Great Depression: People and Perspectives. Editor: Hamilton Cravens. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.
Privation Down on the Farm
The Great Depression represents a peculiar epoch in the history of twentieth-century America. The nation’s continuous march toward technological, political, and economic ascendancy stood still for a time. After the stock market crash of 1929, the country was sent into a painful tailspin as a mysterious illness infected and spread to its every organ. Americans spent a decade attempting to vanquish the malady; however, an effective medicine was delayed until the onset of World War II. Although it ushered in an era of unprecedented carnage, the conflict did finally end a depression that had gripped the nation for a decade. During the period, the crisis produced unemployment, poverty, and unrelenting want, which took a terrific toll upon Americans.
The peoples’ suffering is graphically communicated by images depicting haggard unemployed waiting wearily for nourishment in long soup lines and abandoned farmsteads buried by a devastated region’s desiccated and windblown soil, pictures that have been seared into the nation’s collective memory. The era’s atmosphere of desperation is also symbolized by photographs of individuals who by the thousands opted to ride the rails in search of work. Such circumstances bear witness to how hard times tested the fortitude of even the most hardworking and determined individuals. Although many Americans would enjoy the benefits of a reinvigorated economy during the 1940s, large numbers forever possessed the Great Depression’s psychological scars, always fully aware of the transitory nature of prosperity.
The era represented not only a time of great economic misfortune and need, but also a period of profound change. During the 1930s, American society and culture underwent a highly significant transformation, including a considerable expansion of the federal government’s power and influence, a reinvigorated Democratic Party that would have a profound impact on subsequent public policy, as well as the increased power of organized labor. Such consequences represent just a few of the many ways Americans were affected by the twentieth century’s most widespread and severe economic collapse.
Peoples’ words also bear witness to the great difficulties endured during the era. Some wrote the nation’s leaders, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt regarding their plight. These letters vividly describe the stark and challenging situations in which many found themselves. A small livestock raiser from Sulphur Spring, Texas, told a typical tale of worry and woe caused by a brutal mixture of crushing debt, an unsympathetic landlord, and an impending winter. He wrote to President Roosevelt stating,
I am in debt needing help the worst in the world …. I have done all I could to pay the note and have failed on everything I’ve tried. I fell short on my crop this time and he didn’t allow me even one nickel out of it to feed myself while I was gathering it and now winter is here and I have a wife and three (3) little children, haven’t got clothes enough to keep them from freezing. (McElvaine 1983, 72)
He, among thousands, lacked physical necessities for himself and his family. In the fall of 1935, a distressed Louisiana farm woman wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt explaining her predicament. She indicated that her family had recently lost their milk cow, had earned little money picking cotton, and were lacking the very barest of necessities.
Families who experienced the effects of such crippling poverty not only bore its physical and psychological pain, but also experienced anxiety when asking for help. A person’s lack of suitable clothing appears to have been particularly humiliating. In 1935, a woman from Goff, Kansas, wrote Eleanor Roosevelt inquiring whether she had a new coat that she could wear to church. She stated, “My clothes are very plain so I could wear only something plain. We were hit very hard by drought and every penny we can save goes for feed to put in crop. Hoping for a favorable reply” (McElvaine 1983, 75). Thus letter writers revealed not only a yearning to communicate their desperation, but also a desire to maintain a sense of dignity. Another woman, this time from Aurelia, Iowa, articulated similar sentiments. She wrote to the first lady stating,
I am coming to you for help please do not think this does not cause a great feeling of shame to me to have to ask for old clothing. I am a Lutheran Sunday School teacher. We are very poor. I know that we must not let our clothes keep us from church (neither do I), but sometimes I feel so badly when I see all the others dressed so nice. I don’t care for swell clothes, but you know one feels awful in old clothes worn shiny and thread bare. (McElvaine 1983, 77)
Such requests for help illustrate the conflicting emotions which emerged when people faced circumstances beyond their control (McElvaine 1983, 77).
Although people living in cities and those living in the countryside both endured the hardships, their experiences were nonetheless distinctive. This rather obvious, but nonetheless important, point is supported by the recognition that Americans residing in urban settings and those who occupied the countryside faced dissimilar realities. Although the lives of both groups continued to intersect in many ways, important differences existed. For instance, during and following the Industrial Revolution urban dwellers labored in a dizzyingly diverse range of occupations. Employment included a variety of professional endeavors such as engineering and law, managerial and secretarial vocations, as well as semiskilled and low-skilled factory work. While in the countryside, agriculture in its many and diverse forms dominated. Furthermore, urban Americans usually enjoyed modern conveniences such as running water, electricity, and paved roads long before such amenities were available in the countryside. These and other factors contributed to a rural experience that was distinct from that in metropolitan areas.
