A Google alert recently notified our editor of an historic photograph depicting several men sitting around at a farm auction. With input from local historian Dave McWhorter, we learned that the photograph has a much broader significance in American history, due to the subject matter and the photographer himself. Now located in the Library of Congress, this series of photographs depicting life in Ohio towns during the Great Depression was captured by photographer Ben Shahn, who was known for depicting daily life in rural towns.
Shahn was an employee of FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was one of many Great Depression relief programs created through the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act, which Roosevelt had signed the month before. The WPA, the Public Works Administration (PWA) and other federal assistance programs put unemployed Americans to work in return for temporary financial assistance. Out of the ten million jobless men in the United States in 1935, three million were helped by WPA jobs alone.
WPA workers built highways, schools, hospitals, airports, playgrounds, and other entertainment venues. They also put actors, writers and other creative arts professionals back to work by sponsoring federally funded plays, art projects, such as murals on public buildings, and literary publications. FDR safeguarded private enterprise from competition with WPA projects by including a provision in the act that placed wage and price controls on federally funded products or services.
Armed with a camera, Shahn traveled across the state with the WPA, and took photographs of seemingly mundane scenes, yet the images’ pure and honest nature reveal a great deal about Ohio’s rural residents as they struggled to rebuild their lives after the end of the Great Depression.
Shahn was a Lithuanian-born immigrant who settled in Brooklyn, New York with his parents in 1906. There, he began working in lithography and graphic design as a teenager, and later entered the field of photography. His series on California labor leader Tom Mooney earned him recognition from famed painter Diego Rivera, and was asked to assist Rivera while he completed the Rockefeller Center mural..
His photographs from New Carlisle can be found in the Library of Congress’ online records. While the Library lists the photographs of the 1938 farm auction as being taken in New Carlisle, local historian Dave McWhorter believes that they were actually shot in Marysville.
One of the pictures depicts the sign on the front of the property listing it for sale. The sign names the seller as an M.C. Moses, New Carlisle. McWhorter said he first saw Shahn’s photographs of the farm auction several years ago, and began digging into the matter. He believes that M.C. Moses lived in New Carlisle, but said that the photos of the farm auction were likely taken in Marysville, where Moses owned property. He was a former New Carlisle mayor who established connections with the original owners of Silver Lake Beach.
Ruth Cradlebaugh, whose father owner Silver Lake, married Dr. Marion Moses, who was a veterinarian, mayor, flour mill and hardware store owner
During his term as Mayor, Moses freed New Carlisle from debt, and was described as a “stalwart.” The hardware store he owned in New Carlisle was known as “Brubaker and Moses.” The town did nor have a flour mill at the time, and hadn’t seen one in the city for 18 years before Dr. Moses opened the Honey Creek Mill.
Research indicates that Moses may have died in 1958 in Troy, Ohio. He was born in 1885.
McWhorter confirmed his suspicions last Monday at the library, spending hours scouring through old newspaper clippings on microfilm until he found the right one. In an article dated July 21, 1938, it states that the farm was in fact sold in Marysville on July 30, 1938. The six-room house and 135-acre farm was located three and a half miles northwest of Marysville and owned by Dr. M.C. Moses of New Carlisle.
McWhorter joked that perhaps the Library of Congress be informed of their error in labeling the photos as being shot in New Carlisle.