EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 2. Early Years: The Great Depression and World War II

I was born at home in a small house for hired hands nine miles west of Bridgeton, New Jersey, on March 28, 1934. My father was a farmhand and my mother, a domestic. After the early death of Grandmom Brown of stomach cancer at age thirty-two some eighteen years earlier, my father, Calvin—then twelve years old and the oldest of four children—dropped out of fifth grade and left home to work as a live-in farmhand. He sent his meager income home each week to help Grandpop Brown, who was trying to raise the three younger children on his own.

When Pop was fully grown at six feet tall, he was a handsome man, rather English in appearance. His quietness seemed to reflect that of his mother, a Quaker of Scottish descent.  

Grandpop Brown was a seasonal farm worker. He and Grandmom and the kids (as soon as they were old enough) worked on farms—picking strawberries and cutting asparagus in the spring, then hoeing and weeding vegetable fields during the summer, picking tomatoes in late summer, husking corn in the fall, and cutting and shocking cornstalks in late fall.

During the winter, Grandpop supported the family by digging ditches. He was skilled in laying underground tile drainage systems. The ones that drain low-lying fields in western Stow Creek Township, where I grew up, are still functioning nearly a century later, including one on our family farm.

My mother, Delia Smith, herself the daughter of a farmer and the fourth of five surviving children, lost her mother to diabetes when she was twenty. Mom, who had dropped out of school in seventh grade, worked as a domestic for a well-to-do family in the nearby hamlet of Hancocks Bridge. About five foot six, Mom was a blonde with a touch of strawberry, which is not surprising given her maternal Irish ancestry. Like Pop, she was a quiet person.

Grandpop Smith accumulated three adjoining farms with marginal soils over a lifetime—not because he ever made much money, but because he never spent much. The son of one of three brothers who migrated from Thüringen, Germany, in 1852 and took up farming in Salem County in southern New Jersey, he was a hardworking, successful farmer. Grandmom Smith was born a Gallaher, as Irish as one could be.

My father apparently met my mother when he was working on the Smith farm. After a short courtship they married in 1933 and moved into the small farmhand house a few miles to the south, just across the border in Cumberland County, where I was born.

As my parents were awaiting my arrival in the early spring of 1934, Pop decided to attempt the jump from farmhand to farmer. He used his meager savings to buy a team of horses and some secondhand farm equipment. After eighteen years of working for a half dozen different farmers, he felt he had to give it a try. Starting to farm in 1934 during the Great Depression, when millions of established farmers were going broke, was a gutsy move—and uphill all the way.

Buying a farm was out of the question, so Pop rented the smallest of the three farms that Grandpop Smith owned. It was partly surrounded by the tidal salt marshes on the southwestern corner of New Jersey, where the Delaware River widens to become the Delaware Bay. We lived not far from Harmersville, a hamlet in the southernmost part of Salem County, near the border with Cumberland County.

The uneven soils, mostly clay in some places and gravelly in others, were not the ones that gave New Jersey its nickname “the Garden State.” In addition, the fields were irregular in shape, conforming to the borders of the salt marshes. Mosquitoes were abundant.

The farmhouse was a small wooden structure with a shed, kitchen, living room, and one bedroom upstairs. We had no electricity, no running water or indoor plumbing, and no refrigerator. Mom cooked on a woodstove. The outhouse was about forty paces from the house—but seemed much farther on a cold winter’s night! Mom washed our clothes on a washboard in a metal tub. We took our baths in that same tub once a week.

Austerity reigned in our home. We had no music, no radio, and no books.  The walls were bare. We never went to a restaurant, never went to the movies, and never celebrated holidays. There are no baby photos of me. The earliest photograph of me is the one in the front of this book, taken the year I started school.

My brother Carl was born on this farm shortly before I turned three. Like me, he was born at home with the local physician, Dr. Carl Ware, in attendance. Out of gratitude for delivering both of us, my parents named my brother after Dr. Ware. I was named after Lester Cain, my father’s favorite cousin, who was a successful dairy farmer.

