Rural Experiences of the Great Depression
New agriculture in the 19th century turned "The Great American Desert" into "The Great Plains," the breadbasket of America. However, the weather was often severe. Winters could be bitterly cold; summers could bring drought. In 1931 a drought affected the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandle, Kansas, and parts of Colorado and New Mexico. In the 1920s, new equipment made more land available for wheat cultivation. Increased supplies led to falling prices which in turn led farmers to bring even more land under cultivation. Tractors with new types of plows made the additional cultivation possible. A dry winter in 1932 meant that there were endless acres of soil without even grass to hold it in place when the spring winds came. Dust storms then whipped across the region.
Last week farmers in ten Midwestern States had sand in their beards, in their hair, in their ears, in their eyes, in their mouths, in their pockets, in their pants, in their boots, in their milk, coffee, soup and stew. Dust poured through the cracks in farmhouse walls, under the doors, down the chimneys. In northwest Oklahoma a hundred families fled their homes. Every school in Baca County, Colo. was closed. In Texas the windswept hayfield were alive with blinded sparrows. Methodist congregations in Guymon, Okla. met three times a day to pray for rain. Originally confined to a 200-mile strip between Canada and Mexico, last week's dust storm suddenly swirled eastward over Missouri, Iowa and Arkansas, crossed the Mississippi to unload on Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Louisiana. With half the nation blanketed in silt, farmers everywhere were asking what was going to happen to the wheat crop.
Last week the Crop Reporting Board of the Department of Agriculture gave its second answer for 1935. U.S. Farmers had planted 44,306,000 acres in winter wheat last autumn, said the report. Drought and dust had forced them to abandon 12,405,000 acres. The wheat standing on the remaining 31,901,000 acres on April 1 was estimated to yield 435,499,000 bu.--69% of normal. West of the river, in the ten States chiefly affected by drought and dust, more than 40% of the winter wheat seeded last autumn was expected to fail. Hardest hit was Kansas where rainfall in March was only 56% of normal and the crop 47% of normal. Last week six Kansas counties reported their wheat crop a total failure. TIME, Apr 22, 1935.
Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, photographed by Arthur Rothstein, April, 1936 for the Farm Security Administration.
Rothstein, along with Dorethea Lange and other FSA photographers, documented the severity of the storms and the devastation they brought. Below are two more of Rothstein's pictures of the storm in Cimarron County. These show farms abandoned after the storm made them unworkable and the farm houses uninhabitable. Below them is an excerpt from a diary kept by a young woman in South Dakota.
May 7, 1934, Monday . . . The dirt is still blowing. Last weekend Bud and I helped with the cattle and had fun gathering weeds. Weeds give us greens for salad long before anything in the garden is ready. We use dandelions, lamb's quarter, and sheep sorrel. I like sheep sorrel best. Also, the leaves of sheep sorrel, pounded and boiled down to a paste, make a good salve. Still no job. I'm trying to persuade Dad I should apply for rural school #3 out here where we went to school. I don't see a chance of getting a job in a high school when so many experienced teachers are out of work
May 30, 1934, Wednesday It took until 10 o'clock to wash all the dirty dishes. That's not wiping them - just washing them. The cupboards had to be washed out to have a clean place to put them. Saturday was a busy day. Before starting breakfast I had to sweep and wash all the dirt off the kitchen and dining room floors, wash the stove, pancake griddle, and dining room table and chairs. There was cooking, baking and churning to be done for those hungry men. Dad is 6 feet 4 inches tall, with a big frame. Bud is 6 feet 3 inches and almost as big-boned as Dad. We say feeding them is like filling a silo. Mama couldn't make bread until I carried water to wash the bread mixer. I couldn't churn until the churn was washed and scalded. We just couldn't do anything until something was washed first Every room had to have dirt almost shoveled out of it before we could wash floors and furniture. We had no time to wash clothes, but it was necessary. I had to wash out the boiler, wash tubs, and the washing machine before we could use them. Then every towel, curtain, piece of bedding, and garment had to be taken outdoors to have as much dust as possible shaken out before washing. The cistern is dry, so I had to carry all the water we needed from the well. Anne Marie Low, Dust Bowl Diary (1984)
1925 -- rural depression follows World War I
1929 -- industrial depression starts, removing urban options for rural migrants
1932 -- Dust Bowl follows drought years in Great Plains area
1933-40 -- New Deal proposes several measures to relieve rural distress including the Farm Security Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the Agricultural Adjustment Act. These help millions of individuals survive but fail to restore prosperity on the farm.
