The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
A few weeks ago, with winter in mind, I posted this picture of tractors on the National Mall during a snowstorm for my weekly “Sneak Peek” feature, highlighting interesting images in our photo archives. My initial research into the image made me realize there was an interesting story these tractors had to tell.
In February of 1979 farmers from the American Agriculture Movement (AAM) organized a tractor rally in Washington, DC in the hopes of driving change in agricultural policy. Thousands of farmers made the trip to Washington in their tractors, traveling across the US at fifteen miles per hour and covering no more than one hundred miles per day. Collecting along highways, they traveled in convoy and descended on the nation’s capitol on February 5, 1979.
The protesting farmers occupied the National Mall for weeks, demanding more pay for crops and lobbying for an increased role in agricultural policy decisions. An unsympathetic Washington billed the farmers as a nuisance that was costing taxpayers an estimated $1 million in tractor damage to the National Mall.
Tides turned on President's Day weekend when a blizzard hit, covering the city in two feet of snow. The farmers, in possession of some of the only vehicles able to move, rose to the occasion and helped dig out DC. They plowed out hundreds of cars and aided stranded citizens. They transported doctors and nurses to hospitals, where the wives of AAM farmers helped cook and clean because regular staff was unable to get to work. Twenty-two inches and a whole lot of goodwill turned these agitators into heroes.
During their weeks on the National Mall, the farmers frequented the Smithsonian museums, taking refuge from the cold winter days and eating lunches in the cafeterias. In 1986, the American Agriculture Movement donated one of the tractors from the 1979 tractorcade to the National Museum of American History. Since those times, AAM plays a key role in agricultural policymaking in Washington, DC.
In this case, a little bit of digging revealed a rich story about why this “tractorcade” was an important part of American history.