Many families used to rely solely on their crops to survive. Not only did they consume whatever they produced, but their surplus crops were the only way they could afford the necessities, such as shoes, stoves, and new farm equipment. Many farming families had many children, and they were all expected to pitch in around the house and on the farm. Young girls learned to cook for the family at a young age, and many children were expected to care for animals and even pick crops seasonally.
Rather than having children miss a significant amount of school, many communities adopted modified schedules to accommodate the crops grown locally. Strawberries were once one of Florida’s most important crops, so these schools were dubbed “strawberry schools.” City kids might spend the summer at their grandparents’ or another relative’s house, but farm kids often had to work.
Hand-picking is required for crops such as berries, peas, beans, and tomatoes. With only 1 or 2 people and acres of crops to harvest, that kind of labor is difficult to complete. But there was still planting, watering, and tending to do before the harvest. With summer vacation, many of these farming schools were only modifying an already shifted school year.
Summer vacation was designed to accommodate farming families by keeping children out of school during the most labor-intensive months. For the strawberry season in Florida, some schools were open from spring until December, leaving the period around Christmas and New Year’s free for children to do a lot of picking. There were potato schools in Connecticut, apple schools in New York State, and tomato schools in parts of Ohio.
According to some accounts, rural schools in the 1800s were only open for a few months of the year in order to give farming families the most labor from their children. School reform aimed at improving children’s skills and education was often more popular in urban areas, where commerce and white collar jobs were plentiful. However, in rural communities, children’s labor was critical to agricultural families making ends meet,
so they were less enthusiastic about their children spending the majority of the year in school.By the 1930s, many public programs, such as nursery school and expanded public schools, had resulted in more families becoming accustomed to their children attending school on a more modern schedule. However, some areas kept the modified school year until the 1940s or later in order to maximize crop yields. And our current summer vacations reflect this.