John Vachon caption: H.C. Richardson, Ozark farmer, with goat skin which has been bleached and washed. He sells these in town, three dollars. Oregon County, Missouri, November 1940.
“When I was growing up in Thayer, Missouri, Granddad Richardson lived with his son Jack in a small house in town. We had a garden of about one-half acre on our property, and Granddad Richardson did most of the work and shared the bounty. I remember two things about his gardening: he always planted by the signs of the moon; and he had a technique for planting corn and pole beans together so that the beans could be supported by the corn stalks and not need stakes. He was a lifelong hunter and fisherman and always had a rifle and shotgun around his house.” -Bill Campbell, grandson of Henry Calvin Richardson
I was immediately attracted to this photograph because it reminded me of my early life in rural Calvert County, Maryland. I lived there the last 11 years of my childhood. My parents had moved there from the Washington suburbs because my father got a job as a marine biologist, working at a laboratory near the Chesapeake Bay. I remember a lot of men in Calvert County that looked like Mr. Richardson. I was a little wary of them. They hardly ever smiled, seldom spoke unless spoken to, and didn’t pay much attention to me. There was one man named Rayner Wilson, who had an old shop a few miles north of my home. He fixed things, though I am not sure what. The shop was full of all kinds of stuff, and smelled like grease. My father seemed to go there a lot, and I would ride up with him. I would hang around and listen to my father talk to Mr. Wilson, while he tinkered with whatever needed fixing. And then we would go home. I don’t recall Mr. Wilson ever speaking to me. But my father liked and respected him.
When John Vachon secured a position as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, he had never been anywhere except his home state of Minnesota, and Washington, DC, where he attended college and worked. But his new assignment allowed him to travel around the country with his camera, and he became captivated by virtually everything he saw. He must have been fascinated with Mr. Richardson, because he took eight pictures of him, five shown here in this story.
Census information immediately identified his full name as Henry Calvin Richardson. In 1940, when he was photographed, he was lodging with John Baertschi, a farmer, at a house in Big Apple, Missouri, a small township 10 miles northwest of Thayer. I found part of his family history posted on the Web, and then an obituary for his youngest child, Jo Mildred Richardson Groves, who died in 2010. Soon I was talking to her son Michael, who referred me to Henry’s grandson Bill Campbell, who remembered his grandfather well. I interviewed him. He referred me to Susan Metzger, Henry’s great-granddaughter, who has compiled much of the family’s history. She provided me some photographs, and a detailed account of Henry’s life. None of the descendants were aware of Vachon’s famous photos of Henry.
John Vachon caption: H.C. Richardson and helper. Ozark farmer, earns living on goats and pigs. Oregon County, Missouri, November 1940.
John Vachon caption: Butchering goat. Oregon County, Missouri, November 1940.
John Vachon caption: Meat in store shed of Ozark farm. Oregon County, Missouri, November 1940.
Henry Calvin Richardson and wife, Sarah Elizabeth (Denton) Richardson. Pictured are their children: Jack and Gertrude (rear), Eureka (center), and Alma and baby Louise (front). Photo taken circa 1911-1912, shortly after they moved from Tennessee to Missouri.
The following are edited excerpts from an account of Henry’s life, written by Susan Metzger, Henry’s great-granddaughter.
Henry Calvin Richardson was born in Perry County, Tennessee on April 2, 1880, to John L. Richardson and Martha (Grooms) Richardson. On November 20, 1898, in Perry County, he married Sarah Elizabeth Denton, born in 1882, daughter of John Anderson Denton and Matilda Gilliam Culp, also from Perry County, Tennessee. They had 11 children: Cleo (called Jack), Gertrude, Ressie (who died in 1907), Eureka, Alma, Louise, Martha, Clastel, Ted (who died in 1917), Tess, and Jo Mildred.
In 1911, Henry came across the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers by ferry boats, with two wagons and two teams of mules and one helper by the name of John Barnett. They brought farming tools, etc. with them, coming across the swamps of Southeast Missouri before the swamps were drained and roads were built. They swam the mules with the wagons through numerous rivers and swamps, climbing over cypress knees and skirting quicksands. Sarah Richardson and children Jack, Gertrude, Eureka, Alma and Louise traveled mostly by boat to Memphis, Tennessee, and took a train from there and joined Henry nine months later.
Henry purchased a farm near Billmore, Missouri. Later he bought a farm near Clifton, Missouri. That farm was later sold, and Henry started a produce business on Front Street in Thayer. He operated it for several years, and then sold it. It was about this time that the Richardsons moved to Thayer. They lived there many years, until the house burned around 1930.
Henry operated a Standard Oil dealership for several years. He established the first independent wholesale and retail oil and gas business in Oregon County, called the Richardson Oil Company, later named Dixie Oil Company. For a time, the Richardsons operated a general store in Couch, Missouri, and had several farms in Oregon County. His wife Sarah died in Thayer on August 8, 1934. After daughter Alma and her family moved to Alabama in 1941, he went to live with them for a while and worked at a plant that made threaded castings to go in the nose of large bombs.
When he was in his seventies, Henry’s health began to deteriorate, and he eventually entered a nursing home in Michigan near where his daughter Gertrude lived. He died in Michigan on August 11, 1957, at the age of 77. He and Sarah were buried at Thayer Cemetery.