In the 1920s, a person’s social, economic, and cultural realities were deeply shaped by one’s place of residence. Although the nation’s overall financial health declined briefly following World War I, most economic sectors quickly recovered. Automobile manufacturing, electrical appliances, new communication technologies, and other emerging commercial ventures contributed greatly to the decade’s prosperity. Furthermore, advertisers employed increasingly sophisticated marketing practices that enticed consumers to purchase items. Additionally, Americans dove headlong and hurried into consumerism’s alluring pleasures, enticed by new payment methods such as monthly payment programs. Although often overstated, the expanding popularity of motion pictures and less constrained sexual practices also contributed to the decade’s boisterous metropolitan image.
Rural Americans generally experienced a more anxious decade; not only did they react negatively to cultural change, but they also endured a recession. They felt uneasy about what they viewed to be the morally corrupting influence of automobiles, jazz, and the motion picture industry. The Ku Klux Klan reemerged as an organization whose members identified specific religious groups, technologies, and social trends as threats. Such reactionaries aimed their animosity toward new musical forms such as jazz, their children’s use of automobiles, and the rise of Catholic and Jewish immigration. Although the organization’s rebirth was brief and faced resistance from more moderate rural dwellers, it nonetheless demonstrated that many people felt anxious about what they believed to be cultural threats. Farm families also suffered low commodity prices and a decreased demand for their products. Farmers who had hastily expanded their land holdings and purchased new equipment during the prosperous war years were particularly vulnerable. Thus, farmers had been left out of the affluent 1920s and were generally weakened and in some cases disillusioned by the time of 1929 stock market crash. Unfortunately, this momentous event signaled the onset of even bleaker times. Many small town businesses also experienced hardship since their livelihoods shrank as pocketbooks constricted. The decline of rural industries such as bituminous coal mining and textile mills, particularly in Midwestern and Southern towns, further amplified the hinterland’s financial woes.
Despite such differences, both urban and rural Americans were affected by an economic collapse that plunged the nation into the depths of hard times. The signs of a weakening economy were emerging throughout 1929; however, it would not be until Thursday, October 24, that the stock market plummeted and confidence was shattered. Overly optimistic analysts’ predictions that the nation’s fortunes would quickly improve proved to be disappointingly inaccurate. Instead, the financial system continued to unravel as the productivity of the nation’s factories constricted, banks failed by the thousands, and throngs of unemployed added to the resulting the human wreckage. The nation’s gloom further descended as Europe’s economy also faltered. Farmers’ economic situations also grew exceedingly bleak, because their compensation for commodities was in many cases cut in half and in others slashed even more severely. The nation’s cotton growers received exceptionally low compensation for their crops being paid only $0.16 per pound in 1929 and spiraling downward to a paltry $0.05 during the first two years of the 1930s. In 1932, farmers who cultivated wheat or raised cattle also received comparatively low compensation for their commodities. New England dairy farmers were suffering greatly, as evidenced by the fact that Vermont dairymen received only half of what they had been given for their milk three years earlier. Agricultural economist Willard Cochrane has surmised that diminishing incomes greatly affected how much farmers were able to invest in their operations, indicating that devaluation outpaced capital outlays into their operations in the first five years of the decade.
Agrarian families were almost universally affected by the era’s farm crisis; however, the economic pain was by no means equally distributed. Such factors as geographic location, an operator’s financial reserves, and even chance all determined one’s odds of economic survival. Although distressed, New England farmers found themselves less desperate than their Midwestern and Western counterparts. For instance, some small-scale New England Farmers were less troubled than their agricultural brethren on the Plains who watched their wheat wither during the unrelenting drought or Southern sharecroppers whose continued prospects in agriculture often became completely unfeasible. Additionally, some Midwestern farmers who owned their land and entered the Depression in relatively healthy financial shape also had a better chance of keeping their farms. However, for some the pressure and struggles to survive proved to be overwhelming. In the spring of 1936, Elmer G. Powers, a prosperous Iowa farmer and diarist, recorded a particularly tragic incident. He stated,
A middle-aged man committed suicide by hanging himself in his barn. He was well known, much liked, a good farmer and had a nice family. He was about to lose his farm to the mortgage company and I suppose that is what drove him to commit such a rash act. (Grant and Purcell 1976, 99)
People appear to have rarely starved, but they did go hungry and many were forced to go without very basic necessities, including clothing, medication, and proper housing. These realities meant that parents sometimes had to limit the amount of food their children consumed, send them to school in tattered clothes, or pray that they could overcome an illness without medical aid. Individuals were also sometimes required to endure the most extreme conditions that nature could produce. Great Plains residents faced particularly trying circumstances. In 1933, Lorena Hickok, a seasoned reporter, discovered one North Dakota family whose household conditions were exceptionally challenging. They lived on a farmstead located on the Canadian border, huddling together inside a flimsy shack, wearing threadbare clothing, while the thermometer dipped to twenty below zero.