We lived at the end of a mile-long dirt lane. Mail was delivered to a large rural mailbox located where our lane reached the main road. One Christmas, we discovered in the mailbox a basket filled with an assortment of fresh fruit from an anonymous donor. I still remember the excitement of that moment. We could celebrate Christmas!

Although our living conditions were humble, we always had enough to eat. We had our own garden and produced potatoes and other vegetables. Mom canned tomatoes, peas, lima beans, sweet corn, and fruit—importantly, peaches and strawberries. She made grape jelly and applesauce.

We had a dairy cow and a small flock of chickens to supply eggs and, on rare occasions, a young rooster to eat. Mom baked our bread and we made our own butter and cottage cheese. One of my early household chores was to shake a one-quart jar of cream (not quite full) until the fat globules coalesced into butter. Although it seemed like I had to shake the jar forever, it was only fifteen minutes. Beyond bread and potatoes, we frequently ate a cornmeal porridge, which we called mush, which was served with milk and molasses. On particularly cold days Mom treated us to “ice cream” by flavoring milk that was partially frozen with some vanilla and sugar.

Muskrat coats were in fashion during the 1920s and 1930s, creating a thriving market for muskrat pelts. For the farmers who owned adjoining marshlands, muskrats were the winter crop. The pelts sold for a dollar each and the carcasses were either sold for a quarter each, given away, or simply discarded. For us, a common winter dinner was fried muskrat and milk gravy—flavored with the remnants of frying the muskrat in lard—served on homemade bread.

Muskrats were so abundant at the time that the women’s auxiliary of the township fire company in nearby Hancocks Bridge held an annual muskrat dinner to raise funds. That tradition continues to this day. When I am asked what muskrat tastes like, I explain that muskrat is to rabbit or squirrel as duck is to chicken—much more flavorful.

During the early years spent on this farm, I learned to work. One of my chores as a four-year-old was to clean the horse stables each day. This was particularly onerous because the horse manure and the litter would get wedged between the irregularly sawed planks of the stable floor. I can still remember the frustration!

One of my summertime responsibilities was to keep our field of tomatoes free of Colorado potato beetles. Since the tomato and the potato are first cousins, both members of the Solanaceae family, the Colorado potato beetle thrives on both. We did not have pesticides, so I patrolled the field, carrying in one hand a discarded vegetable can that had an inch of kerosene in the bottom. Row by row, I would walk the tomato field, quickly grab the black-and-yellow striped beetle when I spotted it, and drop it into the can. When I came across a cluster of their bright orange eggs, always laid on the underside of the leaf, I simply squished them with a pinch. Some days I spent hours walking the tomato field to protect it from a pest that, if not controlled, could literally defoliate the tomato plants, destroying the crop.

Herbicides were not yet available and mechanical cultivators did not always get all the weeds, so we also did a lot of hoeing and weeding by hand. Walking through the field, we typically did two rows at a time, pulling the weeds that would compete with the corn, tomatoes, or other crops for sunlight, soil moisture, and nutrients.

Our family did not socialize very much, but sometimes on a Sunday afternoon we would climb into our 1933 Chevy and visit some of our cousins. Most often we visited the families of my mother’s older brother or my father’s younger brother, both of whom lived only a few miles away. This was a rare chance for my brother and me to play with other children.

From time to time, Pop would go to the local general store where a handful of farmers gathered in the evening after dinner to talk and tell stories. It was not customary to take children to these gatherings, but for some reason Pop, perhaps sensing my intense interest, took me with him. I sat quietly in the background and absorbed everything. To the extent that I can tell stories, it is an art I learned from these farmers sitting around the cracker barrel.

