Hard Times: Memories of the Great Depression
Winter has departed, but concerns about rising unemployment and the volatility of food and utilities prices remain. Behind these concerns lies a still darker fear of another depression. Those of us who lived through the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s look for similarities, but the two periods are different in many ways. For example, farm foreclosures, rather than a housing crisis, marked the beginning of the Great Depression. Economists, concerned about inflation, kept interest rates high. Do nothing more, they advised. Let the market right itself, and the new market will be leaner, more efficient; and the country will experience a moral uplift as people learn how to live simpler lives with fewer wants. That advice, however, failed to address the human needs incurred by increasing unemployment and foreclosures.
My first encounter with unemployed people came when they arrived homeless and hungry, at our Iowa farm, a 235-acre plot of land on a dirt road seven miles from the nearest town. Like most farmers, we were cash poor but land rich. We did what we could for the new arrivals. My mother fixed sandwiches with huge slices of homemade bread and leftover roast beef and served them to our unexpected guests. We were fortunate. Though we had no electricity or running water, we had plenty of food. Our furnace burned wood we collected from the farm, and my mother made and repaired our clothing using a Singer sewing machine powered by a foot pedal.
The trouble began when the price of farm commodities dropped to a new low. Corn sank to 10 cents a bushel, and cattle and hogs were not worth the expense of shipping them to market. It became impossible for my father to find the money to pay off the debt he had contracted when he bought the farm. The promissory note he signed was negotiable, with a clause requiring payment on demand. At the time we were not concerned about that clause, because the banker who granted the loan was a member of the local community.
Then the bank closed its doors and went into bankruptcy. The bank’s assets, including my father’s promissory note, were sold to pay creditors. If the note’s new owner called for immediate payment of the debt and the borrower defaulted, the next step would be a sheriff’s auction of the livestock, farm equipment and any unsold crops. If collected funds were insufficient, the land would be sold to make up the difference. In our case, the creditor was one of the largest farmers in the region. He demanded instant payment of the loan, hoping for a larger gain—namely, the speedy auction of our rich Iowa farm that he could buy for a fraction of its worth.
My parents were desperate. They had heard of Milo Reno, organizer of the Farmers’ Holiday movement, groups of farmers from across the country who faced foreclosure and sale of their land. The organization’s tactics were to stop a sale in progress and then force both sides to negotiate until they reached a compromise. Only when a creditor refused to negotiate would the Holiday group use radical tactics like displaying a hangman’s noose or refusing to leave the farm until the dispute was settled.
I learned about Farmers’ Holiday on the day the foreclosure process began. As the youngest child, I was the only one in our family still attending the one-room rural school about a mile from our farm. My parents and five siblings decided not to tell me what was about to happen for fear I might spill the news to my classmates, thus spoiling the surprise the group was planning. When I arrived home that afternoon, our driveway was full of cars.
The sheriff, a friend of the family who sympathized with the farmers, had gone to the pasture to collect the cattle. He took his time gathering them, stopping frequently to enjoy the view. By the time he returned with the herd, my parents had called Farmers’ Holiday and a crowd had gathered.
We needed to locate the creditor in order to begin negotiations. He appeared, red-faced, from around a curve in the road nearby, where he had been waiting for the cattle to be driven past. Then began an intense negotiation that ended in the early hours of the next day when a compromise was reached. The discussion had been angry and at times threatening, but on the whole it had been respectful. The sheriff’s presence guaranteed that there was no violence.
A Saving Compromise
The compromise saved our farm. The negotiators, as I remember it, reduced the face value of the note to a sum comparable to the amount borrowed by my father when times were prosperous. We were to pay off the debt in a series of yearly installments. The arrangement did not please everyone in the community. My father described an incident that occurred the day following the averted foreclosure. The owner of a gas station in our small town was a friend of my father’s. They had been business partners. The owner scolded my father in front of other farmers at the station. “You should have paid back the entire loan,” he said. “What you did was dishonest.” For a man like my father, who had a reputation for honesty in his business dealings, the statement was devastating. I wondered how anyone could consider it just to pay a debt with money worth more in value than the original debt.
As I look back on those years, I am not sure we learned anything useful. Yes, as economists predicted, we lived simpler lives during that last decade before World War II. We were too poor to do otherwise. No, the market did not right itself. Production returned to former levels only after factories geared up for arms production. I do not believe we were strengthened morally either. Millions of people lost their jobs with the concomitant loss of human dignity and the ability to support their families.
The positive element of the Great Depression, as I see it, was the way people worked together, neighbors helping neighbors. We can imitate their example because we have something to build on. Neighborliness happens often in the small cities like Adrian, Mich., where I live. Each winter we gather at one of the churches to make pot pies for sale to support the work of Habitat for Humanity; we serve meals to the hungry at Daily Bread; we gather food for food banks, provide shelter in winter through a Share the Warmth program and support other charitable groups.
Taken a step further, we have the ability to become a nation of neighbors committed to support and affirm our new leadership as they attempt to change the disastrous policies that pushed this country toward depression. People are losing their homes and livelihood. They need help, both physical and emotional. Even if we help only a few people—driving someone to a job interview or taking a food basket to a family in need—we will be helping to form a more just and peaceful world, in which neighbors trust one another and show a willingness to use the tools of negotiation and compromise to settle disagreements.