Farm families faced such climatic extremes in addition to those challenges brought about by low farm prices. Although the Great Plains were particularly affected by lack of rainfall, a number of areas were affected by the era’s unusually widespread and severe drought conditions. People in the Northern Plains, the South, and even portions of the eastern United States experienced such circumstances. In December 1930, A. B. Sawyer, Jr., the Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation president, stated, “Few people outside of Kentucky have any conception of what Kentucky farmers have gone through and are still facing.” He went on to state, “In Jefferson County the fiscal court is financing the distribution of water from the Louisville water works to farmers of the Louisville area. Huge tank trucks are busily engaged hauling the precious fluid into rural areas and people are counting every drop” (American Farm Bureau Federation Weekly Newsletter 1930, 4). Farmers encountered similar situations throughout the era but frequently demonstrated the desire to provide mutual assistance to their neighbors in a time of need.
In the case of the Kentucky drought, fellow New York Farm Bureau members extended a helping hand to brethren by marshaling a vigorous aid effort. In the spring of 1931, the national American Farm Bureau (AFB) president applauded the efforts of New York AFB members. They were deserving of the praise since they had collected and sent more than fifty railroad cars of emergency aid to Southern farm families. The Red Cross also assisted the Farm Bureau in its rural drought relief efforts. Despite such frequent and admirable demonstrations of generosity, the era often presented people with situations that overwhelmed both human stamina and local resources. This was particularly the case for those who struggled to adapt to the deteriorating conditions on the Great Plains.
The Terrors of the Dust Bowl
Residents of the Southern Plains in particular endured a traumatic ordeal as evidenced by the region’s Dust Bowl identification. This great expanse encompassed an approximately oval-shaped portion of Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, and was an area particularly affected by a disastrous combination of drought, wind, and dislocated top-soil. The calamity was principally caused by the absence of rainfall, which prevented wheat and other crops from protecting the region’s dirt. This amalgamation of drought, high winds, and airborne soil produced dust storms of legendary proportions. Such dark and ominous tempests left previously fertile wheat fields barren and fence-rows buried and, in the end, consumed dreams by the thousands. Thus, farm families in significant numbers decided to flee the relentless ravages of dust, withering crops, and financial distress. In 1935, the exodus from the region began in earnest and persisted throughout the period, adding approximately a quarter of a million people to the California’s expanding populace. Nevertheless, the majority in many locales stayed and bravely struggled to survive.
Although people’s suffering on the upper plains is less publicized, it was no less severe. A large portion of North Dakota farmers were forced to adapt to the fact that they received approximately half of the usual precipitation during the first four years of the decade. The state’s residents also bore some of the most severe temperature extremes as evidenced by a 121 degree Fahrenheit reading in Steele, North Dakota, on July 6, 1936. South Dakota newspaper writers reported that area residents sometimes experienced heat exhaustion or even death while working in such conditions. These circumstances exacted a terrible toll on the state’s agricultural production. In 1937, Work Progress Administration employees Francis Cronin and Howard Beers summarized the appalling toll that nature had exacted upon North and South Dakota’s agricultural production. They indicated that a majority of farmers in both states had grown about half of what they usually produced during the first five years of the 1930s. They also verified that this represented one of the most severe regions of crop loss in the entire nation. Nevertheless, some Dakotans could still find humor in such situations as did two young girls who successfully “grilled a cheese sandwich on a sidewalk” in Grafton, North Dakota (Stock 1992, 20, 25). Unfortunately, these unusual diversions probably represented only a brief respite from nature’s seemingly rancorous mood.
Residents also endured dust storms that sometimes assumed biblical proportions. On May 9, 1934, a particularly brutal tempest hit the Dakotas, leaving dust-covered rooms, dead livestock, and feelings of hopelessness in its wake. The incessant gales sent the dirt high into the atmosphere and dumped it hundreds of miles away in the eastern United States. Another ferocious storm occurred approximately one year after the Dakota disaster. On April 14, 1935, southwestern Kansas residents experienced a storm that they soon remembered as “Black Sunday.” The thick clouds of dust made day appear to be night, forced drivers off the road, and convinced others that Judgment Day had arrived. The finely pulverized wind-borne earth further degraded drought-withered fields, drastically increased household cleaning duties, and even threatened human health. Livestock also suffered; South Dakota reporters commented on the fact that cattle feed had become contaminated and inedible by the dust. For Euro-American residents, it must have appeared that nature was fulfilling the desires of the Native Americans who had joined the Ghost Dance in hopes of forever vanquishing the invaders from their land.
