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Articles & Local History > 1999 - Farms Lost During Depression

Dispatch/Argus Staff Writer - Lydia Sage

Farms lost during depression
By Lydia Sage, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer

It was a time when chicken and hog thieves were common as people searched for any way they could find to feed their families.

Eldon Adams remembers the heart of the Great Depression vividly. He was a teenager attending Tampico High School from 1930-1934, some of the worst years for farm families everywhere, he said.

``There were no jobs anywhere and people came up and down the road everyday looking for work,'' he recalled.

Mr. Adams figures his father, the late Robert Adams, was fortunate to have his farm loan through the Farm Bureau in those days, something that likely played a major role in the rural Tampico family's ability to save their farmland.

Mr. Adams, now 82, still resides at one of the farms his father owned.

Mr. Adams, the oldest of seven children, said he has been more than thankful for many things that allowed him and his other family members to continue farming more than six decades after the Depression.

``We watched a lot of our neighbors lose their farms,'' Mr. Adams said. ``Most of the farms that were foreclosed on had loans through insurance companies and people just could't keep up the payments. Dad was fortunate to hold onto the farm.''

Mr. Adams said many of the farmers displaced by those foreclosures stayed in the area and worked for other farmers. Some moved away, though, in hopes of finding a better life.

Although times were tough, Mr. Adams said most farm families looked after each other and helped out when they could. ``We were all in it together,'' he said.

"I went through high school during the Depression and I'm glad that I even had the chance to go to high school. There were a lot who didn't," he said. ``I remember my brothers and I stayed out of school every other day to help with the harvest.''

When the price for a bushel of corn dropped to 10 cents, Mr. Adams remembered his father burned the corn to heat their house, rather than buy coal because it cost more.

``We burned ear corn by the basket,'' he said. He described the story he heard about people who would take sacks and steal coal during the winter months from the local farmers' grain elevator at night in order to heat their homes.

During his high school years, Mr. Adams said occasionally he would be lucky enough to have a quarter in his pocket. Such riches would allow him to go to the back door of a downtown Tampico tavern at lunch where he could buy a hamburger sandwich for a dime, a nickel soda pop and a nickel candy bar.

``Gosh, we'd still have a nickel left over. Sometimes, we didn't have that quarter in our pockets, but when we did it sure was fun,'' he recalled.

Once in a while, a carload of teens would head to near-by towns where they could attend a movie for a dime. "We didn't have the money to do anything else, but it was a real treat."

He remembers how one of his four brothers was assigned to help their mother in the kitchen as she canned food and dehydrated corn. One favorite food he recalled was the ``special'' dandelion-green salad his maternal grandmother would fix each summer when she came to stay with the family. Although bread cost only about 5 cents a loaf, there was no money to buy enough for the family, so his mother baked bread every other day.

``There was always a big pan of biscuits waiting for us when we got home from school, but it never made it until supper-time,'' he recalled.

``We ate a lot of cornmeal mush. Dad ground the cornmeal instead of selling the corn. We'd eat it as mush, then later cut it into pieces and fry it,'' he said. ``You learned to like whatever there was to eat, because that's all there was.''

Mr. Adams said he believes farm families, although it was tough, were better off than city folks because they always had some kind of food.

He remembers hungry strangers -- usually hoboes -- showing up at the family's home most every day. His father generally would find some work for them to do to earn something to eat.

Another local farmer, Keith Newman, remembers the time his father, Victor Newman, placed a newspaper advertisement for a full-time hired man.

``The day the ad ran, I remember standing on the porch and seeing cars lined up for more than a mile,'' he said. ``That's how bad people wanted work.''

The going rate for a hired man was $25 per month, with a house to live in, two hogs a year to butcher and a butchered quarter of beef to feed his family, Mr. Newman said.

Warren Anderson, who grew up on a farm west of Prophetstown but later moved to Tampico, said people would take almost any kind of work. One job that stuck out in his mind were the hired hands who picked corn for a penny a bushel, plus room and board.

``Times were really hard. Unless a person lived through it, you can not figure what it was like,'' he said.

Chicken thieves were so common, he said, that farmers often took measures into their own hands and shot at them, he said.

An Aug. 29, 1932, front-page story in the now defunct weekly Tampico Tornado detailed a rash of chicken-theft cases, including one at the Victor Newman farm.

As part of the story, the writer suggested ``it would be a good idea for the farmers to take turns patroling the roads'' to curtail the thievery.

Others turned to bootlegging liquor to help bring in some money.

``All most of the farmers did was furnish the place and the grain. The bootleggers came out of Chicago and stayed 'til the end of the week, when they headed back to Chicago (with their load of liquor),'' he said.

Displaced city dwellers often moved into the rural areas in search of a better life, he said.

``Families would move into any kind of house they could find, as long as it had four walls and no more than two holes in the ceiling,'' he remembered.

People frequently would sell their belongings for little or nothing, just to keep going.

``I can remember in about '31 or '32, my dad bought a used Model T Ford for $15. It ran good and that became our family car,'' Mr. Anderson said. Mr. Adams and Mr. Anderson said, like everything else, farmland prices plunged to a tiny fraction of pre-Depression value.

Prime farmland was going for $50 an acre, they said.

Because most banks had failed, Mr. Adams said, no one would accept bank checks. He said folks were set aback when two men pulled out thousands of dollars in cash to pay for a farm at a foreclosure sale. Mr. Adams said his father was paid about 10 cents on the dollar when the Tampico State Bank closed in 1932, while Mr. Anderson recalled his frustration when he lost the entire $20 or so he had in a savings account when another bank closed.

Mr. Newman recalled how many older people would sit day after day on the steps at the Tampico State Bank, dazed at the fact they had lost their life savings.

Although farmers were paid little for their produce many used the commodities as payment for groceries and other services.

By the spring of 1933, even H.J. Kolb, the Tornado's editor-publisher, was showing concern about his dwindling list of subscribers because no one had any money.

``Swap? You have farm produce, perhaps more than you can sell. We want more subscriptions. Forget the cash -- let's swap stuff,'' Mr. Kolb wrote in a bold-print advertisement.

By the end of 1933, farm-sale foreclosure advertisements also began showing up regularly in the Tornado, according to local historian Lloyd McElhiney, who helps oversee the Tampico Area Historical Museum.

Most carried a sign of the times as a footnote. "No checks on a bank will be accepted. Cash in Hand."

Mr. Anderson recalls that his older brother, Glenn, wanted his high school class ring.

``Dad swapped a pig Glenn was raising for one of his own full-grown ones so he could sell it and get the $5 he needed to buy his class ring,'' Mr. Anderson said.

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