One of the most interesting and disturbing eras I researched for my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, was the Great Depression. Of all the details I studied, I found those affecting farmers to be the most heartbreaking. This is probably because my protagonist, Dr. John Welles, came from a farming family. The Welleses survived, but they did not come out unscathed.
Before the stock market crash in October of 1929, farmers were already experiencing hard times. One contributing factor was the forty percent drop in prices between 1920 and 1921 as the overseas market disappeared. World War I had led to a time of prosperity for farmers as war-torn European nations needed produce grown in America. This need led to a remarkable increase in agricultural production, income, and purchasing power. The profits farmers made were reinvested in more land and machinery.
Once the war ended and the European markets no longer needed American food products, prices and profits plummeted. The price crop supports that existed at the beginning of World War I guaranteeing farmers minimum prices on certain crops disappeared in 1921 when President Harding announced their end. Further exacerbating the problem was President Coolidge’s increase in taxes on imports, which decreased foreign trade for America and removed more of the farmers’ markets. Many farmers lost their new land investments to foreclosure and/or experienced bankruptcy.
The construction of new homes, usually an indicator of economic strength, declined from 1926 to 1929. It is not surprising that no one paid attention to this warning sign especially since the crisis in the farming community, the truest measure of economic success or failure, was already in trouble. When added to the faith people placed in the stock market and the endless purchases made on credit, it is no wonder America experienced the Great Depression.
As I watched videos of farmers dumping milk into ditches on the side of the road and apples into piles left to rot, I knew in my heart that even if it meant their downfall, John’s stepmother, Collie Mercer Welles, wouldn’t let anyone go hungry. The character I created in Collie wouldn’t and couldn’t justify throwing food away when people around her were starving. Greed in that form simply did not exist in her. She may not have had the means to transport food, but anyone who made his or her way to the Welles farm would not be turned away empty-handed.
Unfortunately, many in the farming communities did not share the opinions and morals of my fictional character, Collie. The withholding and destruction of food was one of the most hideous consequences of the Great Depression. Desperation hit farmers when the expense of producing crops exceeded what they could make selling them. Groups known as Farm Holiday Associations were formed to stop selling crops until prices were forced higher. They operated under the motto, “Neither buy nor sell and let taxes go to hell.”
While in my heart I believe the Welles family would have risen above such actions, I wonder if they would have found resistance in their own community to helping those who were starving. It wasn’t uncommon for farmers who bucked these types of associations to find their efforts met with violence from a pitchfork in the tires of their vehicles to standoffs between deputies meant to protect food convoys and farmers armed with guns.
The stock market crash of 1929 will probably always be the most well-known contributing factor to the Great Depression. Billions of dollars were lost literally overnight by 1.5 million Americans who were involved with the market enough to actually have a broker. However, 40 million people living on farms had already been enduring hardships since 1919, and it is these people who would be hit the hardest again, particularly on the Great Plains, during the aftermath of the crash. The farmers knew what those living in the cities and banking on the stock market had yet to learn: the Great Depression was already upon them.
The title for my blog post came from a Depression Era song, the details of which you can read about here: “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and listen to the Bing Crosby version here: “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” Enjoy other interesting Depression Era history on Prohibition (I’ll Drink to That), speakeasies (Welcome to the Apple Crate), and moonshine (By the Light of the Silvery Moon).