Soil Conservation and the Vine that Ate the South

Photograph of a farmer kneeling in a field of Sericea Lespedeza for hay and pasture, Columbia County, Georgia

This is the first in a series of guest posts contributed by our partners at HomePLACE, a project of the Georgia Public Library Service. HomePLACE works with Georgia’s public libraries and related institutions to digitize historical content for inclusion in the Digital Library of Georgia.

If you’ve spent any time in the Southern United States, you know kudzu by its moniker, “the vine that ate the South.”  Indeed, a recently-published Southern Gothic story by J.D. Wilkes bears the same title. And yet the rise of the vine’s mythic powers in popular culture was foreshadowed by the United States Department of Agriculture’s concerted efforts to promote the plant as an antidote to soil erosion in the wake of Depression-Era dust storms.

Photograph of Horace Fitzgerald, Larry Edmond, John Devette, Clever Youngblood with a Future Farmers of America truck, Columbia County, Georgia, 1957 May
Photograph of Horace Fitzgerald, Larry Edmond, John Devette, Clever Youngblood with a Future Farmers of America truck, Columbia County, Georgia, 1957 May

Encouraged for use as a roadside planting by the Soil Conservation Service, the predecessor to today’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, kudzu thrived in the full Southern sun, undeterred by automobile emissions and undisturbed by grazing wildlife. (Though, as the Foxfire Museum and Heritage Center will remind you, the leaves are actually edible–like spinach!)  It is in this context that the photos in the recently-released USDA Photo Collection, Columbia County, Georgia really come to life. Added to the Digital Library of Georgia in October 2017, the 70 Soil Conservation Service photographs document a variety of methods used by farmers, scientists and engineers to prevent soil erosion–including, of course, the planting of kudzu.

The collection, which was made possible through a partnership between the Digital Library of Georgia, HomePLACE and the Columbia County Library in Evans, Georgia, shows conservation practices in use during the 1950s-1970s.  Mary Lin Maner, Director at Columbia County Library, notes that “Researchers who are interested in genealogy, agriculture, or the history of the region will be thrilled with the quality and scope of these resources.” The photos detail such practices as the creation of irrigation and drainage systems, windbreaks, rangeland reseeding, woodland harvesting, brush clearing, contour farming, and terrace construction. A few photos record Soil Conservation Service scientists surveying, sampling, and measuring soil conditions. There are also historic photos documenting conservation educational programs.

Photograph of J.C. Butler kneeling in J.H. Marshall's farm field, Evans, Georgia, 1952 April
Photograph of J.C. Butler kneeling in J.H. Marshall’s farm field, Evans, Georgia, 1952 April

And of course, kudzu.

“Much of Georgia’s history is deeply rooted in the environmental and economic impacts of agriculture and farming,” says HomePLACE Director Angela Stanley. “While these photographs resonate locally for Burke, Columbia, and McDuffie counties, they also tell a larger story about the country’s changing relationship to sustainable farming practices, land conservation, and environmental protection.”

Of course, by the mid-1950s the USDA no longer publicly recommended the planting of kudzu as a method for curbing soil erosion or feeding cattle, and by 1970 the plant was listed as a weed. In 1997 kudzu was listed on the Federal Noxious Weed List. And the rest, as they say, was history: left unattended, kudzu spread rapidly–though not as rapidly as some might believe.

“In news media and scientific accounts and on some government websites,” writes Bill Smith for Smithsonian Magazine, “kudzu is typically said to cover seven million to nine million acres across the United States. But scientists reassessing kudzu’s spread have found that it’s nothing like that. In the latest careful sampling, the U.S. Forest Service reports that kudzu occupies, to some degree, about 227,000 acres of forestland, an area about the size of a small county and about one-sixth the size of Atlanta. That’s about one-tenth of 1 percent of the South’s 200 million acres of forest. By way of comparison, the same report estimates that Asian privet had invaded some 3.2 million acres—14 times kudzu’s territory. Invasive roses had covered more than three times as much forestland as kudzu.”

Despite these much more conservative estimates, kudzu still figures prominently in the Southern imagination. As the photographs in this collection show, however, the Southern agricultural landscape features more than simply carpets of vine.  Plantings of nutrient-dense crimson clover, as well as rescuegrass, alfalfa, tree farms, and educational partnerships all played a part in the USDA’s efforts to stabilize and enrich the soil.  

