Looking back to the beginnings with Native Americans and early English settlers, O'Gorman traces the development of the fields by Polish immigrants to a peak in the industry in the Victorian and Edwardian eras and boom during the Second World War. In the decades following the war, many small tobacco growers in Connecticut fell victim to a modernized society -- with its "suburban sprawl" and arrival of airports -- a trend the author clearly laments. Private farms largely were sold for housing developments and to big corporations, which continue to grow and produce tobacco there today. However, the small family operations supported by communities built on the cigar industry fell by the wayside.
O'Gorman points to the tobacco sheds and curing barns that still dot the landscape as the last remnants of the early farmers and a testament to their lifestyle. The decrepit relics, some nearly 100 years old, stand next to the modern barns, which use much the same plans as those built at the turn of the twentieth century. Piecing together oral history, agricultural diaries, old newspaper articles and interviews, the author conveys the gamble that farmers took harvesting tobacco in the area to support a way of life. A high-risk crop vulnerable to mold, hail and other potential disasters,tobacco also held promise of huge returns that could finance a house and land, put money in the bank and buy a piece of the American Dream.
The New York Times says the book, published last August, "may be the best-written work on the subject." It includes black and white images of the farms in the 1800s and early 1900s, beautiful color photos of the Valley today, and old illustrations and blueprints of the tobacco sheds and curing barns.
James F. O'Gorman is Grace Slack McNeil Professor of History of American Art at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. He is also the author of ABC of Architecture. Connecticut Valley Vernacular is published by University of Pennsylvania Press and retails for $34.95.