A journey through the American heartland reveals the anger and desperation of the Great Depression.
There were three of us in the bus traveling from Madrid, Iowa, to Des Moines, one being the driver. Next to me was the man who started the first “farmers’ holiday” in that State, the man above all others I should have chosen to talk with during that trip of an hour and a half had I known in advance of his existence. He explained that he was bound to the capital on an insurance matter; the insurance companies are in trouble, at least the farmers’ mutual fire-insurance companies. “We have had to assess our policy-holders–our August loss was $55,000 more than the largest previous monthly loss in our history. There is a lot of arson going on around here,” he went on, “but I don’t blame the farmers. If you were as desperate for money as they are, you’d burn a chicken-house, or a garage, or a barn, or even your house, as they sometimes do, to get clothes and shoes for your children. We just don’t know what we are going to do, but I’ll tell you this, we want the Eastern bankers to stay over in their country and leave us alone in the West. They can have their gold if they can keep it, but we are going to hold onto our farms. We had a tax sale not far from here on the fourth of January; there were 1,800 farmers there. They said they weren’t making any threats, and weren’t going to do anybody any harm, but that the first fellow who made a bid on any of those properties would go right out of the first-story window. That sale was postponed.”
“How are things with you yourself?” I ventured. “Well,” said he, “I have a wife and three children. I keep a careful record of every cent we spend, even when we put out a nickel for chewing gum, and last year $808.34 passed through our hands. Ordinarily our purchasing power runs between $3,000 and $3,400 a year. I had fine crops, got in lots of corn and have a cellar full of vegetables, but you can’t get anything for them. I am burning my corn in my furnace right now. It is just as cheap as to sell it for four or five cents a bushel after a long haul to the nearest town, and then to buy coal with what you get. I know it’s a rotten deal for the coal miner but what can I do? My daughter has been trying for a job for two years and she can’t get anything.”
Then I asked the question that I asked more often than any other during my sixteen days in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin: “What will be the conditions here if this crisis lasts two years longer?” I had already put the question that morning to the restaurant keeper who served me my breakfast. “Two years more?” he had echoed. “Why, we just can’t stand it. There won’t be any town left if that’s going to be the case. Folks are moving out now.” The originator of the “farmers’ holiday” looked equally staggered. “Why, you just can’t think,” he said, “what things will look like if this goes on that long. But I can tell you one thing, the farmers aren’t going to lose their farms and they aren’t going to let anyone take them away from them. We don’t want to make any trouble, but we are going to stay on our farms, and don’t you make any mistake about it.” “Of course,” he added, “what we need is leadership, but that will be here within six months.” “Where will it come from?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he said, “but there is going to be a leader within six months, you can be absolutely certain of that. This country has never failed to produce a leader in an emergency, and this is an emergency all right.”