Illinois at War, 1941-1945
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives

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February 22, 1943


Five and a half million individuals nationally left farms for lucrative employment in cities during the war years. An additional 1,500,000 entered military service. This resulted in a shortage of agricultural labor at a time when food production was a vital priority. In Illinois the regular farm labor force declined from 978,907 in 1940 to 759,429 in 1945, a decrease of 28 percent. As a result farmers often put in eighty to ninety hours a week doing even field work on Sundays. Everyone in the farm family pitched in including those elderly members who previously had retired from heavy labor. And neighbor relied on neighbor to help in harvesting crops and in sharing scarce equipment and machinery which for the war's duration was being manufactured in sharply reduced numbers.

Still there were not enough hands to do the work. Alternative labor sources tapped included conscientious objectors, German and Italian prisoners of war, relocated Japanese-Americans, Mexican migrants, and women and children recruited from cities. More than 16,000 Illinois high school boys and girls left their homes in cities to live and work on farms during the summer of 1943 under the sponsorship of the United States Employment Service. Although some farmers considered the city children more trouble than they were worth, others found their help invaluable.

Living and Working on a Farm was prepared by W. D. Buddemeier and P. E. Johnston, professors in the College of Agriculture at the University of Illinois. It proved to be so practical that it was adopted by similar programs in fifteen other states. Feed corn was the chief Illinois war crop. Average production for 1942-1945 was 405,000,000 bushels a year as compared to 331,000,000 each year for the period 1935-1939.

Points to Consider

What might an Illinois urban high school student have found attractive and unattractive about working on a farm during the summer of 1943?

How much could a 64-page booklet teach high school students in cities about farm life?

Which other sources of temporary farm labor might have been tapped?

How did Illinois farmers regard their young hands from cities?

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