Edited interview with Bill Campbell (BC), grandson of Henry Calvin Richardson. Interview conducted by Joe Manning (JM) on October 16, 2012.
JM: What did you think of the photos?
BC: I was born in 1940, so I hadn’t seen him at that age. I don’t know where he was living then. I didn’t recognize it. He was under more rustic circumstances than when I knew him. Sitting in the chair with the goat skin, and having what looked like a wood burning stove was something I had never seen before. But my recollection is that he always wore a jacket and a hat, and that’s what he was doing in the photos. I knew about these government photographs, such as the ones by Walker Evans, but the fact that my grandfather was included in this collection is remarkable to me.
JM: What do you remember about your grandfather?
BC: My first recollections were that he and his son Jack, my uncle, lived in a small house in Thayer, Missouri. Uncle Jack’s real name was Cleo, but he hated it, so he went by Jack. I grew up in Thayer, which is in the Ozarks. I don’t know how much property he owned, maybe an acre or more. I remember going over there and visiting. He had a spring on the property, and there were crawfish that we would try to catch. He was knowledgeable about woodcraft and cooking of wild game, and that sort of thing.
JM: When you were growing up, did you see him often?
BC: Sure, probably at least once a week.
JM: What was he like?
BC: He was interesting. He was a little gruff. He was a bit standoffish, but never unkind. He was always helpful. He showed me how to do things like whittling and how to plant things. He was a great gardener.
JM: Did he ever tell you about his earlier life?
BC: Somewhat. He told me that he and my grandmother and his first few children moved from Tennessee to Missouri. I think it was about 1911. He and a colleague moved his household goods with a team of horses or mules from Perry County, which is on the Tennessee River. They crossed the Mississippi River at a place called Cottonwood Point, which at that time had a ferry, not far from where Carruthersville, Missouri is now. They had to go through the boot heel of Missouri, which in those days was mostly swampland, and that took them to the Ozark region, where he finally settled. It was a very difficult trip.
JM: How many children did he and your grandmother have?
BC: Nine (they had 11, but two died young). None of them are still living. My mother, Clastel, was the last living child. She died in 2010. She was third from the youngest. I think Jack was the oldest.
JM: What name did he go by, Henry or Calvin?
JM: When he got older, did he continue to work the farm?
BC: No. He was not farming when I knew him. By 1946 or 1947, he was in a little house and getting by some way, probably on Social Security. One of his older daughters lived in Birmingham. During part of World War II, he lived with her and worked in a munitions plant. That work would have qualified him for Social Security.
JM: After you grew up, did you continue to see him?
BC: Yes. He was always part of my life.
JM: What was he interested in? What did he like to do?
BC: I know that he was a poker player, but I don’t know who his poker buddies were. There was a story – I don’t know how much of this was exaggerated – that he was in a poker game in Tennessee one time, and guns were pulled. There was an allegation of cheating, not on his part, but on someone else’s part. He was known to carry a gun. I imagine that in those days, that was pretty common. He was very knowledgeable about guns and hunting. He used to talk to me about it. But he never took me hunting. I don’t think he had a car, and I don’t think he could drive.
JM: Did he have electricity and indoor plumbing?
BC: Yes. He had a nice little house, and he was a good cook. He did most of the cooking for himself and his son Jack.
JM: Did he go hunting, and then cook the game?
BC: Yes. One of my memories is when he roasted a raccoon for us at home.
JM: Was that the first time you had eaten a raccoon?
BC: Yes, the first and the last. It was not that bad, but no one has ever offered to cook one for me since. The trick, as my grandfather once said, is that you have to prepare it in a way that you can get the grease out. It’s a very greasy meat. He fixed it with sweet potatoes. He said that was the best thing to have with it.
JM: Did your mother ever talk to you about what her life was like when she was growing up?
BC: Yes. She said it was difficult. She grew up on a farm during the Depression. Two terrible things happened a few years apart. Their house burned down, and her mother died while my mother was still in high school.
JM: So when he was photographed, he had been facing very hard times.
BC: Definitely. And by that time, my mother was married and out of the house.
JM: Now that you have seen the photos, does that cause you to look at your grandfather any differently?
BC: Not really. I knew that he was sort of a rough customer, and that he had a lot of hard times. But I appreciate knowing now that he raised goats and knew how to skin them and prepare the skins. That adds to what I knew about his farming skills, hunting and cooking skills, and everything else he knew. I am guessing that he only went through the equivalent of eighth grade, and that would be stretching it. But he could read and write. And as far as I could tell, he was quite intelligent. He grew up in Perry County, Tennessee, near a town called Peter’s Landing. During the Civil War, that is where Nathan Bedford Forrest took his Confederate troops across the Tennessee River to raid Memphis. My grandfather remembered hearing stories told by people who remembered that happening. He knew about things like that. He was very Southern, let’s put it that way.
JM: Was he in good health his last few years?
BC: No. He suffered heart problems. Mentally, he was okay. He finally went into a nursing home.
JM: What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of him now?
BC: He had a hawk-like face and demeanor. He was very alert. He always looked you in the eye. He was somebody I admired, I can tell you that.
John Vachon caption: Butchering goat. Oregon County, Missouri, November 1940.
*Story published in 2012.