Experience the 20th century through the eyes and ears of those who lived through it via original documents, literature and multimedia.

Aside from war, the Great Depression was perhaps the darkest chapter in 20th century American history. It profoundly affected our nation and culture in ways not seen since.

Bread lines, soup kitchens, bank runs and more. Life in the city was hard and there was no easy way out.

Although most farm families had access to a steadier supply of food, they suffered from their own set of circumstances.





American farmers were in trouble for years before the Great Depression reared its ugly head. The agricultural industry expanded greatly during the war years in order to help relieve food shortages in Europe. When the war ended, most of these countries were able to resume crop production, which meant that American farms began producing a huge surplus. This led to falling prices and greater debt for the farmers, who were struggling to pay off loans acquired for equipment and other needs. Many farmers gave up, sold their farms and moved to urban areas. The quality of life in rural American decreased throughout the 1920s, while prosperity generally reigned in the cities. With crop prices still dropping and poverty taking root in many rural areas, hard times arrived on the farm long before the Great Depression era even began. There was too much food and too little money in the system.

By the time America moved into the 1930s, the situation changed from very bad to catastrophic. The price of wheat fell to as low as eight cents a bushel. It cost more to grow the crop than what the grain would bring at market. In many rural areas, people took to burning corn in their stoves because it was cheaper than coal. Foreclosures increased and many lost their homes and their livelihood. However, considering all this, farm people had some advantages those in the cities did not. It was easier to live off the land than trying to survive in an inner city concrete jungle. Since there was no shortage of certain foodstuffs, few rural residents actually went hungry. Money was less important, as farm produce could be bartered for necessities. It was no picnic, but it was a lot better than starving.

Even with little money, farm families could produce much of their own food.


With commodity prices falling and debt rising, many farmers believed they had to take action to preserve their livelihoods and survive. One such movement led to the organization of the Farmers' Holiday Association by members of the National Farmers Union in 1932. At that point, farmers had been suffering for ten long years. The plan was for farmers to refuse to sell their products or purchase any goods or services. Members of the association took a number of actions to maximize public visibility of their plight. In some places, farmers barricaded roads to prevent farm products from getting to market. Foreclosure sales became "penny auctions". Organized farmers would arrange to keep bids extremely low, forcing the sale of seized farms for mere pennies on the dollar. The property was then deeded back to the original owners.

Dairy farmers were also greatly affected by falling prices and the other consequences of a failing economy. The wholesale price of milk had fallen from almost five dollars per hundred pounds to less than two dollars by 1932. In Wisconsin, affected farmers called for a strike in February 1933, seeking agreement among producers to refuse to sell milk or other dairy products until induced scarcity could force prices upward. However, not everyone was on board with the plan. Soon, strikers erected roadblocks, seized milk and dumped it on the roadside. When transporters began using alternate routes, strikers started patrolling the roads, looking for milk carrying trucks. The protests turned violent. Some milk was adulterated with poisons such as kerosene. State officials began escorting convoys and when attacks, attempted to disperse strikers with tear gas. They tried using trains to move the product, but strikers blocked the tracks. During subsequent strikes in May and October, seven creameries were bombed, National Guardsmen wounded several protesters, killing at least one and a sixty year old farmer, trying to deliver food to strikers on a picket line, was shot and killed by a passenger in a car stopped by the protesters. The violence subsided, but the memory of its impact was lasting.

Farmers' strikes were one way to fight back against the Depression.

Farmers barricading a road in Iowa to block goods from market.


The Plow That Broke the Plains is a 1936 short documentary film which shows what happened to the Great Plains region of the United States and Canada when uncontrolled agricultural farming led to the Dust Bowl.


This WPA film focuses on social and economic wastes resulting from continued drought in the midwestern dust bowl and efforts of the federal government in attempting to remedy such conditions. Several views indicate the condition of the land from which much of the moisture has gone.


Soon after Roosevelt's inauguration, he directed the Congress to establish a number of new federal agencies to deal with the economy. One of these, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, adopted a policy of artificial scarcity to deal with the food surplus and falling prices. This tactic, which involved leaving crops to rot in the field and killing more than six million pigs, was met some public outrage. As a result of this backlash, Congress created yet another agency, the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation, to try another tactic, the acquisition of surplus product for distribution to local relief agencies and organizations. Prices did begin to rise gradually and reached 1929 levels by 1937. However, the rebound was short-lived. Prices steeply declined during the following year and did not recover until after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Some of the food purchased by the federal government to boost farm prices.


For farmers who were merely renting the land they worked, the Great Depression brought yet another sorrow. For decade, it had been a widespread practice for land owners to rent portions of their farms to tenants. This made sense because virtually all of the work required horses, which limited the amount of land that one family could farm. However, this made less sense as motorized tractors became the norm. When the high debt and low prices of the Depression are factored in, it became evident that the old way was not the best way. One family with a tractor could farm five times as much land as one could using horses. In addition, the federal agencies created during the early years of the era provided payments to land owners, who could then afford to by a tractor and other mechanized equipment. They would often retain one tenant and evict the others. With no other work available, these displaced families were forced to move on with only the possessions they could carry with them. Their plight is covered in detail on the Life On The Move page.

A tenant farmhouse is abandoned as the tractor conquers the plains.


Although life was hard, rural citizens still found ways to have fun. Since money was tight, most entertainment and recreation involved activities that required little or no expense. Rural communities, by tradition close knit and family oriented, looked to the church and each other. Church socials and community picnics were very popular during the hard years. Since farms produced plenty of food, many activities involved the sharing of meals. Dances, held in barns, parks and community halls provided opportunities for young people to socialize and date. Larger events and gatherings such as county and state fairs were well attended as well. Since these were organized by local communities, expenses could be minimized by sharing resources.

Although still a relatively expensive appliance, the price of radio sets declined in the early years of the Depression, and many farms depended upon them for farm and weather reports as well as for entertainment. Even farms without electricity could buy battery powered receiving sets especially designed for farm use. Since batteries were expensive and often not readily available from local sources, farmers would remove the battery from their tractor at the end of the day and attach it to the radio for the evening.

Many farm families depended on radio for news, weather and entertainment.

County fairs provided inexpensive fun.