1941-45 -- World War II increases demand for agricultural products; increased industrial production also drains millions of agricultrual laborers to the factories.
[Insert audio file of Woodie Guthrie, "Blowing Down That Dusty Road," available in RealAudio or MP3 at http://www.emusic.com/albums/27592/] In the Thirties and Forties, Woody Guthrie became the poet laureate of the dispossessed and downtrodden with such songs as "This Land Is Your Land," "Pastures of Plenty," "So Long, ItŐs Been Good to Know You," and and hundreds more. He crisscrossed the country, often on freight trains, and sang for union rallies, migrant farmers, and left-wing political causes. Despite the current popularity of many of his songs, especially "This Land Is Your Land," which he wrote as a reply to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," Guthrie did not become a "star." "So Long, ItŐs Been Good to Know You" was a reworking of an earlier tune, "Dusty, Old Dust. The original lyrics ran:
I've sung this song, but I'll sing it again,
Of the place that I lived on the wild windy plains,
In the month called April, county called Gray,
And here's what all of the people there say:
CHORUS: "So long, it's been good to know yuh;
So long, it's been good to know yuh;
So long, it's been good to know yuh.
This dusty old dust is a-gettin' my home,
And I got to be driftin' along."
A dust storm hit, an' it hit like thunder;
It dusted us over, an' it covered us under;
Blocked out the traffic an' blocked out the sun,
Straight for home all the people did run, Singin':
We talked of the end of the world, and then
We'd sing a song an' then sing it again.
We'd sit for an hour an' not say a word,
And then these words would be heard:
Sweethearts sat in the dark and sparked,
They hugged and kissed in that dusty old dark.
They sighed and cried, hugged and kissed,
Instead of marriage, they talked like this: "Honey..."
Now, the telephone rang, an' it jumped off the wall,
That was the preacher, a-makin' his call.
He said, "Kind friend, this may be the end;
An' you got your last chance of salvation of sin!"
The churches was jammed, and the churches was packed,
An' that dusty old dust storm blowed so black.
Preacher could not read a word of his text,
An' he folded his specs, an' he took up collection, Said:
Dust storms made the Depression even worse on the Great Plains, but they accelerated rather than created the movement of people off of their farms. Farmers in much of the country had faced hard times since the middle 1920s. As the price per bushel fell, individual farmers sought to protect their incomes by producing more. The increased supply drove prices lower so that, at best, they managed to stay even. When the Great Depression began, small farmers were especially vulnerable. They had increased production by borrowing to acquire additional land and new tractors and other equipment. When prices fell even further, they could not repay their loans. Nor could local banks afford to "carry" them on the books, much less extend them additional credit. But this was precisely what farmers needed. All across the South and Midwest, as farmers defaulted on their loans, banks foreclosed on mortgages. Farm families had to stand by as bank officers auctioned off their possessions, usually for pennies on the dollar. The amounts raised rarely paid off the debt and almost never produced any cash for the now homeless farm family. All they could do was pile their remaining possessions on an old car or truck and strike out for what they hoped would be "greener pastures." This meant the Far West, especially California.
