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 HomePLACE works with Georgia’s public libraries and related institutions to digitize historical content for inclusion in the Digital Library of Georgia.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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Civic Magazine collection from City of Savannah, Research Library and Municipal Archives

Savannah mayor Floyd Adams, Jr. hands out lunches at a summer lunch program for children.  Civic Magazine, 2002 Civic Magazine collection, Savannah (Ga.). Research Library and Municipal Archives
Savannah mayor Floyd Adams, Jr. hands out lunches at a summer lunch program for children.
Civic Magazine, 2002. Civic Magazine collection, Savannah (Ga.). Research Library and Municipal Archives

The DLG is pleased to announce the availability of the Civic Magazine collection from our partners at the City of Savannah, Research Library and Municipal Archives.  The collection is available at: http://dlg.galileo.usg.edu/CollectionsA-Z/civic_search.html

According to Luciana Spracher, the library and archives director for the City of Savannah, Research Library and Municipal Archives, “Civic Magazine was one of the earliest programs of the City of Savannah’s Government Channel 8, the city’s cable access channel now called SGTV 8, run by the City of Savannah’s Public Information Office (PIO).  The PIO office was established in 1987 “in an effort to improve communications between City Hall and the taxpayers,’ and help “the public better understand city programs and operations’ (taken from Charles Craig, “Former News Anchor City’s First PR Officer,” Savannah Morning News, 1987).  Civic Magazine helped the city government reach out and communicate to Savannah’s citizens in new ways, and connect with new audiences.” She notes:  “I think the collection is important overall because it reflects the City of Savannah’s engagement with the community, as well as the unique personalities of our citizens and neighborhoods, something that is not often reflected in more traditional, paper-based records.”

Online access to this collection is exciting because, according to Spracher, “when Civic Magazine was produced (from 1998-2002), U-Matic ¾” tapes were in use by the television and news industry.  Now in 2016 everything is digital and we no longer had the equipment to play the tapes back for researchers or even staff.  So even though the tapes were inventoried based on labeling and PIO inventories and technically available to the public, we couldn’t access the content.”  She notes “Having the old U-Matic tapes digitized and made available online through the Digital Library of Georgia will open up this collection to our citizens, researchers, and City staff for the first time for true use.  In fact, I will be discovering most of this collection as a first-time user, and I can’t wait!”

The collection focuses a great deal on city growth and municipal government activities in Savannah at the end of the twentieth century.  When asked if this period of time was especially busy for Savannah, Spracher says:  “I think we could say that any period of time in city government was busy for its era with either rapid growth or major challenges that we are trying to overcome.  The difference here is that in the late twentieth century, for the first time, the City is starting to capture these events through video so we have a more dynamic record of what is going on than just the static approval of a program or the paper invitation to the ribbon cutting, but the actual final event that was the culmination of all the hard work.  It helps bring history to life in a different way when we can almost be there by watching and listening to it.”

The city of Savannah is celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Olympic yachting events being held in Savannah. Spracher is particularly interested in looking at all the material in the collection that is related to the 1996 Olympics. She notes: “We had several important Olympic events here in the community as part of the Olympics, including the arrival of the Olympic flag in 1992, the Olympic Torch Relay in 1996, and major community beautification projects leading up to the races.”

We hope that you take the time to view the resources in this new collection and witness the many ways the city government of Savannah has been involved with its community.

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