In overalls and a collared work shirt, the Iowa farmer stood at his bathroom sink and looked in the mirror. He lathered up his face, leaned in with his razor, and began his daily whisker harvest. A few feet away, A.M. “Pete” Wettach squinted through his camera and released the shutter, capturing a milestone on the Ralph Curtis farmstead. Electricity had finally arrived in this corner of Lee County, and a new bulb above the sink brightened Ralph’s morning shave before he headed into the fields.
The scene was among the tens of thousands preserved by Wettach’s lens during the Great Depression and postwar years in rural Iowa—a period when electricity and mechanization revolutionized the American family farm even as economic hardships bore down. The horse-drawn plows of the pioneer days gave way to steel-wheeled tractors, indoor plumbing replaced outhouses, and ice boxes were swapped out with refrigerators.
A loan officer with the Farm Security Administration, Wettach (1901-76) crisscrossed Iowa’s dusty roads in the 1930s and 1940s to help renting farmers purchase their land through government programs. Wettach was also a freelance photographer who traveled with his large-format Graflex camera in tow and sold images to farm magazines, newspapers, and other publications. Along his travels, Wettach photographed everything from families cooking meals atop new stoves to early combines rolling through the fields. The close relationships he developed with his clients resulted in often intimate snapshots of their lives. For historians, Wettach’s photography provides a unique document of rural Iowa during an era of hardship and change. For the rest of us—as you’ll see in the coming pages— the photos also provide a nostalgic window into time and place as idyllic as it was hardscrabble.
Wettach’s work is the subject of a traveling UI Museum of Art exhibition titled Farm Life in Iowa, which was on display in Maquoketa earlier this spring and opens at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum and Library in West Branch in early 2018. The installations are part of the UIMA’s Legacies for Iowa program, which is supported by the Matthew Bucksbaum family and shares the university’s art collection in communities across the state.
The museum exhibitions spotlight a collection of photographs that had sat unnoticed for decades—until their serendipitous discovery in 1999. That was the year the late Leslie Loveless, then an editor at the UI’s Institute for Rural and Environmental Health, recovered six old boxes of postcard-sized, black- and-white negatives from the bottom of an Oakdale Campus filing cabinet. The images that emerged—at once visually striking, artfully composed, and pristine in quality—revealed a bygone era. There was the backbreaking toil of farm life and the desolation of drought and the Depression. At the same time, many of the photos were Rockwellian—children picking vegetables, mothers rolling out pie crusts, and fathers kicking back with an evening newspaper.
Atop one of the boxes, Loveless found a label: “A.M. Wettach; Agricultural Photographer; Mount Pleasant, Iowa.” The surname led her to Wettach’s son, Robert Wettach, 56MD, a family doctor in Mount Pleasant, who had stored his father’s entire collection of prints and negatives in his basement since Pete’s death 23 years earlier. Working with Loveless, Robert donated the bulk of the estimated 50,000 negatives, maybe more, to the State Historical Society of Iowa. In 2002, Loveless published a book of Wettach’s photos titled A Bountiful Harvest through the UI Press.
Mary Bennett, 76BA, 85MA, special collections coordinator for the State Historical Society of Iowa, says Wettach’s ties to a community modest in both manner and means resulted in a more authentic depiction of Iowa than the Farm Bureau poster families. Says Bennett: “These were the people who were converting a chicken coop to live in, or families scrambling to grow vegetable gardens to supplement their income. It’s a socioeconomic portrait that we wouldn’t have otherwise.”
UIMA Senior Curator Kathleen Edwards says that Wettach’s photos countered the notion of rural backwardness—a popular view among urbanites of his era. Instead, the ingenuity and resourcefulness of Wettach’s subjects mirrored the ideals of 19th century Western European agrarian philosophy, such as self-determination, independence, religious freedom, family values, and the nobility of a life among nature.
Says Edwards: “There was the belief that there was political and economic strength for those who worked the land.”
Even with Loveless’ book and the UIMA exhibitions, the bulk of Wettach’s work remains unexplored. Only a small fraction of his photos have been examined, let alone exhibited or published, and the large-format negatives sit sealed in their original boxes on shelves in the Historical Society’s Iowa City Research Center awaiting future historians. “I would say we’ve only begun to realize how magnificent the collection is,” says Bennett.