On October 29, 1929, the American stock market crashed. The banks had gone on “speculative binges” with money from people’s savings accounts, believing that “stocks were only going skyward.” Like the prairie farmers who believed that the soil was a resource that would produce endless bounty, stock brokers and speculators were lulled by the economic boom of the 1920s into thinking that money would never run out. In the High Plains, however, the crash was a distant noise. The Panhandle remained prosperous through 1929. In Boise City, there were record harvests, a new railroad had been built, and there was even talk of erecting a skyscraper. Then, a surplus in the market sent prices down. At the beginning of 1930, “wheat sold for one-eighth of the high price from ten years earlier.” Grain was now 40 cents a bushel, which did not cover the cost of harvesting, let alone turn a profit. Most Americans were devastated by the economic collapse, but farmers in the Southern Plains, solely reliant on the purchase of wheat, are shown in The Worst Hard Time to have been uniquely cornered by the crisis.
Though in 1929 there continued to be plenty of productivity in the Plains, no one could afford to buy what the farms produced. At the movie theatres, farmers watched newsreels showing well-dressed businessmen standing in breadlines or selling apples on street corners for a nickel each. The Depression seemed like a distant phenomenon, but these images were signs of how the farmers, too, would come to suffer.
In 1929, the U.S. government estimated that one out of every four Americans worked on a farm that supplied grain for either bread or alcohol. With people in the cities unable to afford bread and a glut in the wheat market, crops did not sell easily—not even for the production of grain alcohol, which was in high demand during Prohibition. Crops that did not sell simply rotted. The sight of decaying bushels of wheat were a sign that the farmers, who had vainly believed that the grasslands would always be a source of profit, were also vulnerable to the financial collapse.
Grain was not the only crop to drop in price. The price of corn fell to three cents a bushel. The average farmer now earned three hundred dollars per year—“an 80 percent drop in income from a decade earlier.” Like the apple vendors in the cities, wheat farmers were selling their product at bottom dollar just to survive. Whereas just several years before farmers were so economically secure that they bought new farm equipment and started building houses above ground, they now found their way of life becoming increasingly unsustainable. Some had their property foreclosed on by their local banks, and in Boise City, the town’s banker, John Johnson, began to auction off the shiny new equipment that farmers had purchased with money from the wheat boom.
While Herbert Hoover had believed in allowing the free market to regulate the agricultural economy, President Franklin Roosevelt insisted on making the government the market—that is, the government would become the farmers’ main buyer of crops (a decision that the Supreme Court would later rule unconstitutional). With the government now shaping “the price and flow of food,” farmers would never again produce more than what was needed in the interest of capitalizing off of a good market, and they would never again suffer from the vagaries of a free market system.
First, the government had to buy the surplus products. Roosevelt arranged for excess “corn, beans, and flour” to be purchased from farmers and distributed among the needy. In regard to livestock, six million pigs were bought and slaughtered to supply relief organizations with meat. The following year, the government asked “cattlemen and wheat growers” to reduce their supply in exchange for money. It was thus not only important to relieve farmers of what they could not sell, but to break them out of the habit of producing more than what was needed by providing an economic incentive.
Next, Roosevelt signed a bill into law which provided farmers with two hundred million dollars in aid to keep their properties out of foreclosure. Whereas local banks and speculators had profited off of farmers’ financial insolvency by holding property auctions, Roosevelt kept to his campaign promise of looking out for the interests of common farmers by supplying them with the funds to help them maintain their way of life.
Though the entire nation learned harsh lessons from the Great Depression—lessons about what could happen when people got too greedy—the farmers suffered from both a loss of funds and a loss of the land. Both the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl were man-made phenomena, the results of indulgence and human excesses. For the farmers, it offered a particularly poignant lesson on the limitations of free markets. While all farmers hoped to prosper—and many did—it became counterproductive to try to get rich off of the land. Through his depiction of the farmers’ economic hardships during the Depression, Egan diverts from President Roosevelt’s narrative that they were simple, decent people caught in an evil system, instead suggesting that the simple farmer was as vulnerable to greed as any Wall Street broker—and needed to learn similar lessons about moderation in the pursuit of profit.
Economic Hardship and Lessons of the Great Depression ThemeTracker
Economic Hardship and Lessons of the Great Depression Quotes in The Worst Hard Time
Some people said Jews were to blame for the bad times—that they did not belong in this country, a place where the Texan had boasted that its citizens were “of the highest type of Anglo-Saxon ancestry.” In Nebraska, four thousand people gathered on the capitol steps, blaming the “Jewish system of banking” for the implosion of the economy. They held banners with rattlesnakes, labeled as Jews, coiled around the American farmer.
The sign at the edge of Dalhart— “Black Man Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You Here”—was strictly enforced […] “Two Negroes Arrested”: the Dalhart Texan reported how the men, aged nineteen and twenty-three, had sniffed around the train station looking for food. They were cuffed, locked up in the county jail, and after a week brought out for arraignment before a justice of the peace, Hugh Edwards. The judge ordered the men to dance. The men hesitated; this was supposed to be a bond hearing. The railroad agent said these men were good for nothing but Negro toe-tapping […] The men started to dance, forced silly grins on their faces, reluctant. After the tap dance, the judge banged his gavel and ordered the men back to jail for another two months.
A few days later, Uncle Dick was leaning against a rail in front of the DeSoto when he spotted a young cowboy and his family drifting through town. For five years now, Dick had watched a steady parade of jalopies and wagons float through Dalhart, the people staying only a night or two, and then moving on to some place where there might be work or stable land [….] The cowboy had wandered into town with the XIT reunion [….] Uncle Dick reached into his pocket and pulled out his hundred-dollar bill. He handed the money to the cowboy, told him to take it—it was his. The young man was stunned [….] Later, when the cowboy asked around about his benefactor, people told him it was Dick Coon, the richest man in town. He owned everything. But they were surprised to see him give up the C-note [….] Only Coon’s closest friends knew the truth: Uncle Dick was broke.
Elsewhere in 1938, the recovery and the energy of the New Deal had run out of steam. More than four million people lost their jobs in the wake of government cutbacks, and the stock market fell sharply again. Some of the gloom that enveloped the country at midterm in President Hoover’s reign was back. In the Dust Bowl, the fuzz of a forced forest and the re-tilling of tousled dirt did not stop the wind or bring more rain, but it was a plan in motion—something—and that was enough to inspire people to keep the faith. As Will Rogers said, “If Roosevelt burned down the Capital we would cheer and say, ‘Well, we at least got a fire started anyhow.’” The High Plains had been culled of thousands of inhabitants […] But as the dirty decade neared its end, the big exodus was winding down. The only way that folks who stayed behind would leave now, they said, was horizontal, in a pine box.