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Jacob Riis’s “Happy Valley”

The Social Reformer’s Life and Death at His Massachusetts Farm

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By 1912, social reformer Jacob Riis had spent more than 30 years giving a voice to some of New York City’s most vulnerable citizens using a pen and a camera.

Jacob Riis

As a scrappy young reporter and an immigrant himself, Riis witnessed the city’s staggering poverty and corruption firsthand. Its slum neighborhoods were filthy, dangerous, and seemingly ignored by middle- and upper-class New Yorkers. Riis wanted to change that. He bought a camera, began conducting interviews and finally published his first of many books, How the Other Half Lives, in 1890. Riis became a household name in a matter of months. He helped bring about school, housing, sanitation and zoning reform. In short, he made a difference.

Street Arabs in the Area of Mulberry Street, sleeping children, photographed by Jacob Riis.

Riis maintained a celebrated career at a breakneck pace. He practically ran everywhere he went. He spoke loudly and laughed loudly. While late nights and long hours had helped secure his prominent reputation, they also took a serious physical and mental toll. In 1912, doctors diagnosed him with coronary heart disease. The advice was clear: slow down.

Aside from his diagnosis, Riis’s upbringing, career and changing family circumstances led him to purchase a farm in Barre, Mass. He learned that the life of a New England farmer was not simple nor leisurely. Nonetheless, Barre served as a place of meaningful reflection in the twilight of Riis’s life.

The Making of an American

Riis always recalled his hometown—Ribe, Denmark— romantically. Surrounded by windswept marshland overlooking the North Sea, the Viking-settled hamlet was a close-knit community. Riis met the love of his life, Elizabeth Giørtz, there. Her family disapproved when he first proposed marriage. After all, she was the daughter of a wealthy factory owner; Riis was a carpenter’s apprentice. Heartbroken but determined to make himself worthy of her, he departed for the United States in 1870 at age 21. He later described weeping on the steamship Iowa’s upper deck as he cast a final glance at his hometown. Yet, he thought, “The world was before me.”[1]

Ribe, Denmark, in 1904.

Riis arrived in a nation on the brink of the Gilded Age, a transformational era marked by both progress and inequality. After the Civil War, the United States experienced a boom of technology and industry. Its population swelled, aided by a massive influx of immigrants like Riis. Those who chose to settle in cities like New York lived in increasingly crowded neighborhoods. By the late nineteenth century, the city boasted the nation’s highest concentration of millionaires, but three-quarters of its total population lived in tenements, “shameful old wrecks of buildings” where landlords packed up to eight families into apartments built for one.[2] Subpar sanitation bred disease and startling mortality rates.

Bandits’ Roost, 59 1/2 Mulberry Street, considered the most dangerous part of New York City. From How the Other Half Lives.

Riis witnessed crime, overcrowding and municipal corruption as he acclimated himself to his adopted country and embarked on his journalistic career. The hours were long, the pace demanding and the competition fierce, but he counted the work of a journalist among “the highest and noblest of all callings.” [3]

His success gave him the confidence to again propose marriage to Elizabeth. This time, she said yes. It also led him to speak out against the injustices surrounding him.

“…To Clean Up and Make Light in the Dark Corners”

It was one thing to tell his readers about slum conditions; Riis wanted to show them. The advent of flash photography provided his chance, a way to literally force light into dark spaces. Riis taught himself how to use a camera—no small feat; he once nearly blinded himself with the flash powder— and included 15 haunting photographs in How the Other Half Lives. Writing with “heart, humor, and understanding,” Riis emphasized his subjects’ humanity and urged lawmakers to make meaningful change in New York. [4]

After the success of How the Other Half Lives, Riis spent the rest of his life advocating for zoning regulations, clean air, green space and education. He helped transform Mulberry Bend, a portion of Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood once described as “the foul core of New York’s slums,” into today’s Columbus Park.[5] Riis counted it among his greatest achievements. “The Bend had become decent and orderly because the sunlight was let in,” he triumphantly wrote.[6]

