Mother Nature, economics conspired to afflict area farmers in 1934…

In terms of numbers of people affected economically, 1933 was the worst year in Kendall County history. But 1934 didn’t provide much, if any, relief for county residents dealing with the profound effects of the Great Depression. In fact, bad just kept getting worse.

Not only was the nation dealing with the horrendous financial effects of the Great Depression, but severe drought was destroying farms and farmers all over the country. The drought, driven by hot, dry weather over a period of several months, resulted in the formation of severe dust storms that blew up out of the high, dry western plains and then surged east all the way to Washington, D.C., where a bewildered government was attempting to deal with the effects of dual nationwide financial and ecological disasters.

The Depression had begun with the stock market crash of October 1929, and from then on conditions got progressively and steadily worse over the next four years. Even so, the feeling of much of the country was that things would get better soon if only everyone would buck up and a little confidence in the country’s future. That was the course President Herbert Hoover had urged in the face of near-total economic collapse before everyone had enough and elected Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.

On Dec. 27, 1933, Kendall County Record Editor John Marshall was still urging his readers to make 1934 a better year by the power of positive thinking:

“Few of us want to start 1934 with anything but a firm belief that the new year holds better things for us. We shouldn’t start the new year with a feeling that things will be worse. To do this will insure a bad year…Success is a result of your own efforts so if 1934 proves a disappointment, look to your own efforts before blaming anyone else for your bad luck.”

Milk Strike

Members of the Pure Milk Association dump milk before it could get to a non-member dairy in Harvard, Illinois sometime in the 1930s. The successful “Milk Strike” led to organizing farmers to get higher prices for their milk.

Positive thinking in place, the hits unfortunately just kept on coming. Farm commodity prices got so bad that notoriously independent farmers were finally starting to band together (as their urban worker countrymen already had) to demand more. Dairy farmers, for instance, who had formed the Pure Milk Association were conducting a milk strike, stopping trucks hauling milk from non-PMA members to Chicago dairies.

The Record reported on Jan, 10, 1934:

“As Norman Colby drove a truckload of cream for the Beatrice Creamery Company in Yorkville to Naperville on Route 18 [today’s U.S. Route 34], he was stopped between Oswego and Naperville by two carloads of men and the $275 worth of cream he was carrying was dumped into the ditch… After the cream was dumped, the men volunteered to help Colby load the empty cans back into his truck, but he angrily refused their help.”

While farmers were in bad straits, so were their city cousins. In order to create paying jobs for some of the working men thrown out of work by the Depression, the Roosevelt Administration’s new Works Progress Administration and Civil Works Administration was financing projects throughout the nation including right here in Kendall County, including bridge and road work. In February, even the Record’s editor, a firm Republican, had to grudgingly admit the government help seemed to be working:

May 13, 2010. Photo by Margaret Gienger.

Often derided as “make-work,” Works Progress Administration projects were sometimes literal lifesavers for the families of unemployed workers hired for them. In 1934, Oswego’s Little White School, now the Little White School Museum, was jacked up and a basement dug beneath it to provide more space as a WPA project, one of many throughout Kendall County.

“We drove on the East River road [modern Ill. Route 25] out of Aurora the other night and hardly knew the road. The work of the men on the CWA has made a real highway out of it. Some bad curves have been made safer by leveling off the banks on the side of the road. Good work, men.”

Meanwhile, the area’s farmers were hoping against hope that both luck and the weather would change in their favor. On April 11, the Record’s Oswego correspondent commented: “The farmers have begun working in the fields with renewed hope that this year’s crops will at least afford them a living and cash for taxes and interest on their debts.”

Overcoming their aversion to government meddling in their business, virtually all of the county’s 1,080 farmers agreed to participate in the Agriculture Adjustment Administration’s corn and hog program. The AAA was another of Roosevelt’s “alphabet agencies” formed to fight the depression.

