Midwest, Great Depression in the

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In major respects the Great Depression's course and impact in the Midwest (comprising the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota) resembled its course and impact in the United States as a whole. Like other areas, the Midwest suffered from acute and persisting distress, had much difficulty in devising ways to deal with it, and underwent Depression-related reforms that affected its future development. Yet there were also differences. Although some contemporary sociologists considered the region to have more national character traits than any other, it, too, had its peculiarities, evident particularly in its cultural ideals and tensions, its mix of industry and agriculture, its institutional development, and its geographical features. All of these affected both the impact of and responses to the Depression, the result being some significant regional divergences from what was happening elsewhere.


In the Midwest the Depression arrived more slowly than in America's eastern cities, with conditions during the winter of 1929 to 1930 producing relatively little alarm. By 1931, however, rising unemployment, burgeoning relief needs, and shrinking farm incomes were generating considerable alarm, and by 1932 the region was suffering the severest economic contraction in its history. Unemployment approached 20 percent and in the mining areas and industrial centers was much higher. In Minnesota's iron ranges and Illinois's coal districts unemployment was over 70 percent, and in Chicago, the region's unofficial "capital," it stood at an estimated 40 percent. Midwestern cities had become scenes of suffering and want. And the rural Midwest, already somewhat depressed in 1929, now faced disaster. Farm prices had fallen to all-time lows, and farm income had shrunk by nearly 60 percent, aggravating debt and tax burdens and undermining the vitality of rural service centers.

By 1932, moreover, the inadequacy of existing relief systems was glaringly apparent. The relief capacities of private charities, welfare capitalists, and local poor law overseers soon collapsed and could not be revived by the informational and coordinative agencies established at higher levels. Federal support for agricultural marketing associations and emergency stabilization corporations failed to curb rural decline. And numerous cities faced bankruptcy if new sources of funding could not be found. Daily relief allowances shrank to fifteen cents per person in Detroit, Chicago's teachers went unpaid, and in these cities and others shantytowns multiplied while scrounging in garbage cans and city dumps became common. Yet proposals for state and federal aid were still widely viewed as departures from the American way. As of mid-1932 only Illinois and Wisconsin had appropriated state relief money, and even when federal relief loans became available in late 1932 a number of the region's states were slow to secure them.

As the economy shrank, the region's jobless and dispossessed frequently blamed themselves and retreated into resignation and apathy. Some, however, found scapegoats in the business and political establishments, and smoldering resentment could sometimes burst into violence. Hunger marches and food looting occurred in several cities. Unemployed Councils, under Communist leadership, harassed urban relief authorities, and in early 1932 a march on the Ford Motor plant in Dearborn, Michigan, demanding that it take on more workers, resulted in bloody fighting between marchers and the police. In the hinterland, moreover, particularly the western reaches of the corn belt, some farmers were now ready to challenge established authority. In the "cow war" of 1931, Iowa used martial law to enforce regulations concerning tubercular cattle. And at Des Moines in May 1932, militants formed the Farmers' Holiday Association, a group ready to use violence in support of farm strikes and the halting of foreclosure proceedings.

Depression discontent also threatened the regional political dominance long exercised by the Republican Party. In 1929 the Republicans controlled state government in eleven of the twelve states, all except South Dakota. But in 1930 and 1931 this dominance underwent serious erosion. A resurgent Democratic Party elected governors in Ohio, Nebraska, and Kansas and made substantial gains elsewhere. A Farmer-Labor Party won control in Minnesota, installing Floyd B. Olson as governor there. Progressive Republicans reemerged on top in Wisconsin, where Philip F. La Follette became governor. And the political climate was now such that independents could not only run for high office but also stand a chance of winning. In the Kansas election of 1930, Dr. John R. Brinkley, whose claims for the sexual rejuvenation power of goat glands had cost him his medical license, nearly won the governorship with an independent, antiestablishment campaign that appealed particularly to the state's old populist areas.