Photograph of a farmer kneeling in a field of Sericea Lespedeza for hay and pasture, Columbia County, Georgia
Photograph of a farmer kneeling in a field of Sericea Lespedeza for hay and pasture, Columbia County, Georgia, 1950s

The images pertaining to Columbia County, Burke County, and McDuffie County, Georgia are part of a larger series of items that were taken throughout the continental United States and Puerto Rico and are housed at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Records of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, 1875-2002, and series title, Photographs of Water and Soil Conservation Practices, 1932 – 1977. The digital collection provides data transcribed from captions for the original photographs that includes information about the subject pictured, the location and the date the photograph was taken.

The South can tell as many stories as it can keep secrets. But the hope is that, with a little sunlight, this new collection will inform our understanding of the agriculture, landscape, and mythology the South has grown up around.

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Press Release: New Grant Program Seeks to Increase Digital Participation

September 1, 2017

New Grant Program Seeks to Increase Digital Participation

ATHENS, Ga — The Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, the Johnny Mize Collection at Piedmont College, and town films and home movies at the University of Georgia media archives are among nine Competitive Digitization grants awarded through a new program with the Digital Library of Georgia.

“The projects selected for DLG’s inaugural subgranting program represent the diverse history of the state. Our partners for these projects also reflect the wealth of cultural heritage organizations in the state” said Sheila McAlister, director of the Digital Library of Georgia.
These are the first grants awarded in the program intended to broaden partner participation in the Digital Library of Georgia (DLG). The DLG solicited proposals for historic digitization projects in a statewide call, and applicants submitted proposals for projects with a cost of up to $5,000. The projects will be administered by DLG staff who will perform digitization and descriptive services on textual (not including newspapers), graphic, and audio-visual materials.
Preference in the selection process was given to proposals from institutions that had not yet collaborated with the DLG. The Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace and Piedmont College Library are new partners for the DLG.

The nine recipients and their projects include:

  • Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace (Savannah) – Digitization and description of Juliette Gordon Low Correspondence, Series India Letters. Juliette Gordon Low traveled in northern India in 1908 and wrote letters to her family describing her experiences and impressions.
  • City of Savannah, Research Library & Municipal Archives – Digitization and description of Record Series 3121-019, Savannah Cadastral Survey – Ward Survey Maps, 1939-1940 (Ward Survey Maps were prepared by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as part of a survey project); Record Series 3121-020, Engineering Department – Major Subdivision Maps, 1871-1972, no date (Major Subdivision Maps include maps of Savannah neighborhoods and subdivisions prepared by surveyors and engineers submitted to the City of Savannah Engineering Department); Record Series 3121-007, Engineering Department – General Maps, 1798-1961, no date (maps illustrating property holdings, land subdivision, and private development in Savannah from the 18th-20th centuries).
  • Atlanta History Center – Digitization of recordings of the radio program Southwind: The New Sounds of the Old Confederacy, which aired on WABE in Atlanta between Nov. 14, 1980 and Jan. 29, 1987.
  • Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections – Digitization of the Pinebranch, the first student publication of South Georgia State Normal College and Georgia State Woman’s College (both earlier names for Valdosta State University).
  • Piedmont College Library (Demorest, Ga.) – Description of the May Ivie Valise Collection (a case full of historical materials belonging to Piedmont College alumna May Ivie), Johnny Mize Collection (fan letters and photographs belonging to professional baseball player and Demorest, Georgia native Johnny Mize).
  • Columbus State University Archives – Digitization and description of the Civil War era material of General Henry Benning, a prominent Confederate general and Georgia Supreme Court justice for whom Fort Benning was named.
  • Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection (Athens, Ga.) – Enhanced description of Georgia town films and home movies digitized by the Brown Media Archives.
  • Berry College (Mount Berry, Ga.) – Digitization of January 1907 to Winter 1942-1943 issues of the Southern Highlander, the official magazine of the Berry Schools.
  • Athens-Clarke County Library (Athens, Ga.) – Digitization and description of Image magazine, a publication that documented the everyday lives of the African American citizens of Athens, from 1977-1980.

Based at the University of Georgia Libraries, the Digital Library of Georgia is a GALILEO initiative that collaborates with Georgia’s libraries, archives, museums, and other institutions of education and culture to provide access to key information resources on Georgia history, culture, and life. This primary mission is accomplished through the ongoing development, maintenance, and preservation of digital collections and online digital library resources.

WRITER: Mandy Mastrovita, mastrovi@uga.edu, 706.583.0209
CONTACT: Sheila McAlister, mcalists@uga.edu, 706.542.5418

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