Plains dwellers also had to occasionally endure the grasshopper onslaught, which consumed what little crops had survived the drought. The insects seemed to thrive especially well in the era’s hot and grimy conditions, adding to the era’s deteriorating circumstances. Some farmers reported that their fields became animated by the hopper infestations by appearing to be a single crawling, flying, ravenous organism. Gladys Leffler Gist, a farm resident of Lyman County, South Dakota, remembered that “the earth was alive with them … even the leaves of the trees were stripped … there was so many piled dead in our potato patch that they stank” (Nelson 1992, 119). Dakotans’ attempts to rid themselves of the insects seemed futile because little survived the relentless assault. The devastation included both families’ crops and gardens, with the pests indiscriminately destroying both their money crops and table food. Grasshoppers even invaded the region’s towns and denied residents of their beatification efforts. During the summer of 1933, a Kadoka Press writer stated, “They have practically destroyed all the gardens and flowers in town” (Stock 1992, 147). In the same year, the Van Schaak family, who resided in Mellettte County, South Dakota, faced the prospects of watching their cattle starve to death as the hoppers had consumed their livestock forage.
Even in Iowa, where nature usually behaved more cooperatively, grasshoppers and drought fully manifested themselves. In 1931, Dr. Carl J. Drake, an Iowa State insect specialist, surmised that pest infestations were severe and next year’s prospects were also bleak. On July 19, 1936, Elmer G. Powers, a prosperous Iowa farmer, commented on conditions in the nation’s agricultural heartland. He stated,
It is becoming quite generally admitted that the drought is the most serious that our country has ever suffered. In Carroll and western counties farmers are said to be harvesting their corn fields with grain binders because regular corn binders will not handle the short crop. We have corn in our community that will not make fodder. And many of the fields that we had hoped a rain would benefit are being found to be fields of almost all barren stalks. (Grant and Purcell 1976, 116)
These depressing observations reconfirm both the severity and pervasiveness of the era’s drought.
Coping with Adversity
Despite such expressions of pathos, people usually clung to optimism and persisted through the difficult times. For instance, Powers sometimes expressed hopefulness about the future stating, “Nothing can take the place of experience and nothing else can give one the necessary confidence in the future. We will come out of these dark, troublesome days again” (Grant and Purcell 1976, 22). Farm families’ courageous and determined actions bear witness to such statements. Historian Pamela Riney-Kehrberg revealed that even during the worst of times some Kansas residents maintained the belief that rain and high prices would eventually return, which they did in the 1940s. Particularly resolute individuals even discovered ways to adapt and benefit a bit from the grasshopper onslaught. In August 1931, Colorado farmers reacted creatively to the grasshopper plague by driving cars fitted with water filled-troughs through their fields. After collecting the insects, they dried them and used them for chicken feed. One Farm Bureau writer indicated that “[o]ne farmer is reported to have gathered 30 bushels on an acre by this ‘harvesting’ method” (Riney-Kehrberg 1994, 117). The fact that divorces did not increase in places of extreme stress such as in southwestern Kansas also could be taken as an expression of hopefulness. Although this might not have been the case—few could afford to split up—the possibility exists that in such challenging circumstances families served as a way to buffer the era’s difficulties.
In the absence of jobs and adequate aid, rural Americans employed a variety of strategies to clothe and feed themselves. This included expanding their gardens, incorporating more inexpensive kinds of foods into their diets, as well as finding a variety of other creative ways to make-do. Americans also relocated to other regions which promised improved conditions or returned to former places of origins in hopes of alleviating suffering. Women who were members of a local Grange, Parent-Teacher Association, or other organizations produced impressive results. Charlotte M. Temple, a Farm Journal contributor, praised the efforts of such club women, revealing that they canned garden produce to feed their families through the winter as well as transformed raw commodities into finished products to sell or for family use. Such activities included Arkansas club women in 37 counties making 1,225 mattresses out of surplus cotton, 5,000 Kansas women producing 18 tons of soap from lard, and their Maine counterparts collecting feed and fertilizer bags for clothing.
