The History That Shaped Minnesota’s Greatest Generation
Life in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s
Every generation faces the world as it was given to them and strives to leave it safer for the next. For those who came of age in mid-20th century America, the challenges were particularly daunting. Minnesota’s Greatest Generation is defined as the men and women born between 1910 and 1929. Their lives have been shaped by some of the most difficult years in modern history.
Like other generations, the members of Minnesota’s Greatest Generation moved through life together, encountering the same historical events at the same stages in their lives. They were children in the roaring 1920s, adolescents in the depression-era 1930s and young adults in the war and immediate postwar years. The collective experiences of this generation – the mingling of real lives with the larger, more impersonal forces of history – form the core of the Minnesota’s Greatest Generation Project.
Through the Minnesota’s Greatest Generation project, the Minnesota Historical Society aims to collect and preserve the stories of this remarkable generation’s entire life course – from birth through old age. The project pays special attention to their experiences in the central decades of 1930s, ’40s and ’50s and to the legacies left by the generation to their descendants.
The stock market crash of October 1929 began a downward spiral that affected all parts of the economy, creating the worst depression in the nation’s history. Although Minnesota suffered less than other states during the Great Depression, these still were hard times.
Minnesota’s farmland did not sink into a dust bowl, but the decade’s unusually hot and dry weather severely depressed agricultural yields, forcing thousands of farms into foreclosure. Unemployment spread throughout the state, from the logging camps and iron mines of the north, to the shops and industries of cities and towns. As in other parts of the United States, labor unrest in Minnesota rose sharply during the Depression, leading to bitter and often violent strikes, such as the Minneapolis truckers’ strike in 1934.
The state was led in the early years of this decade by Governor Floyd B. Olson, a self-proclaimed radical who, much like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had a remarkable genius for inspiring hope during frightening times. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, many launched in the first hundred days after his inauguration in 1933, tempered the most debilitating effects of the Depression, pumping more than $1 billion into the state between 1933 and 1939 and putting thousands back to work.
Many young men joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, restoring state forests and parks. Thousands more found work through the Works Progress Administration building bridges, roads, schools and other public projects. Many of the state’s farms and towns were wired through the Rural Electrification Administration.
When war broke out in Europe in September 1939, most Minnesotans – like the majority of Americans – opposed U.S. involvement in another global conflict that came so soon after the end of the First World War. Famed aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, who grew up in Minnesota, became the principal spokesman for the anti-interventionist America First movement. However, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 ended most Americans’ opposition to the war.
Thousands of Minnesotans immediately enlisted in the armed services and many thousands more from around the country mustered through Fort Snelling. Even the state’s young governor, Harold Stassen, resigned and enlisted in the Navy. National Guard units that were “federalized” in order to serve in the war effort overseas included the famed 34th Infantry Division (the “Red Bull”), in which Minnesotans were heavily represented. In January 1942, the 34th became the first American division to ship for Europe. In the North African campaign, the Red Bull Division’s 175th Field Artillery fired the first American shells against the Nazis. A tank company composed mainly of men from Brainerd, the 194th Tank Battalion, fought in the Philippines and after being captured endured the tragic Bataan Death March.
On the home front, Minnesota industries threw their weight behind the war effort. Munsingwear, the Minneapolis underwear manufacture, began to produce military uniforms. Villaume Industries, a St. Paul wooden box manufacturer, helped produce lightweight gliders that were used extensively for troop transport. And of course there was SPAM®, the canned meat made by Hormel Foods in Austin – millions of cans of it were shipped around the world to feed soldiers and civilians.
Minnesota’s farmers increased production during the war, with women, children, the elderly – and even some German prisoners of war – going to work on farms to make up for severe labor shortages. The mines of Minnesota’s iron ranges, idled by the Depression, resumed production, sending off millions of tons of iron ore to be turned into guns, tanks, bombs and ships. Meanwhile, average citizens did their part for the war effort, growing food in “victory gardens,” making do with fewer consumer goods and gasoline and investing in government-issued war bonds.
Nearly 6,000 Minnesota men and women died in World War II out of more than 300,000 who actively served. Countless others contributed to the victory by making sacrifices on the home front. At war’s end in 1945, Minnesota’s “greatest generation,” the men and women who came of age in the war years, turned their attention to settling down, making families and to other dreams deferred.
The most familiar “boom” of the postwar years was the “Baby Boom” – the historic rise in the U.S. birthrate that began with a sharp spike in births in 1946 and ended just as abruptly in 1964. But the United States witnessed other booms as well in this period.
Along with much of the rest of the country, Minnesotans began moving in record numbers to suburbs like Richfield and Roseville. Housing developments, schools and shopping centers sprouted on former farm fields beyond the Twin Cities. The nation’s first enclosed mall, Southdale, opened in Edina in 1956. Freeway construction tore out huge swaths of inner cities and fueled the rush to suburbia.
New industries sprouted and expanded. Factories that had been making war materials switched back to making high-demand consumer goods, such as appliances, automobiles and televisions. And there was one more “boom”: the atomic bomb and the Cold War tensions that made it a looming source of anxiety from the late ’40s, into the 1950s and beyond.