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San Augustine, Texas as Seen by Russell Lee and John Vachon


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Here's a thread for the photos taken by Russell Lee in 1939 and John Vachon in 1943 of the small, deep-East Texas town of San Augustine.

You may ask yourself, why San Augustine? Why did both of these photographers spend so much time there? 

In April 1939, Roy Stryker, his boss at the Farm Service Administration (FSA) asked Russell Lee to think about an extensive photo-documentary  visit to a small, quintessentially American town.  Stryker was acting from an impulse familiar to any reader of Traces of Texas: trying to summon up a nostalgia-loving visual reminder of the small town he grew up near (Montrose, Colorado).  Russell Lee was on Stryker's wavelength in some important ways. He came from a small town (Ottawa, Illinois) and understood its mannerisms,  how to to act among the people, politeness. Lee visited San Augustine initially because of the area's hookworm problem, but that proved impossible because nobody in San Augustine was willing to talk about it. But he liked San Augustine's "everytown" look and daily rhythms  and ended up breaking his look at San Augustine in terms of common themes: Education, leisure, work, family, religion, and government activities.  This meant, of course, Saturday, when farmers from outside the town came to sell their produce and conduct business. Lee gets the folks buying seeds, the folks eating ice cream, the folks selling produce etc...   His kindly Midwest manner served him well; he moved comfortably at any level of society.

Conducting Business

Street scene

Wholesale truck in front of grocery store. San Augustine, Texas Russell Lee 1939 1486 72 dpi.jpg


Pedestrians Milling around on the Sidewalks

April 1939. Street scene in San Augustine, Texas. View full size. 35mm nitrate negative by Russell Lee .jpg

A blacksmith at work in his shop.

blacksmith in san augustine 1939 russell lee.jpg


More Street Scenes

Waiting on the doctor in San Augustine Russell Lee 1939.jpg



Blacksmiths working in a shop in San Augustine, Texas, 1939. I ponder being a blacksmith and sort of feel that standing over a hot forge in Texas in the summer is just about some of the most manly work I can imagine.

Blacksmith shop in San Augustine 1939 Russell Lee.jpg

A block of ice melts on the bank steps.

ice melting on steps before bank opens 1939 russell lee San Augustine.jpg



Another street scene

Russell lee san augustine 1939.jpg



Farmer buying seeds

Farmer Shops for Seeds in San Augustine Texas 1939 Russell Lee.jpg



Fixing a car

Greasing a car in San Augustine 2 Russell Lee African American 1939.jpg



Greasing a car in San Augustine Russell Lee African American 1939.jpg

Paying a bill?

Cashier's desk in department store in San Augustine 1939 Russell Lee.jpg


A grocer adds up various tabs that folks have run up at his store.

Surrounded by Bills San Augustine 1939 Russell lee.jpg

I think they are eating an orange in front of the grocery store.

Negro farmers in front of grocery store. San Augustine, Texas Russell Lee.jpg

Waiting in line to see a movie

Schoolchildren lined up for the movies San Augustine 1939 Russell Lee.jpg

A boy tries on new shoes as his grandfather, who I think is going to buy them for him, looks kindly on.

Boy tries on a pair of shoes in San Augustine 1939 Russell Lee.jpg



Scene in a barbershop. I wonder if the truth was ever been stretched in this place.  Naaah! 😎

Barbershop in San Augustine 1939 Russell Lee.jpg



Jeweler repairing watch in San Augustine, 1939



A young man rings a bell at a hotel in San Augustine, 1939


A Western Union employee at work with pipe in mouth in San Augustine, 1939



negroes eating ice cream in San Augustine, Texas 1939 by russell lee.jpg

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Besides business, another aspect of San Augustine's Everytown U.S.A. rituals that Lee documented was that of a Saturday "Trade Day,"  when farmers would come into town, gather around the courthouse, sell their goods. buy their provisions  etc... and people would trade whatnot for notwhat and so forth. It was, of course, a great place for kids to come together and play with their friends while their parents did their business.

Farm kids in town:



Men talking on the courthouse square


Traces of Texas reader Craig Kelsey was so struck by the above photo that he colorized it ... and did a TREMENDOUS job. This is actual coloring, not using a program. How gorgeous is this?


A farmer leaves a store with a box of baby chicks


An old farmer in San Augustine


Saddle horse with supplies tethered to a telephone on the courthouse square in San Augustine


Farmer vehicles in front of the courthouse


Farmers on a raised curb in front of a coffee sign


A farmer and his daughter in town for the day:


Farmers gather for an auction at the cattle pens in San Augustine, 1939


A farmer in San Augustine, 1939


A farmer puts fertilizer into his wagon, 1939.


A farmer with a loaded wagon leaves town San Augustine, Texas 1939





Spectators at a cattle auction in San Augustine, 1939. I love the three gentlemen up front. At least two of them are brothers. I love how intent every man in this audience is on the action.  Really a cool shot.

Spectators at a Cattle Auction in San Augustine 1939 Russell Lee.jpg

Seeds in front of a store

Seeds in San Augustine 1939 Russell Lee.jpg

A farmer loading his wagon

Farm kids

Farm family on fully loaded wagon. I love the expression on every single face, particularly that of the young man wearing the hat. He's got it going on and he knows it! 😀



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