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.





As the nation sank deeper into the social and economic morass of the Depression, vast numbers of Americans took to the roads and rails in search of better lives. Some traveled alone, making their way across the vast landscape by whatever means were available. These individuals, called hobos or less politely, vagrants, were predominantly male and unattached. Although they were often disparaged by members of the communities through which they traveled, most were willing to work in exchange for a meal or a place to spend the night.

Although many travelers of the time resorted to hitchhiking along the highways, hobos preferred the relative convenience of the rails. They would hide along the tracks just beyond a railroad yard, then hop aboard freight cars pointed in the direction they wanted to go. Although the practice has been romanticized in popular lore in the years since, "riding the rails" involved significant risk. Railroad companies would hire security officers, nicknamed "bulls", to police the lines. These "hired guns" were often brutal in their treatment of the riders they caught. In addition, jumping on and off of moving trains was extremely dangerous. Thousands of hobos were killed by accident or at the hands of railroad guards.

This is not to say that hobos spent all their time alone. Along some routes, cars were packed with dozens of travelers and hobo camps, or "jungles" sprang up along the tracks to provide a place to sleep and cook meals. Sometimes, groups would travel together for a time to pool resources and the benefit of "safety in numbers". They developed a hieroglyphic-like code carving symbols into trees, fence posts and walls to let other travelers know where work or food may be obtained.

Most Depression era hobos exchanged their wandering ways for full time jobs as World War II brought new economic growth to the nation. However, some refused to give up the hobo life and in the decades to come, there were sporadic revivals in some parts of the country. The romanticized image of the hobo lives on, commemorated in fiction, music and the occasional hobo convention.


For many Americans living in the plains states, life was especially hard during the Depression years. As crop prices plummeted, many small farms were lost because the farmer weren't able to repay mortgages or loans. Ironically, some government programs that were designed to help ended up hurting instead. The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 provided for payment to landowners who agreed to take a portion of their land out of production. Others used government subsidies to buy tractors and other automated farm equipment. These use of machinery meant that fewer people were needed to work the land. Sharecroppers and tenant farmers who had lived and worked on the farms for decades, were evicted. As if things weren't bad enough already, the "Dust Bowl" storms mid-decade turned many thousands of acres of topsoil to sand.

With no place else to go and lured by the promise of jobs picking fruit and cotton in the Central Valley of California, thousands of mid-westerners, derisively called "Okies" or "Arkies", because many of them hailed from Oklahoma and Arkansas, piled their meager possessions on their aging cars and trucks and set off for the "promised land".

For most, the journey was not easy. Residents of the many cities and towns along the route, faced with their own troubles, didn't look kindly upon what they saw as an invading army. Local police stopped the migrants and warned them to keep moving and to be out of town by sunset. With very little money and no resources, travelers often took ill and died on the road. Once they arrived, California was not found to be the promised land after all. Although some jobs were available from time to time, most were taken by local residents. Most who were hired ended up living in ramshackle shacks without proper sanitation. The "lucky" ones found refuge in government run camps, many of which had toilets and showers for the workers. In spite of the hardships and the fact that these migrants had no place else to go, they stuck it out and eventually became accepted citizens of their new found communities. Today, many California families traced their roots to the determined and steadfast Okies and Arkies.