Life on the farm has always been a challenge, but during the 1920s and 1930s Minnesota's farmers faced even greater odds.
The farm economy, which had enjoyed an unprecedented boom during World War I, went into a recession after the war. Prices for farm commodities continued to fall through the 1920s. Farmers that had expanded operations and purchased equipment found themselves unable to pay off their debts.
The Great Depression, accompanied by severe drought in the Midwest and southern states, compounded the problem. The drought began in 1931 and raged on for nearly a decade. As crops dried up, valuable topsoil was picked up by the wind and carried in great dust storms, a phenomenon known as "The Dust Bowl." Infestations of grasshoppers created further problems for Minnesota farmers, who spread poison bait on their fields in an attempt to save their crops.
Without crops to feed their livestock or sell, and with their land spoiled by wind erosion, many farmers became destitute. Farms that had been in families for generations were lost, and rural families migrated to cities looking for a new start.
For children growing up in the country during this period, hard work and deprivation was a way of life. These children spent their days helping out on the farm, working alongside their parents. They lived in homes without electricity, indoor plumbing, and other modern conveniences. They attended one-room country schools, many of which were forced to close during the depression, and often walked long distances because of a lack of transportation.
When given time to play, the farm children of the Great Depression made their own fun. Many participated in 4-H, church youth activities, and Farm Bureau family events. The rural year was highlighted by a trip to the county fair and, perhaps, the state fair.
Growing Up Rural
A rural childhood has always had its charms and its drawbacks, but during the Great Depression, farm children had to content with extraordinary circumstances.
The poor farm economy meant that many farms were in jeopardy. Government programs, such as those of the Agricultural Adjustment Act, provided some relief and helped to give some families more security.
It was a time when many Minnesota farm families did not have the modern conveniences that town people enjoyed. The Rural Electrification Administration, created in 1935, began to bring electricity to farms, and with it new labor-saving equipment for farm and farmhouse, but the movement would not reach most Minnesota farms until after the Great Depression. Without the luxury of electricity, farm families still resorted to the old-fashioned "icebox" to keep food cold, coal- or wood-burning stoves for cooking and heating, and labor intensive laundry facilities.
Indoor plumbing was also a rarity in country homes of the 1920s and 1930s. Many families still relied on the outhouse in the backyard and chamberpots or "slop jars" under beds, and drew their water from an outdoor well or from a cistern hand-pump at the kitchen sink.
Children living in the country experienced an isolation not felt by children living in town. With a team of horses and wagon for transportation, going to a friend's house to play was not always possible. Some famlies had motorized transportation, but poor country roads and lack of money for gas kept unnecessary travel to a minimum.
A child's social life centered on school, church, 4-H clubs, and farm bureau family activities. County fairs offered a welcome diversion for the whole family and, for children enrolled in 4-H projects, the exciting prospect of competing at the Minnesota State Fair.
The radio represented a connection to the wider world, and farm children gathered around the family's radio to listen to favorite programs just as their urban counterparts did.
Depression-era children in rural areas were rich in one respect: they had ample space to play and to exercise their imaginations. While many would remember the hardships of life on the farm in the Great Depression, they would also remember these riches.
Life on a farm has always meant hard work, with every member of the family expected to pitch in and help. Depression-era farm kids took pride in doing their share.
The 1930 U.S. Census reported a total of 10,830 children between the ages of 10 and 17 engaged in unpaid work on family farms in Minnesota, and an additional 4,989 children in paid positions on farms. Both boys and girls helped out with field work, milked the cows, fed the livestock and poultry, gathered eggs, worked in the garden, hauled wood, and carried water. Girls also helped with the domestic chores of cooking, cleaning, and doing the laundry.
Lawrence Schaub remembered life on his family's dairy farm near Westport, Minnesota, where even young children helped with bringing in the cows, butchering chickens, and haying. Mary Joy Dean Breton worked with her mother to establish a cash crop of zinnias as the family began a new life in rural Eden Prairie during the depression. Gloria Huffman Sinell recalled the excitement of threshing time, when she helped her mother and grandmother prepare feasts of wholesome foods for the hard-working crew.
The daily and seasonal chores were so important that rural children were often excused from school to help with the spring planting and the fall harvest. Many would remember the rhythm of the seasons and related chores as part of a happy childhood in the country.
For many rural Minnesota children growing up in the troubled years of the depression, 4-H Clubs represented opportunities to learn new skills through project work, gain self-confidence through competition, help out on the family farm, and socialize with other children.
