During May 1949, Russell Lee visited San Angelo, Texas at the peak of the sheep-shearing season. Lee photographed ranchers clipping and shearing the sheep, grading their wool, and marking the sacks of freshly sheared wool. According to the notes Lee entered in his log, the men on the shearing crews moved from ranch to ranch, seldom going home during the season. The shearing work accelerated as the month of June and the end of the season drew nearer. On a rainy day when conditions made work difficult, Lee joined the shearing crews and various other workers at a beer parlor in town.
The work and leisure scenes of the adult world contrasted sharply with those of schoolchildren. Boys and girls of various ages attended classes and ate their school lunches together, but separated at recess so the boys could organize one of their favorite activities—baseball. Although attendance at school by individual students may have been haphazard, the school day was highly organized and supervised by adults. Lee’s photograph of a line of hungry schoolchildren at mid-day provides a glimpse of the order in the lunchroom, which Lee described as clean and attractive but crowded.
Of the four communities that Lee photographed in 1949, San Angelo may have presented the sharpest break with custom and tradition as the economy grew away from ranching and sheep-herding. More and more Texas agricultural workers were joining migrant laborers in the beet fields of the northern states. In this series of photographs, Lee documented the movement of agricultural workers from Laredo past Sonora and beyond, as well as the suburban expansion to the south of San Angelo, which catered to the Mexican-American families who settled there.
With the addition of Goodfellow Air Force Base in the 1940s, the area around San Angelo attracted newcomers and began to diversify economically. As the county seat and home to Angelo State College, San Angelo was becoming much more than the center of the wool trade in the United States. For the Study of the Spanish Speaking People of Texas, Lee provided both a photographic record and detailed information in his notes about how these families made a living, what they earned, and what they paid in rent, for land and to build homes.