In November 1932 the Republican rout seemed virtually complete. A region that had voted overwhelmingly for Herbert Hoover in 1928 now voted solidly against him, and in state contests most remaining Republican governors were ousted. The only winner was Alfred M. Landon of Kansas, in part because of another Brinkley run as an independent. Some special legislative sessions were also meeting now, searching for ways to trim governmental costs, raise new revenue, and provide debt relief. But the more general pattern was to wait and see what might be forthcoming from the change in national administrations. In the winter of 1932 to 1933, unemployment kept mounting, relief funds became still more inadequate, violence flared anew in the corn and dairy lands, and a new wave of bank runs, beginning in Michigan in February 1933, brought "bank holidays" in state after state. Recovery seemed farther away than ever and political action more necessary.


In the next seven years, political action brought reform and relief but recovery was elusive. Upturns in mid-1933 and on a greater scale in 1935 and 1936 proved short-lived, the result being unemployment rates that never got below 14 percent. In the Midwest, moreover, especially in its western borderlands, the period brought severe drought as well as continued economic depression. The years 1934 and 1936 were the driest that the area had known since such records had been kept, and adding now to its rural misery were seared and withered crops, scorching temperatures, starving livestock, and "black blizzards" that altered the landscape and left dust inches thick on almost everything. By 1940 the Dakotas had lost approximately 150,000 people. Not only farms but towns had been abandoned, and a substantial proportion of those left behind had been reduced to propertylessness, if not abject poverty.

Still, if hard times persisted, Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal brought much more federal assistance to the area. Federal money came to the rescue in the form of relief grants, works projects, crop allotment checks, purchasing programs, and special credits for needy farmers, homeowners, and businesses. Market controls came in the guise of industrial codes, agricultural adjustment contracts, fair labor standards, bank deposit guarantees, and more federal regulators. And erected by 1940 was a new if incomplete structure of social insurance, the federal government having now joined with the states to provide employment services, old-age pensions, unemployment compensation, and expanded aid to handicapped and dependent groups. Midwesterners, like other Americans, had become more dependent on their national government than they or their ancestors had ever been, and the result for many was a mixture of gratitude with concerns about alien influences and the loss of individual freedom, local autonomy, and cultural identity.

Throughout the region, moreover, the coming of federal relief brought significant institutional reform. To meet matching requirements and help administer the programs, the states found new sources of revenue and established a new and more professional array of emergency relief, social welfare, and intrastate regulatory agencies, a number of which became permanent additions to state government. Also serving as administrative partners was a new complex of business and labor associations, farmer committees, and community groups, which significantly affected the area's organizational development. And while these partnerships usually involved and benefited local elites rather than the "grassroots" allegedly being mobilized, there were exceptions. Through its support of industrial unions, rural resettlement, Indian tribal councils, and greater opportunities for women and minority groups, the New Deal helped to advance a kind of democracy often opposed by the area's elites and thus to alter to some degree its power relationships.

Not all reform, however, came from above. Reform coalitions also appeared at lower levels, producing, in some states, "little New Deals" that featured greater tax equity, farm debt moratoria, small business protection, new welfare benefits, and bans on unfair employer practices. Going the farthest in this direction were the governorships of Floyd Olson in Minnesota, Philip La Follette in Wisconsin, and Frank Murphy in Michigan. Regional "wets" also helped to end national prohibition of alcoholic beverages and to shrink drastically the area still subject to state and local "dry" laws. And transforming industrial workplaces and communities was a new labor militancy grounded in the capacity of Depression woes and renewed hope to override long-standing ethnic divisions and produce working-class support for industrial unionism. The region's automobile, rubber, and steel plants became the sites of bitter conflict; its sit-down strikes, at Akron, Ohio, and Flint, Michigan, became milestones in the rise of the new Congress of Industrial Organizations; and in its leading industries and cities organized labor now emerged as a major force.

Labor's rise, moreover, seemed to be turning the Depression-induced political realignment into an enduring one. Democrats continued to win, and in 1936 Roosevelt again carried every state in the region. By this time, however, a vociferous opposition, particularly strong in the region's small cities and small towns, was also denouncing the New Deal as un-American subversion of the nation's traditional liberties and natural recuperative powers. And beginning in 1937, a new economic downturn combined with new labor difficulties, new fears of dictatorial action, and new concerns about foreign involvement worked to undermine the area's fragile reform coalitions and return Republicans to power. Their older dominance was not completely reestablished, since the movement of blacks and labor into the Democratic Party proved relatively enduring. But by 1940 seven of the twelve states had Republican governors, and in that year seven voted against Roosevelt's reelection.