Somewhere along the way, apparently by the time I was four years old, someone had taught me to read. It was almost certainly Grandpop Smith. I vaguely recall sitting on his knee and doing something with letters. Well before I started school, my father would have me spell for friends and neighbors who would drive down our lane just to drop in and say hello, as neighbors in rural communities did in those days.

My recollection of the first day of school in the nearby village of Canton is simply that there were a lot of people and a lot of noise. I had never seen so many people in one place before. Nearly a hundred students studied in the three-room school. The outhouses were out back, and the cast-iron water pump was beside the school. There was no cafeteria. I enjoyed kindergarten and was thoroughly engaged in learning and finding books to read.

In the spring of 1940, Pop was contacted by the owner of a farm where he had worked several years earlier as a hired hand. The sharecropper was retiring and the owner offered my father the opportunity to sharecrop his eighty-four-acre farm. Sharecropping is an arrangement where the landlord provides the land, buildings, and operating capital while the sharecropper typically provides the equipment and does the actual farming. Income from the sale of crops, milk, and livestock is then shared between the landlord and farmer. Although it was only six miles from where we lived, the soils were much more fertile and the agricultural community was more prosperous. Pop accepted the offer, and in March 1940 we moved.

My new school, Stow Creek School, reflected the community’s relative prosperity. It had indoor plumbing and a cafeteria. Upon my arrival, and after the usual testing, they moved me from kindergarten into first grade, making me a year younger than my classmates.

This farm had a dairy barn, which Pop quickly filled with a dozen cows. In addition to selling milk, we also grew a few acres of tomatoes and peppers as cash crops. Here I learned to milk cows, starting with Mollie, an older cow who was gentle and an easy milker.

Pop started farming with a team of horses. Given a choice, he would rather have farmed with horses than with a tractor. When we had only thirty acres of cropland on our first farm, he could manage it with horses. But eight-four acres was beyond the range of a team of horses, so he reluctantly bought a new tractor, a Farm All A, manufactured by International Harvester.

We were settled away on a good farm and doing well. Then on Sunday, December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Suddenly the United States was at war with both Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. At age thirty-seven, with a family to support and a large farm to operate, Pop was exempt from the draft. But the effects of the war were pervasive. We had air raid drills, where everyone gathered in the school because it was the only large brick building in Stow Creek Township.

As children we looked forward to these drills because once we were assembled we each got a Popsicle, either a chocolate-covered vanilla or an orange-ice-covered one.  I usually opted for the latter. At school, we began putting money aside to purchase U.S. savings bonds, a quarter at a time, until we filled seventy-five slots. Costing $18.75, the bonds could be redeemed in twelve years for $25. Metal became scarce and we recycled everything we could find. Gasoline, tires, and sugar were rationed. Farmers were in a favored rationing category, having special access to gasoline and tires, because producing food was such an essential part of the war effort.

Meanwhile I was enjoying school and reading voraciously. Once class assignments were given, I would rush to finish them so I could read books in the library. This was widely recognized by my teachers come report card time. My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Tomlinson, wrote, “His reading and choice of reading material, especially historical books, is outstanding. … The thing he needs to do most is to slow up.” The sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Van Vliet, wrote, “He does his work ‘too fast.’ This leads to carelessness.” This was true, but I was willing to settle for a slightly lower grade because I was learning so much from reading.

During at least one school year, I read over 100 books. I found biographies intensely interesting, including those of our founding fathers. Others I particularly enjoyed were about Abraham Lincoln, Marie Curie, and George Washington Carver. By the time I graduated from eighth grade I had read almost every book in Stow Creek School.

Since we were rather isolated on the farm and since neither of my parents had ever read a book, our dinner table conversations were limited. Biographies opened the world to me in a way that my parents could not. Thus at an early age my sense of self was being influenced by my fascination with these political leaders and scientists. They had addressed the major issues of their time, and I wanted to do the same.