Rural folk short on money also turned to the simple tools of soil and seed as a simple way of meeting their families’ needs. Women canned garden bounty and provided much-needed sustenance for their husbands and children. In the early 1930s, many Appalachian coal-mining families depended on such horticultural ingenuity to feed themselves. The Red Cross and other aid organizations frequently provided the seed required for such plots. These practices were particularly important in the early years of the Depression before the introduction of more substantial relief programs. Civic leaders in southwestern Kansas provided small-town residents with sections of property, seed, and other resources necessary for subsistence gardening. Unfortunately, the region’s severe environmental challenges complicated such activities. Despite such exceptions, members of the agricultural press continued to praise gardening benefits.
Farm women also experimented with creative food choices and concocted recipes designed to enliven even the most unappealing foods. They demonstrated their culinary creativity by stuffing peppers with meat leftovers and making use of dry bread in pudding. Women created cheaper entrees whose primary ingredients consisted of cornmeal and other inexpensive products. Although such dishes might sound unappealing to contemporary readers, husbands and children were probably thankful for such simple foods. Home demonstration agents also assisted those engaged in the ever-present challenges of making-do. The female staff of county extension programs provided rural women with menu options that were both affordable and relatively nutritious. Although some homemakers probably found their situations discouraging, many took pride in their ability to make-do. In 1935, one farm woman stated, “I get a real thrill out of this depression—in keeping all my loved ones healthy and happy—even though I haven’t much to do it with” (Howe 1935, 7).
The economic catastrophe also affected peoples’ decision to move or return to their former home. The Dust Bowl exodus might be the most well known and significant of the era’s migration streams; however, it was by no means the only one. Americans in other rural regions opted to move in search of better conditions and improved economic opportunities. Farm families left East Texas’s Black Land Prairie in significant numbers, permanently abandoning the region’s cotton fields for the allure of the state’s urban centers. In the East Texas County of McLennan, which includes the midsize city of Waco, the number of tenant farmers decreased from 4,752 in 1930 to 2,518 a mere ten years later. Although the number of migrants appears to be relatively large, many of the state’s other cotton-producing regions appear to have experienced significant population loss. Such long-suffering individuals appear to have left the Texas cotton fields due to a combination of the effects of New Deal programs and the attraction of city life.
Large growers usually benefited most from the Agricultural Adjustment Administration’s (AAA’s) subsidy programs, which used such resources to modernize their operations. Thus, their acquisition of tractors further contributed to a large number of tenants abandoning their bleak prospects for the hope of a better life. Furthermore, the young in particular became increasingly sensitive to the view popularized in the media regarding the superiority of urban living. Such conveniences as indoor plumbing, good housing, and electricity were a powerful draw for people raised amid a cotton farm’s unrelenting hardships. The spectacular growth of Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio attest to Blacklanders’ affirmation of such a view. Some observers were worried about this continued exodus from the land. In 1934, Alice Margaret Ashton, a Farm Journal contributor, cautioned parents againstcontinually telling their children about the farm’s financial difficulties because it only encouraged them to leave. She indicated that “farm children have heard and discussed each disappointment and each setback, have heard all about father’s discouragement and mother’s dissatisfactions. I wonder if this does not cause many country children to decide they will try something besides farming” (Ashton 1934, 26).
Unfortunately, for some, their decision to leave sharecropping and tenancy only resulted in more hardship. Some sharecroppers who resided in the Deep South had faced the dual ravages of the boll weevil and plummeting cotton prices, and found few options except to join the agricultural migrant stream to the East. Growers’ conversion of the Florida’s Everglades into a rich farming region had created an insatiable appetite for the cheap labor required to harvest the region’s fruits and vegetables. The thousands of dislocated sharecroppers who relocated to the state greatly assisted growers in keeping their labor costs down. These unfortunate but resilient souls supplemented their employment in Florida in the winter by laboring in New Jersey and other eastern states during the summer. Most eastern migrant laborers were African American, and usually encountered such abysmal living conditions as insufficient shelter, restroom facilities, and nourishment.
Some locales experienced the opposite of the rural-to-city migration as industrial jobs evaporated and were replaced with soup lines. A brief interruption and in some cases reversal of the southern migration to the northern industrial centers represented such a situation. For years before the Depression, large numbers of rural southerners had opted to leave an existence often mired in grinding poverty to secure jobs in Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and other Midwestern urban centers. By the close 1920s, the city of Detroit, Michigan contained 66,000 southern white migrants, Chicago had 50,000, and Indianapolis had 30,000. Many of the Midwest’s smaller cities also had high numbers of such immigrants. African Americans moved to such industrial centers in large numbers. For instance, in the 1920s alone more than 800,000 blacks left the South in the hope of finding better prospects (Berry 2000, 31-33; Gregory 2005, 15).
