New Deal experiment in Knox County
Farm cooperative had good intentions, but did not last
“The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt, is a speech to Oglethorpe University, May 22, 1932.
By Bernie Schmitt
In the midst of America’s worst economic nightmare, the Great Depression of the 1930s, Knox County was home to one of several federal government “experiments” designed to help low-income and destitute farmers.
Located in southern Knox County, the Deshee Unit of Wabash Farms was a large, full-scale farming cooperative whose members made decisions, but who were nonetheless under the jurisdiction of the federal government. It was for a short time a successful enterprise, however, it was also the target of criticism and throughout its short history was plagued by a high turnover in membership.
Much of the farm cooperative was located on flat, flood-plain land between the Wabash and White rivers, about 12 miles south of Vincennes. A part of it existed where the present-day Schenk Farms is situated.
There were about 2,770 acres on six tracts of land. There were “42 dwellings, nine barns, three machine sheds, and ten poultry houses,” according to an article by J. Rebecca Thompson, in the December 1995 edition of the Indiana Magazine of History. The land itself was purchased by the federal government specifically for one of the experimental programs espoused by Rex Tugwell, the administrator of the Resettlement Administration, and as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The country’s worst-ever economic disaster helped create a climate for such experimentation, as most American citizens were longing for leadership, change, and almost anything that might help solve the nation’s crisis. But the window of political and public opinion was brief; after the farm cooperative began in 1938, criticism of it was nearly immediate: It was often referred to by locals as “Little Russia.”
“The Deshee Farm project illustrates how Franklin Roosevelt embarked on social experimentation to combat the hardship affecting American farmers during the Great Depression,” said Brian Spangle, historical collections administrator at the Knox County Public Library. “It was especially important as a means of addressing rural poverty.”
The farm, Deshee Farm, Inc., was one of 17 throughout the nation. While cooperation among farmers was not new (farmers had informal and formal arrangements ranging from threshing circles, regional purchasing and marketing cooperatives in the 1920s), but cooperative production had never been practiced.
“Projects such as Deshee Farm were very unpopular in some quarters because they went against the traditional way of thinking,” Spangle said. “Some saw cooperative farms as socialistic or communistic.”
Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration, and its successor, the Farm Security Administration, were created because benefits provided to farmers by the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) were not equal in distribution and by 1935 the overall plan did not seem to be working, especially for the poorest of farmers: sharecroppers, tenants, and farm laborers.
Roosevelt’s men, the well-educated social scientists who made up the so-called “brain trust,” believed that rural poverty — at some of it — was the result of a misuse of agricultural land. This was especially evident with the Dust Bowl counties of the Great Plains, where years of plowing up the prairie topsoil were blown away when heat, drought, and wind ravaged the land.
So, the government decided to “resettle” some farmers to more productive land. The Decatur Homesteads in Adams County, Indiana, were developed to provide adequate housing for workers in small industrial cities, and to help keep urban residents off of the federal relief. At the Deshee Farm south of Vincennes, some residents from the “hill country” of Martin County were re-located to “more productive” land in Knox County.
According to Thompson’s article “Deshee Farm: A New Deal Experiment with Cooperative Farming,” the government had four objectives in this enterprise: “To purchase agricultural land not suitable for cultivation; to find suitable use for that land; to move the people living on sub-marginal farms to land suitable for farming; and to provide the resettled families with loans and the supervision necessary to enable them to make a reasonable living.”
With this, New Dealers also believed that such a farming community would help “rehabilitate” and “educate” in an environment where hard work and cooperation would lead to economic success. The government provided educational opportunities through Purdue University’s Extension Service to help develop better farming practices and skills in budgeting, food preservation, and home health. All of this was to help the poorest farmers achieve and adequate standard of living, and that such educational efforts would one-day lead cooperative farm clients to self-sufficiency and their own farms.
The farm raised hogs, cattle, and poultry. Alfalfa, wheat, soybeans, and corn were raised, as well as tomatoes, potatoes, watermelons, and cantaloupe. The produce was sold to local canning facilities, and feed crops helped to support the livestock. Each family home had a garden to raise vegetables for personal consumption. Farmers clocked in daily for work and were paid a wage according to the farm’s overall success.
For a time the farm was successful, though tenant turnover plagued the cooperative farm after the first couple of years. The government wanted to the farm to have the maximum number of tenants. This became a problem when there was not enough work for new clients, and existing farmers did not want the farm’s profits spread out further, thus limiting their own incomes.
The experiment was not destined to last. By the time the country was well-involved in World War II, some members of Congress began to question the cooperative, as well as other New Deal programs some deemed less than American. The FSA and its programs began to fade, and in the spring of 1943, flooding of the Wabash and White rivers decimated Deshee Farm.
Beginning in August of 1944, auctions were held to liquidate the equipment, livestock, and land that made Deshee Farm, according to Spangle, who wrote a short column based on newspapers stories of the time. In late 1944, Charles Schenk purchased much of the land, barns and houses that was Deshee Farm. He later sold 10 of the houses on the land he bought for around $750 each.
Some of the remaining tenants of the farm took advantage when the government allowed them to purchase land for their own farms. Some of the names included Floyd Stephens, Lloyd Witsman, Edgar Fellows, Lloyd D. Lucas, Virgil Carter, and James Fox.
The sale of the property by the government put the Knox County land back into private ownership, and Deshee Farm, Inc., was destined to become only a memory of how the American government, during its most severe economic crisis, tried to use its power to help the poor.