At first glance, this Farm Security Administration photograph from 1939 might not look like much. It shows a steam shovel, a slag heap, and some forlorn-looking corn stalks.
Dig deeper, though, and the richness of this image emerges.
If a photograph can depict something beyond its subject, this one depicts the economic realities of life for people in Southern and Central Illinois between the Civil War and the middle of the twentieth century.
Agriculture in the area flourished long before the Native-American tribes had ever seen a European. The civilization at today’s Cahokia Mounds practiced agriculture, raised livestock, and built granaries and storehouses to conserve the earth’s bounty.
In the time of the Europeans, this continued as the fertile farmland of the American Bottom was settled by the French at Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Prairie du Pont, and elsewhere.
Marquette and Joliet, on their 1673 journey down the Illinois River, were likely the first Europeans to see something different in the rocky bluffs and outcroppings. Somewhere between present-day Ottawa and Utica, they noted the presence of a “cole mine.”
This observation, made almost in passing in their diaries and maps, would set into motion the chain of events that made this photograph possible.
The first underground mines were near Belleville (St. Clair County) in the 1830s. By the start of the Civil War, with the expansion of railroads, coal production in Illinois began to grow rapidly. These mines were underground, built with the “room-and-pillar” system. Above these mines, agriculture could continue apace.
Then, in the early twentieth century, a different sort of mining emerged, the strip mine. This mining took place above ground in areas with large coal seams. What this did, however, was change the face of the landscape. Where there was once farmland, there was quickly mine pits and slag heaps.
These economic ways of life coexisted uneasily in Illinois, the steam shovel and the cornstalk in an ongoing standoff for control of the land.