The first club of its kind was founded in Ohio in 1902 by A.B. Graham, a rural school teacher who saw the need for connecting his students' farm environment with their learning. Theodore A. (T.A.) Erickson (1871-1963), a teacher at the University of Minnesota's College of Agriculture, began the first club in Minnesota in 1904. The clover emblem was first used in 1907, initially with only three leaves, representing "Head, Heart, and Hands." In 1911 a fourth leaf was added, which today stands for "Health." The Smith-Lever Act, passed in 1914, established the Cooperative Extension Service and provided funding for boys' and girls' clubs nationwide. The term "4-H" was first coined in 1918.
As members of 4-H clubs, both boys and girls could participate in projects that would teach them about raising farm animals and poultry; crop, livestock, and dairy production; soil conservation; home economics (cooking, clothing, room furnishing, and home management), health, gardening, crafts, music, and theatre. All children of school age were eligible to join 4-H, and could continue to compete until graduation from high school.
The county fair was the highlight of the 4-H year, when completed projects were judged and ribbons awarded. In addition to individual projects, each club created its own display. Those meriting top honors in each category were awarded a coveted trip to the Minnesota State Fair for a chance to be named state champion.
- The American Experience: Timeline of the Dust Bowl, 1931-1939. Public Broadcasting Service, 1992-2006.
- Tokarz, Linda Agricultural Research Timeline - 1920s. United States Department of Agriculture, 2006.
- Tokarz, Linda Agricultural Research Timeline - 1930s. United States Department of Agriculture, 2006.
- Smiley, Gene US Economy in the 1920s. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. July 18, 2004.
- American Experience: The Drought. Public Broadcasting Service, 1995-2006.
- Photo: A combination of cut worms and heat has destroyed the corn on this farm, 6 miles east of Appleton, 1936.
- American Experience: Timeline of the Dust Bowl, 1931-1939. Public Broadcasting Service, 1995-2006.
- Photo: Remains of a cornstalk after the grasshoppers have moved on, farm near Marshall, 1930s.
- Photo: Starving cow and horse were brought by farmers to the State Capitol to dramatize their demands for relief, 1935.
- Object: Lake Shore Farm sale handbill, 1933.
- Photo: Feeding the pigs, 1940.
- Photo: Cormant School, District Eighty-Seven, Beltrami County, 1938.
- Photo: View of the Winona County Fair, 1937.
- Photo: Three little boys holding garden produce for display at the 1934 State Fair, 1934.
- 1933 Farm Foreclosures. Minnesota Historical Society: Timepieces, 2006.
- Agricultural Adjustment Act. Wikipedia.org, 2006.
- Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940, Census of Agriculture for Minnesota, State Table 11. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1941.
- Object: "Savage" electric washer and dryer, 1930-1939.
- Object: Wood-fired cook stove, 1930s.
- Photo: Ironing in farm kitchen, 1920.
- Photo: A farm kitchen shown at the State Fair, 1920.
- Photo: Grand Portage Arrowhead 4-H Club, 1939.
- Object: Pennant - "Minnesota State Fair/St. Paul," 1930s.
- Photo: Lois harmon seated in tall grass on Ralph L. Harmon farm near South St. Paul, 1922.
- Document: Child occupation statistics for Minnesota, 1930.
- Schaub, Lawrence, Another Time, Another Place: The Farm During the Depression. Minnesota Historical Society: Share Your Story, 2006.
- Breton, Mary Joy Dean, Living Off the Land. Minnesota Historical Society: Share Your Story, 2006.
- Sinell, Gloria Huffman, Threshing. Minnesota Historical Society: Share Your Story, 2006.
- History of 4-H. 4-H Centennial Web Site, 2005.
- Object: 4-H Handy Book, 1936.
- Smith-Lever Act of 1914. Wikipedia.org, 2006.
- Photo: Boy holding two pigs to be entered into the 4-H club contest, 1935.
- Photo: A 4-H miss with her poultry, 1935.
- Photo: Lloyd and Lester Shold conducted a milk testing demonstration at Cook County 4-H Achievement Days, 1939.
- Photo: 4-H bread baking demonstration, 1930.
- Photo: Style Queen from Benton County, Eleanor Burke, State Fair, 1935.
- Photo: Room furnished by 4-H team, State Fair, 1930.
- Photo: Roadside Garden, Washington County 4H Club project, 1930.
- Photo: 4-H Thespian winners Miriam Evans and Winifred Dickinson, Windom, win trip to Minnesota State Fair, 1935.
- Object: Morrison County fair ribbon, first premium, 1936.
- Object: Minnesota State Fair poultry ribbons, first, second and third premium, 1933.