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The Great Depression and prairie populism

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In a letter to Washington — collected in a 1981 book — Hickok said she visited a “relief office” in Williston where she came upon a farmer, middle-aged, with “skin like leather, (and) heavily calloused, grimy hands.” He cut a strange figure, though, in a young man’s suit, with a “flashy blue sweater” and a topcoat and a cap. Hickok recalls the man explaining that the clothes belonged to his son.

“They’re all we’ve got now,” the farmer said. “We take turns wearing ’em.”

Things would eventually get so bad in North Dakota that, as historian Elwyn B. Robinson noted, statewide cash farm income dropped to $61 million in 1932 — despite never dropping below $200 million during the 1920s. The crisis in North Dakota was aggravated by drought years, with most of the 1930s seeing less than average rainfall, and grasshoppers that tore through crops. And the crisis was worse in the upper Midwest than in many other places; Robinson also notes that per capita income was less than 40% of the national average in 1933. The family that Hickok found was feeling the brunt of what North Dakotans around the state were feeling, too.

“They needed AT ONCE a suit of underwear apiece, overshoes and stockings all around,” Hickok wrote (the capital letters are hers). “He wasn’t even mentioning shoes. (He) said they could get along if they had overshoes and socks to wear inside.”

A problem there, Hickok would write, was that the federal relief simply wasn’t covering what people needed. Working with a local official, she calculated that it would cost about $40 to give the farmer’s family of nine what they wanted. But federal aid would only stretch so far.

“We’ve got 450 families on relief in this county now, and the number is increasing every day at the rate of about seven,” a local official told Hickok. “Some days we have as high as 15 new cases. Six thousand dollars a month isn’t anywhere nearly enough to feed them decently and buy fuel — let alone provide clothing.”

Dust storms further complicated the economic hardships of North Dakotan farmers throughout Depression era. (Courtesy State Historical Society of North Dakota, Item #00351-02)

Dust storms further complicated the economic hardships of North Dakotan farmers throughout Depression era. (Courtesy State Historical Society of North Dakota, Item #00351-02)

This is the second story in a series, produced by Forum News Service and the North Dakota Newspaper Association Education Foundation, about North Dakota’s history that untangles how the state’s modern politics came to be. A lot of that story runs through the North Dakota countryside — where farmers, once under the thumb of corporate interests, like railroads and grain elevators, soon found themselves embroiled in the lowest points of the Great Depression.

Perhaps the most consequential change in North Dakota during the Depression was its hemorrhage of people. U.S. Census records put the state at more than 680,000 residents in 1930; but by 1950, that figure was only at about 620,000, tallying up a nearly 10% loss in population. The figure wouldn’t recover until the early 2010s.

The crisis would fundamentally reshape the state and the country, leaving in North Dakota the animating spirit of the next five decades of state politics. As Mike Jacobs, the former Grand Forks Herald publisher and editor, points out, North Dakota’s three Democratic-NPL governors all lived their early years during the Great Depression, their perspectives forever shaped by it.

“People like Bill Guy and (subsequent governors) Art Link and George Sinner — all of them have significant Depression-era experience,” Jacobs said. “And the state was kicked on its hinder. North Dakota, statistically, was one of the hardest-hit states, not just by the economic depression, but by the truly desperate situation in American agriculture.”

Former Gov. Bill Guy, the first of the three, held office from 1961 to 1973. He’s widely credited with modernizing the state, and helped build the Democratic apparatus that would rule North Dakota for decades, notably appointing a 26-year-old Byron Dorgan as tax commissioner in 1969 — one of the latter-day titans of state Democratic politics who would eventually retire as U.S. senator in 2011.

After Guy’s death in 2013, his obituary recalled his list of the three most consequential events in state history: the policies that shaped homesteading and settlement, the rise of the railroads, “and President Franklin Roosevelt’s rural electrification program.”

