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The Story of a River

December 1937

The narrative passages and the photographs on this page and the two pages that follow are from The River, a motion picture just completed by the Farm Security Administration of the Department of Agriculture. The River might well be considered an epic poem of the Father of Waters, with musical accompaniment and camera shots that Homer would have welcomed. It incorporates recent flood scenes, as did its predecessor in 1936, The Plow That Broke the Plains, the havoc of drought and dust. Both were written and directed by PARE LORENTZ.


From as far West as Idaho,

Down from the glacier peaks of the Rockies,

From as far East as New York,

Down from the turkey ridges of the Alleghenies,

Down from Minnesota, twenty-five hundred miles,

The Mississippi River runs to the Gulf.

Carrying every drop of water that flows down two thirds the continent,

Carrying every brook and rill,

Rivulet and creek

Carrying all the rivers that run down two thirds the continent,

The Mississippi runs to the Gulf of Mexico.


...And we made cotton king.

We rolled a million bales down the river for Liverpool and Leeds;

1860: we rolled four million bales down the river,

Rolled them off Alabama,

Rolled them off Mississippi,

Rolled them off Louisiana,

Rolled them down the river...

We mined the soil for cotton until it would yield no more,

and then moved West...


...We built a hundred cities and a thousand towns, but at what a cost.

We cut the top off the Alleghenies and sent it down the river;

We cut the top off Minnesota and sent it down the river;

We cut the top off Wisconsin and sent it down the river.

We left the mountains and the hills slashed and burned, and moved on.


For the water comes downhill,

Spring and fall, down from the cut-over mountains, down from the plowed-off slopes,

as far West as Idaho and as far East as New York,

in every brook and rill, rivulet and creek;

Carrying every drop of water that flows down two thirds the continent...


. . . Thirty-eight feet at Baton Rouge:

River rising;

Helena: river rising;

Memphis: river rising;

Cairo: river rising

A thousand miles to go,

A thousand miles of levee to hold....

When we first found the Great Valley it was forty percent forested.

Today for every hundred acres of forests we found we have ten left,

Today five percent of the entire valley is ruined forever for agricultural use,

Twenty-five percent of the topsoil has been shoved by the old river into the Gulf of Mexico,

Today two out of five farmers in the valley are tenant farmers, ten percent of them sharecroppers....

And the old river can be controlled;

We had the power to take the valley apart; we have the power to put it together again.



Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003