Jim Wood, an older farmer down the road, noticed that whenever we dropped by I would look for their newspapers and then sit quietly reading them while the adults talked. He suggested that each day after school I come by and pick up the two newspapers from the day before—the Philadelphia Inquirer and Bridgeton Evening News. This quickly became part of my daily routine. Since the newspapers were a bit large for me to hold, I spread them out on the living room floor reading them on my hands and knees. Fascinated by the reports on the war, I followed the North Africa campaign with intense interest. The newspapers used maps to show the advances or retreat of the Allied forces. They showed where Rommel’s army was located and described its strategic goals. I learned names of cities like Tripoli, Bizerte, and El Alamein.

Closer to home, one facet of the war was being waged just off the U.S. East Coast. Once at war, we literally had to build thousands of ships, including battleships, destroyers, aircraft carriers, freighters, tankers, and troop transports. Steel for the ships produced at the nearby huge Philadelphia shipyard came from Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point Plant near Baltimore. The steel was shipped down the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River, into the Atlantic Ocean, up the East Coast into the Delaware Bay, and up the Delaware River to Philadelphia. Unfortunately the United States had little capacity to deal with the German U-boats. Plying the waters off the U.S. coast, they picked off the U.S. ships one by one as they moved between Baltimore and Philadelphia. Although it was not public knowledge at the time, eighty-six U.S. ships were sunk off the East Coast during 1942, many of them along that stretch of coast between the mouths of the Potomac and Delaware rivers.

The response to these attacks was to avoid going out to the ocean by using the inland canal that connects the upper Chesapeake Bay to the lower Delaware River. Some twenty miles in length, the eastern end of the C & D Canal was only fifteen miles up the river from our farm as the crow flies. Eventually, the U.S. Navy began to thin the ranks of U-boats with much more effective weapons technologies, including destroyers, radar, and depth charges. In 1943, the number of U.S. ships lost off the East Coast dropped to eight.

After nearly two years of the ebb and flow of battle between Allied and Axis forces in North Africa, the Germans and the Italians, who were running out of supplies, were decisively defeated in May 1943. Some 275,000 troops were surrendered to the Allies. Hitler, occupied with mounting problems on the eastern front with Russia, was forced to pull back from North Africa. It was an early turning point in the war.

By this time the air raids on Germany by fleets of U.S. and British bombers, escorted by fighter planes, were rapidly increasing. Then one day the bold headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer said 1,000 Allied planes had crossed the English Channel the previous night. We knew then that the tide was starting to turn.

For Christmas in 1943, Emma Dixon, the daughter of our landlord, Theodore Dixon, and a schoolteacher in neighboring Hopewell township, gave me a copy of Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss. When I am asked what book has had the most influence on me, that is the one I cite. What remains with me from that book about a shipwrecked family on an uninhabited tropical island was the father’s ingenuity in creating a civilized environment for his wife and four sons in such difficult circumstances.

Our landlord’s other daughter, Jessie Lilly, used to pick up Carl and me every Sunday morning to take us to the Cohansey Baptist Church, roughly a mile away in Roadstown. In Sunday school we memorized verses from the Bible. For each verse memorized, we got a small blue ticket, which (surprise) also had a Bible verse on it. If we earned four blue tickets, we could trade them in for a red ticket, and if we accumulated 100 red tickets, we got a new Bible. I saw this as an extraordinary opportunity, a chance to earn something myself. At times I memorized whole sections of the New Testament books, such as Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. It did not take long before I presented my Sunday School teacher with100 red tickets and was awarded a new Bible. Because I was accustomed to working for nothing, getting something in return was exciting, to say the least.

In early 1944, Pop learned of a forty-acre farm for sale in the western end of Stow Creek Township, roughly four miles from where we were living. The owner was asking $2,500. For Pop, the early war period had been years of both good harvests and good prices. He had saved enough money to pay cash for this smaller farm. Mom, however, enjoyed the Dixon farm neighborhood and friends there, and she was reluctant to move. It was one of the few times she demurred when Pop made a decision. The bottom line was we’d have not only a farm but also a home of our own. The soils, though not as uniformly fertile as those on the Dixon farm, were nonetheless quite productive.