As the New Deal lost the region's support, the limited achievements of reform, whether from above or below, also became apparent. Conditions had been alleviated and progress made toward creating an organizational order capable of renewed economic growth. But the "industrial democracy" that came to the Midwest's factories operated within and was dependent upon a new bureaucratic framework. Urban political machines drew strength from New Deal programs, most notably in Chicago and Kansas City. The poor law relief system made a comeback as the federal government withdrew from providing relief for unemployables. And much of the discriminatory structure limiting opportunities for women and racial minorities remained in place. Nor did the visions of a restored and vibrant rural civilization, to be achieved through rural resettlement, ever come close to realization. Instead, the bulk of the New Deal programs worked to restart the process of rural depopulation.


Long a scene of rural-urban conflict, the Midwest was also experiencing now another kind of cultural dissonance. Its "main streets" had been the strongholds of a culture primarily associated with an older middle class of local businessmen, small-town professionals, and family farmers. There, more so than anywhere else, the ideals of progress through hard work, self-reliance, and community boosterism had held sway. But now these were being undercut, one challenge coming from conditions under which meeting the idealized social responsibilities had become exceedingly difficult, another from what seemed necessary for survival. With rescue had come dependence upon new structures of power, acting through a newer middle class of administrative officials, special agents, and trained experts with their own notions of what constituted social progress and how to engineer it. Such aid seemed essential, but accepting it seemed to require the abandonment of ideas regarded as fundamental to sensible living.

These perceived threats often underlay the region's notorious critiques of the New Deal. They became standard fare in both a conservative and a neo-populist rhetoric. Yet only a few of the critics were ready to renounce federal support. They looked instead toward compromises that could somehow combine an older independence and traditional ways with new schemes of bureaucratic order and social engineering. And given the vulnerability of the New Deal state to anti-bureaucratic critiques and small-town nostalgia, arrangements were forthcoming to incorporate local initiatives and vetoes and thus to make the new dependence seem less threatening. The elaborate participatory structures created for agricultural adjustment eased concerns about the machinations of distant planners. So did similar structures for undertaking works projects, and in some places, like Fort Wayne, Indiana, for example, pragmatic Republican regimes met New Deal needs while persuading voters that they provided needed curbs on potential tyranny.

Also helping to ease feelings of cultural loss was the emergence of a compensatory art and literature, in which satires of the small town gave way to its celebration and the folkways and traditions of the "heartland" became the true essence of Americanism. One promoter of this was the New Deal state itself, especially through its state guidebooks as produced by the WPA Federal Writers' Project and through the support that other projects gave to fostering a "people's art." But involved as well were local leaders and groups, who found solace in incorporating such art into public monuments, rituals, and commemorations. And facilitating matters was the emergence of an appropriate artistic sensibility, epitomized in what such painters as Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton were putting on canvas and in Sherwood Anderson's move from the grim tales of Winesburg, Ohio (1919) to being "glad of the life on the farm and in small communities."

For some intellectuals this artistic expression was also part of a larger "revolt of the provinces," believed potentially capable both of saving valuable regional ways and creating a national pluralism resistant to mass culture and standardization. In this vision the Midwest and other regions were to restructure resource usage so as to support a revitalization and continuance of traditional ways, with the process to be facilitated by movement educators, artists, and planners. The Depression, it was thought, had created the necessary opening. But action consisted chiefly of academic conferences and treatises, events like the National Folk Festival in Saint Louis, and some effort to guide the federal supports for rural resettlement, river development, and cultural enrichment along this path. Intellectual regionalism in the Midwest stands as an interesting Depression phenomenon, which left behind interesting artistic and intellectual monuments. But its hopes for the region's future were to go unrealized.

The Midwest, then, was not spared the blighted lives, shrunken hopes, and other ravages of the Great Depression. Nor was it spared a degree of Depression-induced social and political transformation. Yet its experience did have regional peculiarities. Its suffering bore the peculiar marks of a pre-existing agricultural depression, a devastating drought, and exceptionally fierce commitments to an outmoded relief system. And its empowerment of new groups left room for a Republican comeback and required a complex accommodation with a sturdy and persisting system of small-town and older-middle-class values. While becoming a different Midwest, it still retained much of its earlier distinctiveness.



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