Simultaneously, Riis chafed against his proximity to the city’s grime and crowds. He wrote, “I have to be where there are trees and birds and green hills, and where the sky is blue above.”[7] As soon as the Riises could afford it, they created some distance and settled in the Richmond Hill neighborhood of Queens. With its shady streets and room for the growing family’s gardens and menagerie of pets, the Richmond Hill house was a place where “[t]he very lights of the city were shut out.”[8]

Jacob Riis’ wife, Elizabeth (center), and children. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

“And Now, After Twenty-Five Happy Years—”

The Riis family spent many happy years in Richmond Hill, but when Elizabeth died in 1905, their home was altered. Since they first moved in, Riis had become a nationally renowned author and confidante of President Theodore Roosevelt. Richmond Hill was not as quiet as it had been. All but one of his children were grown and gone, and now so was Elizabeth.

Three old friends. The President, Bishop Vincent and Jacob Riis taken at Chautauqua NY, August 11th 1905. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Riis worried that his youngest son, 13-year-old John, needed a mother figure. On July 29, 1907, Riis married his secretary, Mary Philips. Mary was an intelligent, capable, and kind woman. Herself a housing reform activist, she deeply admired Riis’s work. They were partners in the truest sense.

Mary Phillips Riis

During their honeymoon on a New Hampshire farm, Riis confessed that he had always wanted a farm of his own. With Mary’s encouragement, the couple began an exhaustive search of New England, finally settling on a 200-acre property on Barre’s Hubbardston Road. The “beautiful old colonial house” overlooked fields surrounded by tall pines and edged by a brook full of trout.[9] One Associated Press article called it “some of the finest farm land in Worchester county.”[10] The Riises named it Pine Brook Farm.

Introduction to Farm Life

“There was a time when the life of a farmer beckoned as a placid sort of existence where… a man was at peace with all things living and dead,” Riis wrote shortly after moving to Barre. “If I were now to describe a farmer’s life, I should rather compare it with the hair-trigger existence a fireman leads in the city…”[11] When they moved in, the Riises quickly realized how much work was needed to get the farm up and running.

The Riis house in Happy Valley.

After restoring the derelict outbuildings, they began planting crops, through which Riis received a practical education in New England’s infamously rocky soil. They planted wheat, hay and fruit trees that first year, but only the potatoes survived the frost. In a letter to the editor of The Century magazine, Riis wrote, “[W]hereas I struggled all these years with bosses and politicals [sic] I am now fighting the blight and the potato bug and winning out.”[12]

Then there were the animals. Temperamental but beloved horses, cows, pigs, chickens and a dog named Sandy constantly got into trouble, testing the fences and harassing the hired farmhands. Meanwhile, Riis battled crows in the gardens and foxes in the henhouse. It was hard work, but he and Mary found humor in it. They were up for the challenge.

Jacob Riis, Tried by Leisure

The Riises’ determination carried them through those early months, but they also learned to depend on their neighbors. Riis was initially critical of the New England farmer’s tendency to be “forever dropping one thing he has begun to take up another that must be done first.”[13] He described some of his peers as the “leisurely kind that tr[y] your city soul,” and their slower pace—exactly what his doctors encouraged—frustrated him.[14] However, he also found much to admire. “They are not men of many or long speeches, but they are level-headed and good,” Riis concluded.[15] Amidst the many challenges of farm life, he and Mary were relieved to have “made friends with some of the finest men I have ever come across….”[16]

Jacob Riis’s farm today. Photos by Emily Parrow.

“The Lengthening Shadows”

With Pine Brook Farm finally established, Riis resumed his national lecture tour, spending summers in Barre but returning to Queens during the harsh winters. After all, the farmhouse did not have electricity. Due to financial strain, the Riises later sold their home in Queens and permanently relocated to Barre in April 1913.