Nevertheless, many southern transplants opted to return during the early Depression years. The fact that factory owners responded to declining consumer demand by issuing massive layoffs meant that the major reason for coming northward had dissolved. This bleak situation led to greatly reduced employment opportunities among both whites and blacks. However, the situation was particularly difficult for southern black migrants because factory owners often dismissed African Americans first and rehired them only after reemploying whites. The fact that blacks returned to the South in fewer numbers is probably related to that fact that more whites had relatives who were property owners. This meant that Caucasians usually had a greater incentive to return to the South than African Americans.
Orbie Berry, a former resident of Wayne County, Tennessee, located in south-central Tennessee (approximately 100 miles southwest of Nashville), typified those southerners who returned home. As the economy worsened, Berry recollected his observations, remembering the scene at one Flint, Michigan, auto plant stating, “Everything was standing-there was no machines amoving.” Many southerners faced such bleak scenes and returned to more familiar surroundings to survive the hard times. Although Berry never departed northward again, many of his southern comrades did return once the worst of the Depression had ended. The southern migration to the North resumed once the economy improved and increased drastically once more with the onset of World War II. Historian Chad Berry has surmised,
By 1935, the blip on the migration scale was gone, and thousands again faced the difficult choice of whether to leave the South for the North. The Great White Migration was flowing again, though still not as voluminously as in the 1920s. It would take a massive economic mobilization for another world war to get surplus southerners to go northward again en masse. (Berry 2000, 35, 32)
A Fierce Discontent
Although many rural Americans stoically endured their difficulties, some agricultural workers, farmers, and sharecroppers were less peaceful in their response. Throughout the 1930s, farmworkers in such geographically disparate states as California and New Jersey protested their appalling pay and working conditions by attempting to unionize and organize strikes. However, the nation’s growers usually possessed superior social, political, and financial weapons in their struggle to maintain cheap labor. As Carey McWilliams, one of the era’s greatest farm worker advocates, stated, “The established pattern has been somewhat as follows: to bring in successive minority groups; to exploit them until the advantages of exploitation have been exhausted; and then to expel them in favor of more readily exploitable material” (McWilliams 2000, 305-306). Nevertheless, even individuals in far more stable situations occasionally acted confrontationally. In August of 1932, Northwest Iowa Farmers, organized under the Holiday Association, exhibited an unexpected outburst of passionate action. Farmers became inspired by Milo Reno’s ardent rhetoric, armed themselves, blockaded highways leading to Sioux City, and protested low prices by pouring milk on the side of the road. The following year, they almost lynched a magistrate, symbolizing both the movement’s climax and subsequent decline. In 1934, northern Arkansas sharecroppers also responded militantly to their expulsion by large absentee land owners. They rallied under the banner of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU). By 1935, the organization’s membership had swollen to approximately 25,000 people. Despite such fervent efforts, both attempts for economic equality failed, in the case of the Farm Holiday Association, farmers were not able to organize for their common interests, while the efforts of the STFU members crumbled due to landowners’ often-violent resistance.
Agricultural groups and individual farmers were not universally supportive of those who responded radically to their tribulations. In February 1931, an American Farm Bureau Weekly News Letter writer commented on those who had participated in a food riot in the town of England, Arkansas, a small town near Little Rock. The author stated,
The Red Venom of Communism is making itself more vivid in each report received at national headquarters of the AFBF on alleged food riots in Arkansas. Proof that communism is playing its dastardly part in inciting drought stricken farmers is now directly traced to activities of such persons as Ella Reeve Bloor. (American Farm Bureau Letter 1931, 2)
The author identified additional individuals he viewed to be communist agitators, stating that, “Farm Bureau officials should be on guard against radicals of like ilk….” (American Farm Bureau Letter 1931, 2). Although less caustic, Elmer G. Powers nonetheless disapproved of what he believed to be drastic and unwise actions. On April 6, 1933, he commented that the actions of Farm Holiday participants were “a very serious mistake,” and added that, “[h]aving contact with nature as farmers do they should know that there are times when one must ‘bow to the powers that be’ whatever they are” (Grant and Purcell 1976, 31).
The New Deal and Rural Folk
In the end, the federal government would prove to be a major tool of aid and hope. Such centralized power had played a role in agriculture since the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) establishment in the early 1860s; however, the farm crisis of the 1930s precipitated a much expanded involvement. In the 1920s, the trend for a more vigorous agricultural policy was already under way; the congressional farm block had successfully secured such legislation such as the Capper-Volstead Act and the Agricultural Credits Act of 1923. However, their efforts to achieve even more energetic action through such legislation as the McNary-Haugen bill proved to be ineffectual. Legislators had sought to return farmers to price parity by adjusting farm prices through direct interference in market; nevertheless, both the Coolidge and Hoover administrations opposed such government activism. Thus, the nation’s farm families were left to languish in the cost price squeeze throughout the 1920s.
