Repeat of 30’s Depression unlikely, historian says

Historians in the News

No region suffered more during the drought and Depression in the 1930s than the Northern Great Plains that includes the Dakotas and Nebraska, according to Dr. Rolland Dewing, a long-time history professor at Chadron State College who returned to the campus to speak Wednesday night.

Now a resident of Renton, Wash., Dewing said although some historians have stated the southwestern United States felt the brunt of the Dust Bowl days, his research indicates conditions were even worse in the Northern Great Plains.

He said the drought of the 1930s was the worst in 350 years of recorded history. The conditions spawned dust clouds that were so thick at times street lights came on at noon, sheep and cattle died from inhaling too much dust and motor vehicles choked to a stop.

Making conditions even more intolerable, Dewing said, were swarms of grasshoppers so thick they sometimes blocked out the sun, often ate clothes off lines and even chewed the corks out of water jugs. He added that the late Virlyn Norgard, a longtime Crawford resident, said he sometimes slowed down on highway curves because grasshoppers were so think he was afraid his car might skid on them.

The author of a 200-page book on the effects of the Great Depression on the region, Dewing reported that farm income averaged less than $200 a year in the Dakotas during portions of the 1930s. In addition, he said South Dakota received almost three times more relief funding than Oklahoma. North Dakota received twice as much and Nebraska nearly as much.

The speaker also noted banks closed by the hundreds and unemployment reached 25 percent in the region. During this era, Dewing said the Dakotas experienced about a 20 percent population decline as people who could no longer tolerate the conditions fled to the West Coast. That included his family, which moved from northwestern North Dakota to Washington state in 1936.

Seventy percent of those who remained in North Dakota in ’36 were on relief, he added.

Dewing said President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs helped the nation slowly recover from the economic disaster. Prior to 1933, the speaker noted there was no old age pension system, federal unemployment compensation, aid to dependent children, farm subsidies or minimum wage laws. He said no ecomomic group received more help than farmers.

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