Hard Work, Buttermilk, and Dominoes

African American Farm Life in Texas, ca. 1900

Mary S. Black

Most children in the United States today cannot imagine life without electricity. No television? No computers? No video games? No lights at night? What was it like to sit around the evening fireplace, listening to stories told by Momma and Pappa before drifting off to sleep? To draw and carry water for cooking and washing from an outdoor well? To milk cows every day of the year before the sun came up?

Historians and archeologists recently documented life on the family farm of African Americans Rubin and Elizabeth Hancock in central Texas from 1880 to 1942.1 Lessons based on this investigation answer some of the questions children have about life before computers and televisions, while encouraging children to explore their own family histories.2

This article describes life on a small farm at the turn of the twentieth century and reviews a unit of study, available free to teachers on the World Wide Web, provided by the Texas Department of Transportation. The lessons were based on archeological research and oral history data. The lesson materials could be used for a unit on rural life in the past, African American history, or as an introduction to archeology. The lessons use primary sources and inquiry methods to help children to explore farm life in Texas at the turn of the nineteenth century.


Life on the Farm

Rubin and Elizabeth Hancock were both born into slavery during the 1830s or 1840s in Alabama or Tennessee and came to Texas as children before the Civil War. After Reconstruction, they acquired an 83-acre farm where they raised their children and lived the rest of their lives. They were better off economically than most blacks and many whites in Texas during the first half of the twentieth century because they owned their own land. They paid cash for the farm in three installments.

The five Hancock children grew up on the farm, helping with the many chores. The family grew cotton, corn, and oats. They also had two vegetable gardens and a small orchard of peaches and plums. They raised pigs and cows that provided a favorite treat, buttermilk: rich cow’s milk thick with creamy butter. The Hancocks’ log house had two rooms and a separate kitchen. Detached kitchens were typical in the early part of the twentieth century to prevent house fires. There was no electricity or indoor plumbing. Work on the farm was hard, but typical of the period. The family drew water in a bucket from a well and cooked on a cast-iron wood stove. They had to chop wood every day for cooking. Friends and relatives lived nearby.

All five children learned to read and write in a country school, for black children only, that was sponsored by a church. It appears that one daughter became a teacher for a time. The family went to Sunday school and church picnics at St. Pau#146;s Baptist Church. The children liked to sing and to play baseball and other games. They made homemade dominoes from cardboard and often sat in the shade on the front porch playing and sipping buttermilk.


Piecing History Together

How do we know about these things? Historical archeologists pieced together the story of the Hancock farm from a variety of sources. Over 9000 artifacts were found during an archeological excavation in the 1980s. Most of these were small, broken fragments. The foundations of the farmhouse, the remains of two water wells, and various old fence lines were also discovered. A historian traced the Hancock family through deed and tax records and also conducted interviews with descendants and neighbors.

This primary source material forms the content for seven lesson plans and a culminating project for students in grades four through eight.3 The Rubin Hancock Farm unit of study is available free from the Texas Department of Transportation at www.dot.state.tx.us/insdtdot/orgchart/env/education/hancock.htm.

Each lesson corresponds to national standards for history and geography and includes numerous activities for students. Primary source materials provided in the curriculum include photographs of people, places, and artifacts; maps; excerpts from oral histories; and related documents. The site also defines vocabulary terms and provides links to related Internet resources.

The culminating project encourages students to engage in research and analysis by using the methods of archeologists and historians. They can explore primary sources such as artifacts, old letters, and oral histories of their own families. Students are also invited to think about the future. What objects and records will remain one hundred years from now? What will be missing? What stories about such things will others tell? Children conduct artifact or archive studies, draw a map, conduct an oral history interview, and make a “history quilt” with the whole classroom. Grading rubrics for each part of the project are included. Teachers can select all or part of the culminating project, as they think is appropriate for their class.