In spite of this government inertia, President Roosevelt’s more interventionist approach and the desperate state of American farming coalesced in shifting political momentum to more vigorous action. Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda established a variety of new administrative agencies such as the AAA and the Rural Electrification Administration to meet such challenges as overproduction, rural poverty, and poor farm practices head-on. These agencies produced policies that resulted in myriad changes regarding farmers’ relationship to the government, their overall quality of life, and even the natural environment. Farmers’ increased dependence on government subsidy programs and their improved living conditions resulting from the dissemination of electrical power can be traced to expanded federal power. Furthermore, the rural landscape was altered by the emergence of additional national forests and grasslands. Such sweeping changes demonstrated how the New Deal laid the groundwork for the future federal agricultural policy. Not all Americans enjoyed the benefits of new federal programs equally, however, because large farmers generally received the largest subsidy payments.
In May 1933, Congress enacted the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which represented one the New Deal’s first and more significant pieces of farm legislation. Farmers who agreed to reduce their production of milk, hogs, rice, tobacco, cotton, and wheat in return received government payments. Henry A. Wallace, the Iowa genius, provided much of the direction for such measures aimed to restore farm families’ buying power. Food processors met the cost of paying for the program by paying a tax. Many farmers owed their survival to the federal payments and were gracious for the compensation; nevertheless, some bitterly opposed the effort. In 1935, William H. King, a Utah senator, voiced a particularly harsh critique stating, “The AAA legislation, while new to our country, plagiarized from the pages recording the efforts of autocratic governments to control industry and restrict the activities of individuals” (King 1935, 6). He criticized the government’s practices of destroying excess commodities in a time of great want as especially egregious.
The Supreme Court’s declaration of the AAA’s unconstitutionality represented a high point in the resistance to FDR’s agricultural policy; some observers even surmised that AAA was “on the brink of disaster” (Nourse 1935, 5). Despite such a gloomy forecast, the passage of the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act by Congress effectively replaced the Agricultural Adjustment Act. The measure ended the practice of funding the program through a processing tax, and instead reduced production by paying farmers for their conservation efforts. In 1938, the AAA’s third installment entrenched farmers’ growing reliance on the federal government. Additionally, the Roosevelt administration developed a host of other programs in its attempts to raise farm prices and lower production. The Commodity Credit Corporation provided loans to farmers if they participated in crop-reduction agreements, thus similar to the AAA, and contributed to cementing a close relationship between the farmer and the federal government.
New Dealers not only desired to raise crop prices, but also to improve rural Americans’ quality of life especially through the miraculous power of electricity. Although most small-town dwellers possessed electricity, many of their rural counterparts lived without it. Observers hailed the benefits of making electricity accessible to rural Americans and predicted that it would soon be within reach of those living in the countryside. In 1931, the comments of Howard S. Russell, the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Secretary, were particularly verbose regarding its advantages. He compared the role of electricity in the modern era to be that of the slave in antiquity, stating,
Because electricity, the modern slave, is ready at his command to saw wood, turn the grind stone, whirl the cream separator or hoist the hay. It will fill silo, milk the cows, cool their milk, light the barn yard, and do a hundred tasks that Cato, the famous farmer of Roman times, was unable to get his slaves to do. (American Farm Bureau Weekly June 1931, 1)
Dr. E. A. White, a rural electrification expert, spoke at a meeting of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers in Ames, Iowa. He stated, “It is probable that 10 years hence the farm without electric service will be looked upon as lacking essentials for economic production and desirable living standards” (American Farm Bureau Weekly July 1931, 4).
Dr. White’s assessment proved to be overly optimistic since only 50 percent of the nation’s farm families possessed electricity by the conclusion of World War II. The Rural Electrification Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) aided in electrifying the countryside much more rapidly than otherwise would have occurred. For years, private utility corporations had hesitated to serve rural populations with life-improving electricity. The TVA’s accomplishments in creating a system of hydroelectric dams providing a less costly source of electricity than private companies particularly demonstrates the government’s success. Despite the government’s achievements in disseminating the spread of this modern convenience, it was ineffective in stemming the tide of the continued urban mass migration.