Paul Taylor, in "Again the Covered Wagon," Survey Graphic, July, 1935 provided a detailed description. In it he noted the effect of some New Deal programs in actually displacing farm workers. One group of blacks from Mississippi had to leave because a dam project flooded the land they had been farming. Other tenant and sharecropping farmers had to leave because the Agricultural Adjustment Act provisions favored the land owner. The FERA referred to in the article was the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. The photographs come not from the article but from the Migrant Mother photographs created by Dorothea Lange for the Farm Security Administration.
At Fort Yuma the bridge over the Colorado marks the southeastern portal to California. Across this bridge move shiny cars of tourists, huge trucks, an occasional horse and wagon, or a Yuma Indian on horseback. And at intervals in the other traffic appear slow-moving and conspicuous cars loaded with refugees.
The refugees travel in old automobiles and light trucks, some of them home-made, and frequently with trailers behind. All their worldly possessions are piled on the car and covered with old canvas or ragged bedding, with perhaps bedsprings atop, a small iron cook-stove on the running board, a battered trunk, lantern, and galvanized iron washtub. tied on behind. Children, aunts, grandmothers and a dog are jammed into the car, stretching its capacity incredibly. A neighbor boy sprawls on top of the loaded trailer.
One of the "Migrant Mother" photographs taken by Dorothea Lange for the Farm Security Administration
Most of the refugees are in obvious distress. Clothing is sometimes neat and in good condition, particularly if the emigrants left last fall, came via Arizona, and made a little money in the cotton harvest there. But sometimes it is literally in tatters. At worst, these people lack money even for a California auto license. Asked for the $3 fee, a mother with six children and only $3.40 replied, "That's food for my babies!" She was allowed to proceed without a license.
. . . . . . .
The immediate factors dislodging people are several. Clearly, although piecemeal and in some bewilderment, the emigrants tell the story: "We got blowed out in Oklahoma.""Yes sir, born and raised in the state of Texas; farmed all my natural life. Ain't nothin' there to stay fornothin' to eat. Somethin's radical wrong," said an ex-cotton farmer encamped shelterless under eucalyptus trees in Imperial Valley. A mother with seven children whose husband died in Arizona enroute explained: "The drought come and burned it up. We'd have gone back to Oklahoma from Arizona, but there wasn't anything to go to.""Lots left ahead of usno work of no kind.""It seems like God has forsaken us back there in Arkansas."
Curiously, not only drought and depression but also flood and the very measures which mitigate the severity of depression for some people have unloosed others. A large party of Negroes from Mississippi entering California at Fort Yuma in March reported that they had "just beat the water out by a quarter of a mile." A destitute share-crop farmer, stopping tentless by the highway near Bakersfield, with only green onions as food for his wife and children, had striven to buy a farm in Oklahoma and lost it. But he announced proudly that he had left Wagner County "clear," owing no one. In his story were echoes of crop-restriction, naturally only of its sadder side, and of conflict between cotton share-croppers on one hand and "first tenants" and landlords on the other. "It knocks thousands of fellows like me out of a crop. The ground is laying there, growing up in weeds. The landowner got the benefit and the first tenant [who finances the crop and provides. teams and tools, feed and seed] says 'I can't furnish [subsistence during the growing season] any more,' so the share-crop tenant 'on halves' goes on FERA; he's out. It's putting 'em-down, down, down. It looks to me like overproduction is better than not having it." Another refugee who had been farm laborer and oil worker in Oklahoma, said, "Since the oil-quota, I've had no work."
It is hope that draws the refugees to California, hope of finding work, of keeping off or getting off federal relief, of maintaining morale, of finding surcease of trouble. "We haven't had to have no help yet. Lots of 'em have, but we haven't," said Oklahoma pea-pickers on El Camino Real at Mission San Jose. "All I want is a chance to make an honest living.""When a person's able to work, what's the use of begging? We ain't that kind of people," said elderly pea-pickers near Calipatria.
. . . . . . . .
