging it can be to get it out there.)

I have more ideas and interests than can fit neatly into a coherent two pages, but I am enormously eager to talk with the group about how we as public historians can extend the agricultural humanities to a public already hungry for a better understanding of the historical roots of our contemporary food system, the social and economic conditions of rural communities, and current agricultural practices and trends.  I am excited to discuss what our collecting priorities in agriculture should be, as well as how to secure funding for agricultural projects that bridge the sciences and the humanities.  And I am enthusiastic about the chance to brainstorm about the many “fairs” that are out there—real and figurative—that can serve as meeting places and forums for talking about farming in our society, connecting issues past and present, crafting projects that involve the public and broaden understanding of what historians do—in short, spaces for demonstrating and extending agricultural history.

[1] Much of my thinking on this derives from the current work of sociologists Jess Gilbert and Scott Peters, as well as historical writings on rural reform by Liberty Hyde Bailey, Carl C. Taylor, and M. L. Wilson.

[2] While I am not formally involved with the museum side of Hagley, I have several ideas about how agricultural history could inform interpretation on the property, which includes a worker’s vegetable garden and the du Pont family’s formal horticultural plots.  The contrast between these two spaces of cultivation suggests a great deal about how social class has manifested in land use—and the absence of any real discussion of the family’s significant agricultural and breeding interests from interpretation at several area historical sites, Hagley and Winterthur included, troubles me.


  1. Julia Brock says:

    Hi Amrys,
    I enjoyed reading about your work and dipping into the Under Connecticut Skies project and the Center at the Hagley Museum. I want to cheer your comment about the kinship between the work of public historians and the extension agent–this to me is an interesting comparison. We can make our work essential to communities by connecting our publics to the historic resources they need to interpret and call upon the past for present-day realities. This seems especially important for agricultural histories.
    I’m curious to know if you’re partnering with a public history site in Kennett Square on the oral history project. The history of the mushroom industry there sounds like it would also make for a good series of public programs and/or an exhibition in addition to the Hagley podcast. Focusing on the “life” of production of one food product might be an interesting way to raise questions that affect agricultural production (including labor and technology) and distribution elsewhere and regarding other crops.

    1. Amrys Williams says:

      Thank you! I have not yet partnered with any organizations, but I have some ideas on that front. I agree that this would be a great outreach project in the community, and I’d love to work on an exhibit again.

  2. Cathy Stanton says:

    So many great connections here!

    I’m curious about how you’re approaching the task of interviewing the Mexican mushroom farm workers. Given the current climate of fear for undocumented immigrants, I agree that this is likely to prove challenging (and potentially even dangerous for the interviewees). Margaret Gray writes about this methodological issue in Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic, which might be worth a look as you design your research, if you haven’t read it already.

  3. Debra Reid says:

    Amrys – I like your comment about being an “extension worker in the humanities” as related to collecting, preserving, and interpreting farming, past, present, and future.
    I’d recommend a bit of digging into local history to document agricultural systems that pre-dated mushroom cultivation (did farmers practice intense animal husbandry, or balance coal mining with subsistence?).
    For a strategy that worked well documenting ethnic farm laborers, see the Bracero program, the product of a partnership led by the University of Texas at El Paso:
    I understand connections between agricultural fairs and extension programming (including 4-H), but I am a bit unclear about how this relates to agricultural change in the area of mushroom specialization today. I think that, as you continue to refine what seems to me like four different and distinct themes (fairs, 4-H, migrant labor, and mushroom cultivation) each might stand on their own, but the connection rests in the place (and the farm families who sustained themselves in that place).
    You have many avenues to engage with the public on compelling subjects.

    1. Amrys Williams says:

      Oh, indeed and agreed! This is just an overview of several irons in the fire. I’ve never written a “case statement” before and had no idea what the format should really be. I felt I had to continue the theme from my proposal, but based on what else had been submitted at that point, I was under the impression we were supposed to talk about the work we were doing in this vein at our current institutions.

      On my larger point, though, I do feel that oral history can be good extension work for history, as it helps non-historians understand a bit better what we do, what we care about, and the kinds of questions we ask.

  4. Leisl Carr Childers says:

    The book sounds fascinating! It made me consider fairs as forums for the expression of knowledge and a place for its transmission. I particularly appreciate how you’re inverting the conversation about the extension service. You’ll have to let the group know what stage your manuscript is in and who is publishing it – it’s a book I’ll want on my shelf!

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