Until the 1950s, Connecticut’s major cities were ringed by a tapestry of fields and orchards. In the flat, well-drained basin of the Connecticut River, land had been used to grow tobacco since the seventeenth century. Even within city limits, small farms prospered. Delano’s photographs capture the beginning of a shift, as the state’s land use moved from agriculture to housing and industry. In 1920, 61.6% of the state’s land surface was devoted to farming. Forty years later, the amount of land in agriculture had dropped to 28.2%. Today the figure is less than 14%. Massive suburban immigration, first visible in the 1920s, hit a peak in the postwar period when farmland was gobbled up for highway construction, tract homes, shopping centers, and industrial uses.
Many of Delano’s photographs portray immigrant farmers, who moved to Connecticut’s agricultural lands to seek opportunity, stabilizing the declining rural population. “The diversity of ethnic groups in this region was fascinating,” he later wrote, “Poles, Italians, Portuguese, Irish, Armenians, French-Canadians, Jews, and Native Americans.”
When Jack Delano portrayed Mrs. Smith in 1940, she had been widowed and was running a tobacco farm in Enfield with the help of her seven children. Born in Poland, she had married a man of German birth. Together they had purchased 27 acres and an old farmhouse that was part of Enfield’s Shaker legacy. Her husband’s premature death at 38 did not prevent Mrs. Smith from holding on to the farm. Even after her second marriage to a man who had a job in town, she continued to grow and market tobacco for many years.
The Lymans were working in their tobacco barn when I came upon them...I asked them to let me take a photograph of them. At first, Mrs. Lyman demurred. With a giggle, she said, “Not in this dress. Let me change my clothes.” But after a bit of flattery, she agreed to pose with her husband, just as she was. There they stood, posing stiffly for the photographer, staring morosely at the camera, not at all like the jolly people they really were. So I said, “Mr. Lyman, I think your pants are falling down.” The pearls of laughter that followed were just what I wanted because that was what they were really like.
Delano captured Colchester’s Jewish population while it was still a self-contained community engaged mostly in poultry and dairy farming. Anna and Abraham Lapping bought their farm in 1918. Both were natives of Latvia and, like most of Colchester’s Jewish farmers, had come to the United States to escape the poverty and persecution prevalent in Eastern Europe. The first few Jewish settlers came to Colchester in the late 1880s, at a time when residents were moving away due to the closing of the Hayward Rubber Company, the town’s primary employer. The influx of Jewish farmers stemmed the decline of the town’s population.
Before leaving the northeastern states, I spent a fascinating time with farm families of different ethnic groups. I shall never forget, near Colchester, Connecticut, meeting a tall, white-haired long-bearded Jewish farmer wearing a skullcap and looking for all the world like a biblical prophet...The town itself boasted a thriving Jewish community, with a Hebrew school and a synagogue.