. . . the refugees seeking individual protection in the traditional spirit of the American frontier by westward migration are unknowingly arrivals at another frontier, one of social conflict. In this conflict they are found on both sides. An ex-tenant farmer picking peas in Imperial Valley complains there of the great landowners who are also the bane of his class in Oklahoma whence he came, "The monied men got all the land gobbled up." In the sheds of El Centro the lettuce packers were on strike this spring. A family of refugees in dire distress naturally helped to break strike. With the earnings they purchased an automobile needed badly for family support. They had learned what other laborers learn quickly in the highly seasonal agriculture of the coast, "A person can't get by without a car in California, like in Oklahoma."
Participation in more labor conflict doubtless lies ahead of the refugees coming to California, for tension in that state is not abating. The bitter criminal syndicalist trials in Sacramento were hailed by extremists as a test of power; half the defendants were acquitted, half were convicted. Among the latter were the chief leaders of the agricultural strikes of 1933. Farmers and their spokesmen have exhibited great confidence in repression of agitators and pickets as a means of maintaining peace in agriculture. But still they are uneasy as the successive harvests of 1935 advance. Expending as much as $35 or $50 an acre to bring a crop to maturity, they see their entire year's return staked upon a few days of uninterrupted harvest. The fifty-odd farm strikes since December 1932 naturally have made them fearful of more interruptions, and they have organized for self-defense. "The Associated Farmers," said their spokesman before the Commonwealth Club, "intend to get laws passed that will protect them against Communists, and to see that these laws are rigidly enforced. We are not trying to beat down wages; we are not advocating illegal force or terrorism. But we will not willingly submit to having twenty or thirty automobile loads of so-called peaceful picketers parading up and down in front of our homes, threatening and intimidating, and even blockading the highways." Unions under conservative labels are almost equally opposed. "If the American Federation of Labor should form farm unions, the chances are that foreign or native-born radicals would sooner or later get control of them, just as they did with the longshoremen's union." Commenting on this attitude a State Federation official said bitterly, "If we had a strike, the farmers would conveniently find one or two Communists around."
The future of the refugees, then, is hardly likely to be tranquil.
Stop and Consider:
- The Rothstein photograph, taken for the Farm Security Administration, of the farmer and his two sons walking in a dust storm is one of the most famous images of the "Dust Bowl." It was not a candid shot. Instead Rothstein posed his subjects to get this precise image. Take a second look and discuss what the photographer wanted contemporary viewers to see. Be specific.
- Dorothea Lange's portraits of the "Migrant Mother" were also taken for the FSA and were also carefully composed. The most famous, reproduced at left, like the Rothstein photograph, became a way comtemporaries saw the Depression. What did Lange want them to see. Again, be specific.
- How well did Woody Guthrie's "So Long, It's Been Good To Know You" capture the Dust Bowl experience? Use both the photographs, the diary entry, and the Survey Graphic article in developing your response.
If, as Paul Taylor pointed out, some New Deal programs actually made things worse for tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and farm laborers, others were intended to make things better. One was the Civilian Conservation Corps. This program recruited hundreds of thousands of young, unemployed males and put them to work reclaiming land. They planted trees and grasses, for example, so that the next time there was a drought there would be something to hold the soil down. CCC participants lived in camps, received free medical care, education through high school, and $30 a month -- just enough to pay for haircuts and to send a small amount to their families.
Another New Deal agency that sought to relieve distress in rural America was the Farm Security Administration. In addition to documenting the scope and severity of the Depression, the FSA built housing and other facilities for displaced agricultural workers and their families. Initially, in 1935, the state of California sought to build camps for so-called Okies, migrant workers displaced by the Dust Bowl and the Depression. In 1937, the Farm Security Administration took over. By 1940, it had set up twelve camps in California and several others in other states. During the war, the problem suddenly went from housing migrants from Arkansas, Oklahoma and other states to organizing the importation of Mexican laborers needed to fill the labor shortage occasioned by the military draft and the enormous demand for industrial workers. By 1942, the FSA ran ninety-five camps housing seventy-five thousand people.