Meanwhile, Riis’s health steadily declined, prompting extended visits to health resorts and sanatoriums. After each treatment, returning to Pine Brook Farm gave Riis the opportunity to reflect. He fell in love with Western Massachusetts, and it was there, he decided, he wished to be buried.

He wrote:

Glad I am… that the lengthening shadows find me in this place with my feet on the soil to which my dust shall return. By our front door stand two great maples… Under them I spend my dreaming hours. A deep valley spreads out at my feet, reaching to the far range of southern hills. Great oaks and elms, and dark majestic pines, clothe the hillside. In October flaming birch and crimson maple light up the valley by day; the moonlight, when the mists are rising from the river, by a strange magic makes of it an inland sea with wooded headlands jutting into it far and near… Long years after I knew that my home was no longer in the land of my fathers, its soil gripped me still. Amid the silent wastes of the Danish heath, where the plover pipes about the viking’s lonely barrow, would I then have laid my bones. But no more do I look across the seas to where my cradle stood. In my happy valley I would live, and here I would lie, a weary toiler, glad of his rest when the day’s tasks are done.[17]

Jacob Riis Departs

Riis suffered a heart attack in the early spring of 1914. While hospitalized, he begged to return to his farm. His doctors finally acquiesced after realizing little more could be done. Riis died on May 26, 1914, leaving a remarkable legacy and a nation in mourning. The Worcester Gazette wrote, “When he chose to make our Worcester County his home and claimed citizenship with us, we loved him all the more, and now this city joins the rest of the country in lamenting the departure from this world of that eminent American, Jacob Riis.”[18]

Before he died, Riis asked that little fuss be made over his burial in Barre’s Riverside Cemetery. He requested that mourners donate to charity rather than send flowers. Because of Riis’s tangible impact on American cities, one might expect a grand monument for his burial plot. On the contrary, the grave was marked by a humble field stone bearing no inscription.

Jacob Riis’s grave

Afterward

Today, it is easy to miss the turnoff that grants public access to the former Pine Brook Farm. A few crumbling foundations are all that remain of Riis’s house and outbuildings. The fields are overgrown, but portions of his orchard survive. Nonetheless, the land remains peaceful, a testament to the idyllic country haven—meant to recapture elements of his childhood in Denmark— that Riis carved out after a long, productive career.

Footnotes to Jacob Riis’s “Happy Valley”

[1] Jacob Riis, The Making of an American (Norwood, MA: Norwood Press, 1901), 20.
[2] Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1890), 42.
[3] Ibid., 99.
[4] Lincoln Steffens, The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1931), 204.
[5] Riis, How the Other Half Lives, 35.
[6] Riis, The Making of an American, 99.
[7] Ibid., 183.
[8] Ibid., 185.
[9] “Back to Farm for Jacob Riis,” The Hope Pioneer, Hope, ND, February 8, 1912, 1.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Jacob A. Riis, “Our Happy Valley,” The Craftsman 25, no. 1 (October 1913): 143-144.
[12] Jacob Riis to R.U. Johnson, quoted in Louise Ware, Jacob A. Riis: Police Reporter, Reformer, Useful Citizen (New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1938), 280.
[13] Jacob A. Riis, “Our Happy Valley: Number Two,” The Craftsman 25, no. 3 (December 1913): 268.
[14] Ibid.
[15] p. 269, Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17]pp. 272-273,  Ibid.
[18] “We Loved Him,” Worcester Gazette, Worcester, MA, June 15, 1914, quoted in Tom Buk-Swienty, The Other Half: The Life of Jacob Riis and the World of Immigrant America, Annette Buk-Swienty, trans. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), 8.

Image of the farmhouse at Pine Brook Farm, published in The Craftsman magazine (1913)- Public Domain: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015006761178&view=1up&seq=573&skin=2021&q1=riis

The author of this story, Emily Parrow, was born and raised in Connecticut. Emily completed her M.A. in History in 2021 and wrote her thesis on nineteenth century Newport, Rhode Island. She currently serves as the National D-Day Memorial Foundation’s Annual Giving Coordinator in Bedford, Va.