Political leaders also attempted to address the nation’s emergency needs, unemployment, and persistent ill of rural poverty. Resettlement Administration officials acquired marginal lands, converting them into national forests or public grasslands. Federal employees provided monetary relief to families, some of whom faced shortages of basic necessities; however, attempts to offer such impoverished farmers with new farming opportunities rarely materialized. People benefited from the New Deal’s conservation efforts both through improvements in their local environment as well as new employment opportunities. Regions of the country with a solid tradition of conservation profited greatly from these programs. Vermont’s state commissioner of forestry was particularly pleased by the Civilian Conservation Corps’ (CCC) contributions, particularly regarding how it aided in the development a modern and strong forestry service. CCC workers poured their energies into flood prevention measures as well as enhancing the state’s recreational areas. Vermonters also noticed that the men employed in such projects earned money, gained weight, and elevated their spirits. People in other states made similar positive comments regarding the CCC.
However, rural Americans, in areas as diverse as New England, the Great Plains, and the U.S. West sometimes viewed the New Deal programs negatively. Some landowners believed that the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and other relief programs reduced their access to inexpensive labor and undermined people’s work ethic. Yet others argued that the government’s practice of destroying hogs or plowing under a cotton crop was both wasteful and irrational. Eddie Wegner, a Texas cotton grower, stated, “I remember we had to plow out an acre or two. I can still see the stuff. You took a plow and just jerked it out. It layed [sic] there along that furrow—the beautiful white bolls laying there—it made me sick. The thing is, we dearly needed that cotton” (Hurt 2002, 85-87). Additionally some small-town newspapers viewed government programs as overly lenient and bureaucratic. A writer for the Vermont Brattleboro Reformer commented derisively on the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1936, which “promised gravy for everyone and the usual red tape” (Judd 1978, 39).
Historians have pointed many shortcomings of the New Deal, including unequal treatment according to race and farm size. They have also stressed that the Roosevelt administration failed to solve the overproduction issue, which constituted the main cause for low commodity prices. Agricultural leaders who were sympathetic to the struggles of African Americans identified a racial divide regarding the government’s distribution of resources. African American land grant colleges received significantly less funding and there were few black extension agents. Additionally, the few existent black extension workers were given much less power than their white counterparts. White land grant college staff sometimes treated African Americans with the same racism that was prevalent in other aspects of the society. The New Deal disproportionately favored large farmers who were best adapted to commercial agriculture. Such farmers used their benefit payments to acquire the latest agricultural innovations and thus displaced sharecroppers from the countryside. Moreover, the problem of excess production remained until insatiable needs brought about by World War II brought prosperity back.
The Great Depression era not only witnessed farmers’ changing relationship to the government, but also more subtle changes in agriculture. Because farmers faced extreme conditions during the era, they were encouraged to expand their use of hybrid corn as well as new varieties of other crops such as sorghum. Before the Great Depression, farmers in the Corn Belt had held back some of their seed to use the following year; however, they sometimes experienced a shortage of seed due to drought. Additionally, New Deal crop acreage reduction programs encouraged farmers to seek additional ways to make their land as productive as possible They solved this challenge by purchasing seed from such emerging commercial seed companies as Pioneer Hybrid. Once farmers experienced the increasing yields produced by such commercial varieties, they abandoned old practices, and by the end of the decade, farmers in states such as Iowa had almost completely made the transition to commercial seed corn. The transition from open pollinated to hybrid corn was rapid. A survey conducted by the Brookings Institution of 700 Iowa farmers discovered that the numbers using hybrids between 1934 and 1935 almost doubled. In other cases, such as the sorghum crop, farmers purchased new varieties due to the special needs created by the demands of mechanical harvesting. The Oklahoma and Kansas agricultural experiment stations and the USDA jointly cooperated in disseminating sorghum varieties whose height was suitable for mechanical harvesting. This included the Periconia and other varieties that contributed to the fact that the crop became one of the most dominant crops in Texas. Such new developments fully demonstrate the myriad ways in which rural America would be forever changed by the 1930s.
Despite such interesting details, a more important story seems to emerge from an examination of rural America in the Great Depression, a story of rural Americans’ dogged determination, tremendous resiliency, and in most cases amazing ability to reconstruct their lives. A proper appreciation and understanding of this momentous historical event cannot be achieved without acknowledging how Americans so often responded to tough times with a reservoir of courage, creativity, and undying loyalty to friends and family. Perhaps, the Great Depression provided the testing ground for a generation journalist Tom Brokaw has termed the “Greatest Generation.” Whether any age bracket can be considered greater than another is far from certain; however, it is not difficult to imagine that a group of Americans who grew up amid the impoverishment of the 1930s were uniquely prepared for the immense sacrifices required to defeat totalitarianism. Although other important themes such as the federal government’s greater involvement in the lives of farm families, the continued exodus of rural Americans from the land, and the reduction of smaller, less-progressive farmers represent historical trends of great consequence, the drama of admirable people facing difficult odds is a most compelling one.