The pre-war program was extremely unpopular among California's large landowners. Their concern was that the provision of relatively high quality and permanent housing to migrants would lead to demands for higher wages and better working conditions. They also object to the "socialist" nature of the program and speculated that "communists" were behind it. To offset their lobbying efforts to have the camps closed, the FSA sent Arthur Rothstein to California in 1940 to document life in the camps. The object was explicitly political. "I still want you to get to California and to get us a series of detailed pictures on the camps," his supervisor, Roy Stryker wrote, "so we will quit being harrassed so much by people around Washington for this particular type of photo." Stryker went on:
With the fight as bitter as it is in California, Fred [Soule, regional FSA administrator] feels that we now need to emphasize the positive side, and that mothers and children are our best bet. Get nurses treating children, mothers coming in for post-natal instruction--anything that will demonstrate child welfare work. [Stryker to Rothstein, 2 March 1940, Stryker Papers, quoted in American Memory site on the FSA.]
Rothstein did exactly as instructed. His photographs of the Visalia camp, later the Tulare Farm Workers Community, emphasized the "all-American" character of camp life. In shooting the exterior of one of the steel cabins, for example, he put a mother and child in the foreground. And in shooting an interior, he put a woman exbroidering.
One of the features of FSA camps which drew hostile criticism was the co-operative store; because it used volunteer labor and was non-profit, the store undersold merchants in the area and thus cost them business. Rothstein photographed a meeting of its directors five middle-aged men sitting around a table. One could hardly imagine an image which smacked less of socialism. So too his treatment of the Well Baby Clinic, another favorite target of critics because it was "socialized medicine." The "common" areas of the camp, the utility room where women could use washing machines and irons provided by the FSA and the recreation hall where anyone could gather for amusement, yielded equally "all-American" pictures. So did a meeting of the camp Women's Club. Women's Clubs were usually middle-class organizations devoted to moral uplift and civic improvement. The fact that there was such a club formed by the wives of migrant labor families spoke to the "respectability" of camp life.
Rothstein also photographed a Saturday night dance. The "kitty" next to the band was for contributions. The musicians played for tips.
Summary: Rural Americans experienced a Depression at least as devastating as that which struck industrial workers. In some ways it was worse. The economic downturn started four years earlier and was complicated by the dust storms that began in 1932 and lasted for much of the thirties. Worse still, some of the New Deal programs designed to assist "agricultural recovery" actually made life more difficult for tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and farm laborers. Many found themselves forced off the land that they had previously worked. Typically they headed west, often for California, but they spread out across the entire country. Some federal programs, the CCC and the FSA in particular, did assist displaced agricultural workers. Unfortunately, neither program ever had the resources to assist more than a small portion of those impacted. As with the rest of the country, it was World War II which brought renewed prosperity to the farm. By then, the nature of farming had changed permanently. Southern agriculture had begun mechanizing during the 1930s with the result that there were fewer places for black or white sharecropping families. Innumerable small farmers had been wiped out by the dust storms and the foreclosures of the early to mid-thirties. When what had been their land came back into production it was often owned by a large agribusiness. The "family farm" received a blow from which it never fully recovered.
Reflect and Respond:
- "Documentary" photography recorded carefully chosen and composed "slices of life." The "art" of a photographer such as Dorothea Lange or Arthus Rothstein was to create images which appeared "artless," that is, which appeared to be candid snapshots. Analyzing such photographs therefore requires the historian to look carefully at what the photographer decided to include, and to exclude, from the pictures, and at how he or she composed the image. Composition deals with such matters as lighting, the angle from which the photograph was taken, and the relative size of the objects within the picture. Choose three of the Rothstein photographs of the Visalia camp. What was he seeking to achieve in each? How did he seek to convey certain ideas and/or sentiments in each?
- The Visalia photographs stand in stark contrast to the earlier pictures taken by Lange and Rothstein of migrant laborers and of the impact of the dust storms. Create two contrastng pairs of images. Explain what an analysis of each pair tells us about the experience of the Great Depression.