But extremely dry conditions persisted throughout Kendall County and in April the Record reported:

1934 May 11 Dust Storm

This dust storm, pictured west of the Mississippi, roared all the way from the Great Plains to the Eastern seaboard on May 11, 1934. An even more destructive storm had hit the central United States the previous month. Dust from the plains blew through Kendall County, where some of it precipitated out of the air and sifted across the landscape, filling ditches and infiltrating into homes.

“Even old timers say they never remember such wind and dust storms as are being experienced this spring. The ditches along some roads are filling up with dirt as they fill with snow in the winter time. The farmers and their teams in the fields are choked with dust; the housewives, especially those who house-cleaned early are desperate; the dust sifts in everywhere.”

Those conditions not only hindered crop growth, but also contributed to the ongoing plague of chinch bugs. According to the Record:

“The estimate of W.P. Flint, state entomologist, that chinch bugs would be five times as plentiful this spring as a year ago has come true. Damage to wheat fields and even oats by dry weather and chinch bugs is causing many farmers to plan re-seeding some of their grain fields to soybeans.”

The weather proved not only dry, but also extremely erratic. Excessive heat and drought not apparently being enough for Mother Nature, newly sprouted farm crops as well as gardens were devastated by destructive late May frosts, the Record reporting that:

“Two hard frosts last week worked havoc with the fruit and gardens. The corn, just nicely started, turned brown in many places and potatoes froze to the ground. Many farmers are planting over.”

Chinch Bug

Dry, hot conditions during the early 1930s led to an explosion in the chinch bug population. Tens of millions of the insects destroyed thousands of acres of crops in Illinois including in Kendall County in the days before effective pesticides were developed.

Then following the frosts the week before, new heat records were set May 31 and June 1 and on June 4 another dust storm hit. Meanwhile, “Thousands of miles of [chinch bug] barriers have been built as a result of demonstrations staged by county farm advisers, the extension service of the college of agriculture and the Illinois State Natural History Survey,” the Record reported.

Also in June, the federal government began to come to the rescue, announcing a drought relief program. To be eligible farmers had to certify they were in need of feed and seed to maintain their families, and also had to swear they were unable to supply sufficient feed and seed for himself. County officials estimated that while things weren’t good, few farmers fit that description, but it turned out, astonishingly enough, more than 20 percent of the county’s farmers applied for and really did qualify for emergency federal drought relief.

The Kendall County Farm Bureau and the federal government provided chinch bug eradication supplies, and county farmers kept battling whatever Mother Nature and the financial industry could throw at them. But it wasn’t until several years passed that they and their city brothers were able to get their heads above water again, thanks to their own collective action and an often grudgingly accepted hand up from Uncle Sam.

 

 

 

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2 Comments

Filed under Environment, Farming, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Science stuff

2 responses to “Mother Nature, economics conspired to afflict area farmers in 1934…

  1. R. Anderson

    Were the PMA thugs prosecuted for dumping Mr. Colby’s cream? ($4,946.68 worth in 2016) I would guess that it was not all his cream and that the families that he was hauling for didn’t think it was so great when they got the news that they would not be payed for work/resources that went into it. They were then left to struggle to the next meal for themselves and livestock. How righteous of them to offer to load the cans for him!

  2. RAM

    The record–at least the newspaper record–is silent about whether anyone was ever arrested. I suspect they were not. My great-uncle’s dairy barn burned with most of his dairy herd inside one night, and radical PMA members were strongly suspected of starting the fire. And in late April 1933, 750 farmers showed up at a sheriff’s sale at the Kendall County Courthouse to (successfully) intimidate bidders on a foreclosed farm into bidding at least the total owed on the loan. No arrests were made there, either. Those were desperate times (despite our recent financial woes, we really can’t understand exactly how bad they were), and normally law abiding people took desperate measures. It offers some perspective (though certainly not approval) on modern times when desperate people feel their situation requires desperate measures.

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