This farm, which had electricity but no indoor plumbing, came with seven acres of asparagus. The asparagus beds, which can produce for up to twenty years once established, were aging. But for the first few years on the farm, we cut asparagus beginning in mid-April and continuing through the end of June. The asparagus went to the P.J. Ritter cannery in Bridgeton, New Jersey, roughly ten miles from the farm, for 9¢ a pound. Cutting asparagus is hard, backbreaking work, but there was a good market. We also grew peppers and tomatoes. This farm on Sandwash Road was to become the family homestead, the Brown farm, where our parents spent the rest of their lives. And it was here that our little sister, Marion, was born in 1945. There were nearly three years between me and Carl, and nine years between him and Marion. The farm is still in the family, now owned by my brother and me.

During the summer of 1944, when I was ten, we took our tomatoes to the same P.J. Ritter cannery that processed our asparagus. Much to my astonishment, when we started handing the baskets of tomatoes from the truck to the factory hands, I realized we were handing them to German prisoners of war. They all wore khaki jumpsuits with “PW” hand-stenciled on the back in large, black letters. They were among the troops who had surrendered to Allied forces in North Africa. When given a choice of staying in detention camps in the desert or coming to the United States to work, they chose the latter. With some 600 German soldiers living in our community, the war that I was following so intently in the newspapers suddenly felt very close.

Then in 1945 the war came to an end and the country gradually worked itself back to a more normal existence. Within a few years, Pop had built a barn and again accumulated a dairy herd, this time about twenty cows. Back to milking cows, we divided the milking rather evenly among Pop, Carl, and me. Cows have to be milked twice a day, 365 days a year. And since they had to be fed and milked both before and after school, we were up early each morning and had to milk again after getting home from school.

Our student body at Stow Creek was largely of European extraction with a minority of African Americans and an even smaller minority of Native Americans. The latter were part of the Lenni-Lenape tribe.

In early June of 1947, I graduated from eighth grade, the first in our family to make it through elementary school. Our eighth-grade teacher and the school principal, Henrietta Tomlinson, who had been teaching kindergarten and first grade when I arrived at the school in 1940, took me aside and said that in the evaluation forms that would be submitted to Bridgeton High School, she had done something rare. She had given two students, Jane Fogg and me, straight A evaluations as high school prospects.

A new chapter was about to begin. Bridgeton High School, drawing roughly half of its 1,000 or so students from the town of Bridgeton and half from the surrounding rural communities, was an ethnic melting pot. The diversity from elementary school expanded to include many Japanese Americans whose families had the opportunity of leaving internment camps to come work at Seabrook Farms. We were also joined by displaced Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians who began their own lives at Seabrook.

Entering high school meant that we had to make choices about what we wanted to study and whether we wanted to go to college. For someone like me, who was very much engaged in farming, enjoyed agriculture, and was eager to learn more, the choice was simple. On the advice of Mrs. Tomlinson, I enrolled in vocational agriculture on the college-prep track.

For me, high school involved still more travel time on the bus. In addition to spending more time on homework and chores on the farm, I also got involved in sports. In my sophomore year, age fourteen, I started running cross-country and track. In my junior year I added football, and when the school launched a wrestling team I immediately became a starter. I fared much better in wrestling, which was organized by weight classes, than in football. It was the first sport in which I lettered.

I was on a football squad that was regularly winning championships, but I rarely got on the field. Here size, maturity, and experience were far more important. The coach’s philosophy was that if you worked hard and did not skip practices, you were awarded a letter in your senior year. It is the only way I could earn a letter in football.