Learning from Artifacts

One lesson concerns household artifacts discovered at the farm. Students simulate archeological analysis by sorting pictures of the actual farm artifacts into various groups. Children categorize reproducible pictures of objects such as buttons and ceramic shards by material, function, or likely user. Most of the many fragments found at the farm were glass or metal. Few perishable objects made of wood, straw, paper, or cloth were discovered. Children make inferences about why archeologists did not find remains of objects made from such materials. Of course, these soft materials deteriorate rapidly, but students may have to ponder the question a bit. Almost 4,000 artifacts found by archeologists at the Rubin Hancock farm were fragments of tin cans and glass. Such artifacts can provide information about the date the land was occupied, trade networks, and the habits of the family. Even small pieces of objects are useful toarcheologists.

The commercial canning of food began in the U.S. in the 1840s and quickly spread in popularity after the Civil War. Catalogues and local merchants sold national brands of canned foods by the 1870s. This was a big change from before the Civil War, when only locally grown and distributed foodstuffs were generally available. Evidence suggests that, after the Civil War, African Americans bought canned goods often.

Some historical archeologists speculate that some African Americans may have ordered canned goods from catalogues to avoid conflict that could arise while shopping in white-owned stores. There was no store within walking distance of Rubin Hancock’s farm, but there was a train stop nearby where freight was often delivered. So perhaps the Hancock family ordered cases of canned food, resulting in the tin can fragments discovered by the archeologists.

Ordering from catalogs was a popular activity throughout society, and one lesson uses a page from the Sears, Roebuck & Co. 1897 catalog to connect economics, geography, history, and math skills. Students work individually or in pairs to find wild cherry phosphate and other products in the catalog and figure out how much a 20-pound wooden pail of strawberry jelly costs per pound. Children also make inferences based on evidence given on the catalog page. Such activities help children develop careful observation and math skills as they connect history to everyday life.

Learning about the personal histories of real people makes social studies more alive and concrete for the elementary student. Students can use the Rubin Hancock Farm lessons as a foundation for thinking about their own lives. Such reflection can make history personally meaningful, particularly for African American students. Taking a sip of buttermilk and playing with a set of hand-made dominoes in class can help students imagine daily life for one American family one hundred years ago.



1. Marie E. Blake and Terri Myers, After Slavery: The Rubin Hancock Farmstead, 1880-1916, Travis County, Texas, Archeology Studies Program, Report 19 (Austin, TX: Texas Department of Transportation, 1999).

2. Mary S. Black, Piecing Together History: A Turn-of-the-Century African American Farmstead (Austin, TX: Texas Department of Transportation, 1999).

3. The Piecing Together History lessons include: Introduction to Historic Archeology: Rubin Hancock’s Farm; Learning from Oral History: Emma; Learning from Maps: Urban Growth; Learning from Features: Drawing a Site Map; Learning from Artifacts: Bits and Pieces; Learning from Archives: Mr. Hancock’s Will; Learning from Archives: The Sears Catalog; and the Culminating Project: Piecing Together History. The lesson plans are available free on the web at www.dot.state.tx.us/insdtdot/orgchart/env/education/hancock.htm.


Recommended Internet Sites

American Life Histories
Oral histories collected by the Works Progress Administration from 1936-1940, hosted by the Library of Congress

You Be the Historian
Interactive activity on historical archeology hosted by the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution

African American Perspectives
Archive materials on African American history from the Library of Congress American Memory Collection. See also links to African American Odyssey.

Kids’ Tips for Oral History Interviewing
How to conduct oral history interviews, sponsored by Myfamily.com, an online service for families. See also instructions at the Library of Congress, Oral History pages.

Recommended Children’s Literature

De Angelis, Gina. Black Cowboy. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House, 1997.

Govenor, Man B. Osceola: Memories of a Sharecropper’s Daughter. Chicago, IL: Jump at the Sun Press, 2000.

Hoobler, Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler. The African American Family Album. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Levine, Ellen. Freedom’s Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories. New York: Puffin, 2000.

Robinet, Harriett Gillem. Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule. New York: Aladdin, 2000.

Thomas, Joyce Carol. I Have Heard of a Land. New York: Harpercollins Juvenile Books, 2000.


Mary S. Black is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas at Austin.