The Sunday porch: Gee’s Bend

A repeat post from September 2013. . .
“Jorena Pettway and her daughter making [a] chair cover out of bleached flour sacks and flower decorations from paper. She also made the chairs and practically all the furniture in the house.”*

The photo was taken in Gee’s Bend [Boykin], Alabama, 1939, by Marion Post Wolcott, via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Gee’s Bend is an African-American community located in a large bend of the Alabama River. It became famous about 15 years ago for its remarkable quilts.

In 1816, Joseph Gee brought slaves to the area and started a cotton plantation, which was sold in 1845 to the Pettway family. After the Civil War, the farm’s freed slaves remained on the land as sharecroppers, and many took the last name of Pettway.

In the winter of 1932-33, the community’s particular isolation — with only a small ferry to the east and a bad road to the west — and its dire poverty came to the attention of the Red Cross, which sent it a boatload of flour and meal.   It began receiving Resettlement Agency assistance in 1935, and the Agency purchased the plantation in 1937. By 1939, when the Farm Security Administration sent Wolcott to take photos, there had been a number of improvements, including new homes (like the one pictured above).

In 1962, when residents began trying to register to vote, the local government eliminated the ferry service, which connected Gee’s Bend to the county seat of Camden. Without it, people of the community had to drive more than an hour to reach the town. The ferry service remained closed until 2006.

In 2002, an exhibition of quilts made by the women of Gee’s Bend opened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and then traveled to the Whitney Museum in New York City. Another show in Houston and at the Smithsonian Institution followed in 2006. The New York Times art critic, Michael Kimmelman, called the quilts on display “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.”


*Library of Congress caption, possibly written by Wolcott.

Chaplin, West Virginia

Back garden and porch of Hungarian-American coal miner’s home, Chaplin, West Virginia, September 1938, by Marion Post Wolcott, via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (all three photos).

The miner’s wife and their back gate and fence. (Cropped slightly by me.)

Wolcott was on assignment for the U.S. Farm Security Administration.


Her neighbor — top left, in the straw hat — seems to have had a good flower garden, as well.

The Sunday porch: Kentucky

Prosperous farmer 1, Kentucky, Library of CongressFarmhouse porch with plants in painted lard buckets, Morehead, Kentucky, 1940, by Marion Post Wolcott for U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information, via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

I wish we could see the colors of the painted* containers.

Prosperous farmer 2, Kentucky, Library of Congress
Two special supports were built along the front of the porch to display the plants. (There’s a third view of the house here.)


*Here, here, and here are examples of 1930s interior paint color combinations.

Life in gardens: Birney, Montana

Montana ranch garden seat, 1941, M. Wolcott, Library of Congress

“Dudes in a covered wagon garden seat,” Quarter Circle U Ranch, Birney, Montana, August 1941, by Marion Post Wolcott for the U.S. Farm Security Administration.

Montana ranch garden seat 2, 1941, M. Wolcott, Library of Congress

Both photos are via the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Wolcott had been charged with photographing the recovery of the western cattle industry. The Quarter Circle U ranch in Birney, Montana, like many others in the region, had begun entertaining dudes in the 1920s to augment ranch income, and so she photographed that side of the modern ranch business as well as cattle raising. The ranch scattered its grounds with covered wagon love seats designed for trysting young couples, many of whom purchased western wear as part of their Montana adventure.

— Mary Murphy, from “Romancing the West: Photographs by Marion Post Wolcott”