Although I was doing well in school, I had an underlying feeling of social inadequacy, largely because of my parents’ lack of education and the austere conditions in which we lived. With farming taking most of the money, we had little to spend on furniture or clothes. My clothes sometimes drew attention—but for the wrong reasons. It was not until I was in college that Carl replaced our outhouse with an indoor bathroom. Until then I was embarrassed to bring friends home after school.

In addition to classroom study, vocational agriculture students were required to have their own farm projects. If you did not live on a farm, you had to work on a farm to gain firsthand experience with agriculture. In my sophomore year, my project was to build a twelve-by-fourteen-foot coop in which to brood and raise chickens. I was proud of it. The design came from a Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station pamphlet. My brother and I then started raising broilers in the early months of the year, followed by pheasants in the spring.

One of the things we noticed when we were raising chickens was that whenever you put fresh feed in the feeder or even walked in and stirred up the feed, the chickens, being naturally curious, would come up and eat a bit whether they were hungry or not. My brother and I then set up a schedule so that one of us would feed them first thing in the morning, and again before we went to school. Mom would feed them during the day, and we would feed them when we got home from school, after dinner, and finally just before going to bed. The purpose of the frequent feeding was to get the chickens to eat more and grow faster. We also put vitamin pills in their drinking water. Our strategy worked!

We entered the New Jersey 4-H Chicken of Tomorrow competition, a contest to see who could produce the best chickens in twelve weeks, starting with day-old chicks. At the end of twelve weeks, Carl and I each submitted five birds from our flock for evaluation by the judges. The weight of the five birds entered by other contestants ranged from twelve to twenty pounds. Ours weighed in at twenty-four pounds. Carl’s entry won the state competition. He was thirteen years old. The local supplier of the day-old chicks, Garrison’s Hatchery, was delighted with the free publicity.

Once the chickens had gone to market, we cleaned out the brooder house and replaced them with pheasants. The day-old pheasant chicks were supplied, free, by the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife. When the chicks were twelve weeks old, the Fish and Wildlife officials would come by with crates and pickup trucks, load up the young pheasants, and release them around the state as part of an effort to rebuild the New Jersey pheasant population. They paid us $1 for each pheasant. Raising pheasants in captivity is not easy, and mortality rates are often high. But we were extraordinarily successful, so we were able to move ahead on a large scale, raising up to 600 at a time.

Early on in pheasant raising, we noticed that some of the birds’ legs were splaying, becoming weak and spreading out to the side, making it impossible for them to walk. We learned from our Fish and Wildlife contact that the premixed feed ration for chickens that we were using lacked manganese, an essential nutrient for pheasants. We switched to a premium game bird feed ration that contained a minute but essential amount of manganese, and the affected birds recovered quickly.

On another occasion, some of the pheasants—already several weeks old—started dying mysteriously. We paid Marion, who was only six, a nickel for each dead bird she brought out of the pens. It was much easier for her to walk under the low-hanging wire netting over the pens that kept the pheasants from flying away than for my brother or me to crawl around on our hands and knees. To this day, she likes to remind Carl and me of our child exploitation.

We reported the deaths to the Division of Fish and Wildlife because we had not seen anything like this in the previous batches of pheasants we raised. The officials there were as mystified as we were. But after several necropsies and more research and consultation with game bird pathologists in other states, they identified the cause as eastern equine encephalitis. It turns out this disease is similar to the West Nile virus that was brought into the United States several decades later. Both of these are mosquito-borne and can be deadly for horses, certain types of birds, and occasionally for people. Just as crows are highly vulnerable to West Nile, pheasants are vulnerable to eastern equine encephalitis. There was no preventative.

With these early projects to work on, some of them before Carl was even in his teens, my brother and I learned about a wide range of issues, including finance and management. We also learned more specialized topics such as building construction, poultry nutrition, and pheasant pathology, to name a few. We were thrilled, motivated, and inspired by the challenge of having our own farm projects. The stage was being set for our first major farming operation: growing tomatoes.