Nettie Featherston–1938.

Dust, Drought, and Depression #3

Woman of the High Plains, “If You Die, You’re Dead –That’s All.”1

Nettie Fetherston - One of two imaages by Dorothea Lange exhibited in the 1960s as Woman of the High Plains - and subsequently published in photography books

It was June 1938. Nettie Featherson was 40 and the mother of three sons when Dorothea Lange, a documentary photographer for the Farm Security Administration, ambled up to “Murray’s Place” near Carey in western Childress county. Inconspicuously, Lange snapped a series of black-and-white shots and handed two nickels to Nettie’s son, Ken. At 45, he still recalls the silver bonanza the photographer brought to the dusty North Texas farm more than 40 years ago. But Lange took back something of her own from the encounter with the Featherstons – a poignant series of photographs depicting a melancholy determined woman wearing a coarse cotton dress… The photographs remain a stark evidence of the poverty Nettie Featherston and thousands of other Americans endured between 1929 and 1948. They tell a story of resolve and perseverance, of survival. Until this year (1979), Nettie Featherston had no knowledge of her fame as the unidentified subject in Lange’s photograph, “Woman of the Plains.” 2

Nettie Fetherston - One of two imaages by Dorothea Lange exhibited in the 1960s as Woman of the High Plains - and subsequently published in photography books

Dorothea Lange’s photos of Elmore City, Oklahoma, native Nettie Featherston were part of the Farm Security Administration’s (FSA) extensive documentation of depression-era, rural America. Lange liked one photo so much that it was included in a series of 15 women in a book called The American Country Woman (1967). The portrait of each woman was paired with an image from their environment. The photograph’s title comes from a larger caption that recorded a conversation between Lange and Featherston, “We made good money pullin’ bolls [cotton], when we could pull. But we’ve had no work since March. When we miss, we set and eat just the same. The worst thing we did was when we sold the car, but we had to sell it to eat, and now we can’t get away from here. We’d like to starve if it hadn’t been for what my sister in Enid sent me. When it snowed last April we had to burn beans to keep warm. You can’t get no relief here until you’ve lived here a year. This county’s a hard county. They won’t help bury you here. If you die, you’re dead, that’s all.”3

Drought years. Texas Panhandle. Windmill. Dorothea Lange (photographer) 1938

Nettie Featherston, with her firm, lined face, slender body, and wind-blown hair, is known to thousands as the subject of “Woman of the Plains,” a series of photographs taken by Dorothea Lange in 1938 as part of the Farm Security Administration’s study of migrant farm workers. The Nebraska State Historical Society has been searching for the people in those pictures to find out how they fared since the Depression, and when the Childress Index reprinted Lange’s series, three people recognized the woman and directed the researchers to her. The 81-year-old widow, who lives alone in Lubbock, had no trouble recalling the back-breaking days in the thirties when her family picked cotton fourteen hours a day. One thing she can’t remember is Dorothea Lange. “You can tell from those pictures how played out I was,” she said, a bit sadly. “But my son – he’s 45 now – he remembers, ‘cause the lady gave him two nickels to keep, and his daddy gave him little tobacco sack to put ‘em in. He was so proud.” 4

Nettie Featherston in the four-room house she shares with her son. Lubbock, Texas. August 1979.

Nettie Featherston in the four-room house she shares with her son. Lubbock, Texas. August 1979. 5

Woman of the High Plains, Texas Panhandle another photo. Nettie Featherston - Dorothea Lange,  (photographer) June 1938

“We were on the road, just trying to find some thing [for a job]. We stopped at a filling station in Carey [Texas], and this cotton grower come by and seen our bedding on top of the car. He asked if weʼd like to go out and pull some bolls [harvest the cotton] for him. We did that all that winter. After that we had to wait for chopping time [in the summer]. My brother went back to Childress and played dominoes. Thatʼs the way we lived, from what he made playing dominoes. “We lived in a little two-room house. Had a wood stove that we cooked blackeye peas on. We ate so many blackeye peas that I never wanted to see another blackeye pea. We even slept on ʼem, laid out pallets on the pods of blackeye peas and hay. Your kids would cry for something to eat and you couldnʼt get it. I just prayed and prayed and prayed all the time that God would take care of us and not let my children starve. All our people left here. They live in California. But we were so poor that we couldnʼt have went to California or nowhere else. “I never much thought about ever living this long [81 years]. I just didnʼt think weʼd survive. If you want to know something, weʼre not living much better now than we did then – as high as everything is. “I remember those times and it seems like Iʼm not satisfied. I have too much on my mind. It seems like I have more temptations put on me than anyone, to see if youʼre able to bear them or not. And every time I ask God to remove this awful burden off my heart, He does.” 6

Woman of the High Plains, Texas Panhandle another photo. Nettie Featherston - Dorothea Lange,  (photographer) June 1938

Woman of the High Plains, Texas Panhandle another photo. Nettie Featherston - Dorothea Lange,  (photographer) June 1938

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Nettie Featherston is #005 in the Eyes of the Great Depression series.

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  1. Photographs from the American country woman series, NYPL Digital Gallery
  2. Nettie remembers Great Depression, Burlington Hawk Eye, October 29, 1979 retrieved from http://newspaperarchive.com/burlington-hawk-eye/1979-10-29/page-6 on 4/1/2013
  3. Woman of the High Plains “If You Die, You’re Dead–That’s All.” Inspiring Visions, Artists’ Views of the American West, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas (Accessed 8/24/2016)
  4. Texas Monthly, September 1979, page 102
  5. Photo by Bill Ganzel (Accessed 8/24/2016)
  6. Dorothea Lange’s photo of Nettie Featherston, Wessells Living History Farm, York, Nebraska. (Accessed 8/24/2016)

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(Blast from the Past – Iconic images of Woman of the High Plains have already appeared twice on Exit78, one of which was in this post, originally from April 2013.   She also appeared in The Bitter Years, Edward Steichen’s last exhibition as Director of the Department of Photography at New York’s  Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). I am working my way through the images from that exhibition and have brought this post forward to be reposted at the same time as Wife of a Migratory Laborer with 3 Children – The Bitter Years 004.)

Woman of the High Plains products from Exit78 at zazzle.com

america, american history, blast from the past, Dust, Drought, and Depression, great depression, history, life, people, photography, texas

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