These electric lines at Williams Electric Cooperative, photographed in the 1950s, began connecting the state to a modern, more technologically advanced era. (Courtesy State Historical Society of North Dakota, William E. (Bill) Shemorry Photograph Collection, Item #1-17-35-20)

These electric lines at Williams Electric Cooperative, photographed in the 1950s, began connecting the state to a modern, more technologically advanced era. (Courtesy State Historical Society of North Dakota, William E. (Bill) Shemorry Photograph Collection, Item #1-17-35-20)

That electrification program, one of a sudden explosion of government programs meant to invigorate the economy, was one of the greatest leaps in technology anyone on the farm had experienced. Created by President Roosevelt in the 1930s, the Rural Electrification Administration offered low-interest loans to turn the lights on in rural farm country.

New Deal-era federal policies helped stitch together rural America with power lines. In this photo, from the late 1940s, power lines link up Frank Nasner’s farm in western North Dakota. (Courtesy State Historical Society of North Dakota, William E. (Bill) Shemorry Photograph Collection, Item #1-17-35-9)

New Deal-era federal policies helped stitch together rural America with power lines. In this photo, from the late 1940s, power lines link up Frank Nasner’s farm in western North Dakota. (Courtesy State Historical Society of North Dakota, William E. (Bill) Shemorry Photograph Collection, Item #1-17-35-9)

Lois DeFord was a schoolgirl in January 1948 when electricity came to her western North Dakota home, she recalled in an interview with the state historical society. Her father was a director of an electric co-op near Richardton, and their farm’s electrification would help celebrate the electric poles and wire stitching the state together.

“As we left, Mom was busy cooking up food to feed the dignitaries, and Dad was grinning and pacing,” the historical society account remembers. “[When school let out, the day was overcast] cloudy and dark enough that we could see LIGHT in the house as the school bus turned off the highway. What a glorious feeling!”

At the same time, farming was changing. The total number of farms in North Dakota has plunged since the 1930s, but the average farm size has grown enormously. According to federal records, the state’s total number of farms fell nearly 60% from 1930 to 1997, but the average size of a farm grew almost 240%. That shift — seismic in scale — has changed what it means to live and work in the state.

A 2005 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture sums up the breadth of the changes. In the early 1900s, more than half of Americans lived in rural regions home to “small, diversified farms.” By the 2000s, only about a quarter of Americans lived in rural farming areas. About 22 million beasts of burden had been greatly displaced by something like 5 million tractors.

Former Sen. Byron Dorgan began his political career in 1969 at age 26, when Gov. Guy appointed him tax commissioner. Dorgan remembers many of North Dakota’s mid-century changes well. None of them stand out quite so much as the transformation of small towns, going from small farmers’ communities to relatively empty spaces, where one might “fire a cannon through main street and not hit anybody.,” he said.

“The larger farmers in many cases are not buying from small towns,” Dorgan said, meaning that farm supplies — like fertilizer and equipment — are suddenly routed through small town businesses far less often. “It’s a profound impact on small town life. No question.”

Taken together, the Depression and the years that followed were really the process of the old North Dakota giving way to a new one. The nadir of the Great Depression destroyed a way of life. But the coming decades would bring new farm technologies and electricity. Beyond the economy, they’d both alter the political fabric of the state, too.

Jacobs said a key part of the state’s modern prairie populism was made in kitchens and living rooms where locals organized their own electric co-ops to take advantage of the New Deal. But as those days faded — and as farms got bigger — much of the community-minded, small town state began to slip out of living memory.

For decades, the memory of the New Deal, and of community political identity, persisted, shaping politics around the country and in North Dakota.

“I do a lot of oral history,” Jacobs said. “And I remember talking to an old lady who said, she knew — as much as one knows these things — that she would not have been able to keep her family … without aid from the federal government.”

This series is a joint effort by Forum News Service and the North Dakota Newspaper Association Education Foundation.

https://www.inforum.com/news/government-and-politics/6667692-The-Great-Depression-and-prairie-populism

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