Here’s a version of an article I wrote for the paper last week, with lots of 1917 photos and posters, all courtesy of the Barnard College Archives:
Home to Chevy Chase, Glenn Close, Ralph Lauren and a host of other celebrities, Bedford seems like Westchester’s version of the Hollywood Hills. But well away from this high-end world of glitz and glamour, another side of Bedford — a farming community rich in history and tradition — has managed to stay well under the radar.
Since 1852, the Bedford Farmers Club has met regularly to promote sound agricultural practices and offer support for farmers. Today, the club has about 85 members who meet five times a year.
It’s the oldest farmers club in the state, says Jim Wood, the president and a sixth-generation Bedford farmer. “We’ve evolved over time, with the demise of farming as a major activity in the area,” he says.
“But we’re still interested in things like open space, backyard gardening and topics related to agriculture and farming.”
Recent activities have included field trips to Westchester’s recycling facility in Yonkers and Michael and Judy Steinhardt’s 55-acre Bedford estate, which is known for its great gardens and incredible collection of wild animals from around the world. And this being Bedford, they have celebrity members, too, including town resident Martha Stewart.
Of course, wealthy women have played an important role in Bedford as “gentlemen” farmers long before Stewart moved in. In fact, the town has a long history of “well-to-do women who could do as they pleased and ignore all those prejudices against women,” says Elin Sullivan, co-president of the Bedford Hills Historical Museum.
On the cusp of World War I in 1917, the town was home to an experimental farming program called the Women’s Agricultural Camp, which was partly financed and supported by some of these Bedford women.
During four months that summer, 142 women lived in the old Woodcock farmhouse, or in tents outside, learning how to farm.
As it appears today, on Route 22:
The women, who ranged in age from 16 to 45, were then hired out to work on nearby farms. They were at the center of a nationwide movement, between 1917 and 1919, to teach women how to farm while men went off to war or to work in the munitions factories. Recruiting posters at the time praised them as “soldiers of the soil” and “the girl with the hoe behind the man with the gun.”
Last month, the Farmers Club, along with seven other local groups, brought author Elaine Weiss to the John Jay Homestead in Katonah to talk about these Bedford “farmerettes,” as they were called, and the role they played in feeding the country during World War I. Weiss’s book, “Fruits of Victory: The Woman’s Land Army of America in the Great War,” was published last year by Potomac Books.
“It’s very fitting that it should be at the Jay Homestead,” Wood says. The leader of the group that created the Farmers Club was Judge William Jay, son of Founding Father John Jay. And the judge’s great-granddaughter, Eleanor Jay Iselin, very likely hired the women to work on the homestead.
Convincing these farmers to hire the women “was not an easy task,” Weiss says, but by mid-summer in 1917 they were desperate and began to try using the farmerettes. Here they are in “Henry,” one of 3 Model-Ts loaned to them for the summer by Westchester women.
Before long, 60 women were heading out into the fields and farms of northern Westchester each morning, and there was demand for 50 more.
“The surprising result has been the adaptability of the girls and the excellence of their work,” The Westchester Times reported on Aug. 10, 1917. “The unanimous opinion of the farmers has been that they do more work in a few hours than the ordinary laborer does in a day.”
In a December 1917 letter to Delia Marble, president of the Bedford Garden Club and one of the camp’s top administrators, James Wood, then Farmers Club president and the grandfather of the current president of the club, wrote about “their marked intelligence, their eagerness to learn the ‘reason why’ of agricultural operations, their zest and their steadfastness in their work, and their pleasure and exceptional demeanor.”
Most of these would-be farmerettes were quite green when they arrived.
“We were all city girls, enthusiastic but sublimely ignorant of farming,” wrote Helen Kennedy Stevens, a Barnard College student, in a 1918 article for The New York Times Magazine. “We had to be taught several things, among them the difference between a nice little tomato plant and a weed. We learned that cows had to be milked at rather regular intervals and that only hens would lay eggs.”
As laborers, the women made “demands that were truly outrageous for the time,” Weiss says. They insisted on a work day that was limited to 8 hours and a wage equal to the average male laborer, about 25 cents an hour. They also abandoned their skirts and dresses in favor of blue shirts, overalls and straw hats. “It was startling to see because women just didn’t dress that way,” she says.
The Bedford camp also had a dimension beyond agriculture. “The purpose of the camp was not only to train city women how to farm but also to experiment with living and working relationships,” Weiss says. College professors and schoolteachers lived with and worked alongside factory seamstresses and stenographers in this new sort of democracy. “It was sort of like a pastoral sorority house.”
And it was a first test to see whether this newly formed female army of farmers could get the job done.
“The Bedford camp was the movement’s cradle and its crucible,” says Weiss. “If it hadn’t succeeded here, it wouldn’t have gone on elsewhere.”
But it was a great success. By 1918, the Woman’s Land Army had spread to 25 states and included more than 20,000 women. These newly empowered women were doing “essential war work,” Weiss says. “They saw it as a way to be patriotic and serve as full citizens.”
Today, that tradition continues with a host of new female farmers in Bedford: Lisa Schwartz raises goats and chickens and makes top-notch cheeses for some of the best restaurants in the Hudson Valley on her 35-acre Rainbeau Ridge Farm.
Shirley Biano raises sheep and makes organic wool at her 30-acre Maple Grove Farm. And for her farmstand, Gwenn Brant grows all sorts of organic vegetables at Daisy Hill Farm. And if you happen to savor their cheeses or cook with their vegetables, you may have the farmerettes to thank for leading them into the fields.
To learn more
An exhibit on the Bedford farmerettes will run until May at the Bedford Hills Historical Museum, which is on the lower floor of the Bedford Townhouse at 321 Bedford Road (Route 117) in Bedford Hills. The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays, or by appointment by calling Elin Sullivan at 914-242-0630.