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 VOICES OVER THE VALLEY

A BOOK REVIEW by Agnes Dikeman
Story of Saline Valley Farms by Jim Cameron

How this Book was Born and Grown

Voices Over the Valley by James K. Cameron is a stellar documentary, carrying the prestigious “Award of Merit” from the Historical Society of Michigan. It is an oral history of the Saline Valley Farms, a social and economic experiment conceived in the 1920s and implemented in 1932 by Harold Gray. This book is a “must buy” for anyone interested in Saline history or cooperative farming.

The Saline Area Historical Society commissioned James Cameron to do an oral history project that would preserve what is known of the Saline Valley Farms. The project grew to become a significant and scholarly work published in 2004. Cameron is a local society member of many years’ standing and a Saline High School history teacher. When the book was published, he was serving on the board of the Historical Society of Michigan and was president of the Michigan Oral History Association. His book details research data and oral histories of adults who grew up as children on the Valley Farms.

The oral histories and the resulting book are of paramount importance because the subject, Saline Valley Farms, was both unique and successful in the years of our nation’s economic depression. Family life as it was practiced at the Valley Farms had great social value at a specific time in history. Cameron’s research and subsequent book preserves this for posterity. The way of life he documented and the Valley Farm buildings are now extinct.

The Saline Valley Farms, whose name is derived from the river and valley which bear the name Saline, attracted struggling families during depression years. There were over one hundred members living on site with their families and working cooperatively to operate a dairy, orchards, poultry house, and gardens. Success mushroomed as members developed a retail store at the farm in order to sell to the public. Of special interest is the fact they had their own Valley Farms delivery vans to bring fresh produce and canned goods to Detroit and suburbs. Routes were created and covered by uniformed delivery men, including regular deliveries at J.L. Hudson’s Department Store in downtown Detroit.

By the mid-1950s, with the death of the cooperative’s founder and a recovering economy and job market, second generation members of Saline Valley Farms families reacted to their need to leave farming for an easier life. With the demise of the cooperative, and after the property changed hands two or three times, the 21st century loomed on the horizon with the 600 acre farm slated for development. The unique way of life ended as buildings were razed and now, memories are all that remains. It is expected that several hundred homes will dot the landscape.

Research Sources

Much of Cameron’s research took place at the Bentley Library on the campus of the University of Michigan, as well as the Rabbi Leo M. Kuchel Archives of Temple Beth El, the Burton Historical Library at Wayne State University, and the University of Michigan’s Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library. Other farm cooperatives in the state of Michigan were additional sources.

Of the several thousand photographs taken by Harold Gray and stored at the Bentley, approximately one hundred are included in the book. Twelve members of the Valley Farms cooperative were identified as still living in the Saline area. Each had lived with their parents and had grown up at Saline Valley Farms. Extensive interviews with them were used for the book.

The social network at the Valley Farms is highlighted in the families’ Christmas and Threshers’ Dinners, as well as in a section on the throngs of visitors who came to the farm. Voices Over the Valley not only covers the physical development of the land and the buildings, but also the operation of gardens, orchards, livestock, dairy, poultry, and canning.

Gleaning information from the oral histories, Cameron aptly weaves a vignette by highlighting approximately twenty-one key members of Saline Valley Farms, including the Founder and President Harold Gray; Harold Vaughn, Vice President and Manager; Floyd “Pop” Rogers, the farm’s butcher; Don Campbell, store manager; Dan Mills, building contractor; Johnny Rule, maintenance specialist; and many, many others. Each was special in his own way; each was a character in his own right.

I found the section on marketing especially intriguing. The cooperative produced far more meat, vegetables, and fruits than families living there could consume. It stood to reason they should sell the surplus. The average farmer would take his commodities to a local farm market, but Saline Valley Farms operated on a much larger scale. The farms developed a large canning factory and a label that shows a facsimile of their barns. Cameron chose as his laminated book cover the Valley Farms canning label. This concept, in itself, is unique as a book cover. The farms’ slogan was “This Label Stands for More than Fine Foods”.

The appendix lists all the pertinent primary documents, including a select few which appear in the book as photocopies.

Publication and Sales

Voices Over the Valley is published by Barnegat Publishing, a division of the Saline Area Historical Society. The 232 page book, with countless photographs, was published in 2004 and printed locally by McNaughton & Gunn, Inc. Hardcover copies are sold out, but beautiful laminated paperbacks are available through the society gift shop for $15 plus shipping.

Truly, this is a homegrown book, written by a Saline teacher about a Saline enterprise, published by the Saline Historical Society and printed by a Saline printer.

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