HARTINGTON — The strong, hot winds blowing across Nebraska this summer have stirred up memories of the tough times of the Dirty Thirties.
Legendary auctioneer Gerry Miller was just a young boy at the time, but he still has some vivid memories of the era.
Miller, who was born in 1927, grew up on a farm southwest of Hartington.
He remembers how dark the sky could become during the daylight hours.
“On certain days, if the wind was blowing, the dust would cover the sky,” Miller said. “The grasshoppers were so bad. They were thick. On some days by three in the afternoon there would be so many of them in the sky it would cover the sun. It was scary.”
Whatever the drought didn’t take of the crop, the grasshoppers were eating it, Miller said.
“There was poison you could get – it came in paper bags. You would spread it around on the ground but it didn’t kill all of them,” Miller said.
Tractors were starting to come into the picture during the 1930s, but a lot of farmers still used horsepower to get their field work done, he said.
Equine encephalitis, also known as sleeping sickness, took a heavy toll among farm horses before a vaccine was developed.
People had thought the disease could be caused by exposure to heat, sudden changes in temperatures or too much rich feed.
Many farmers watched in frustration and despair as their good work animals suffered and died. A horse with an acute case of sleeping sickness could be dead within 12 hours but others might linger for days.
“Horses were important to the farmers in the ‘30s. We did everything with horses. Sleeping sickness disease was going around and horses were dying off,” Miller said. “When it was really hot, we would wait until five in the afternoon to go out and work with the horses. If a full moon was out, you could do quite a bit of cultivating.”
Miller’s dad owned several cultivators and would run three outfits at the same time.
Miller was nine years old when he started running one of the cultivators
The cultivator had a metal seat, with no cushion. The two-row cultivators had two handles which were used to set how deep it went into the ground.
During the drought Miller’s dad would cut corn stalks for silage.
Miller remembers using what was called a stone boat to do the job.
A scythe head was bolted onto two posts that were fastened together – it would cut the stalks as it was pulled across the field. People rode on the stone boat as it was pulled across the field. They would gather an armful of stalks and put them in a pile which would be picked up and hauled home.
“Ted Hohneke would bring his silage chopper. He would sit it on the edge of the trench and grind up the stalks,” Miller said.
Conditions during the ‘30s forced many people across the midwest to pack their meager belongings and move west, although Miller doesn’t remember a large number of people leaving Cedar County.
“I think most of the people here just stayed. They had no money to use to move and no place to go to try and farm,” Miller said. “It was bad all over the U.S.”
The federal government instituted a number of programs to help those who needed employment during the ‘30s.
During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was funded by Congress. The WPA put people to work building roads and public buildings.
The neighborhood where Miller grew up was one of the first in the area to obtain rural electricity.
“My Dad carried a petition around to get electricity to our area. It was going to cost $3.75 a month for electricity. Some of the farmers didn’t think they could afford to pay that much,” Miller said. “It was quite a time back then.”
Farmers whose crops are suffering due to the drought this year have one thing that is different from back in the ‘30s.
“Farmers can take out federal crop insurance that is available today. It is the best thing that happened to the farmers,” Miller said. “It doesn’t pay a 100 percent but it makes a big difference.”
Miller was 18 years old when he was drafted into the service in 1945. When he came back home he started farming.
He also remembers the dry years that hit the area during the 1950s.
The drought was first felt in the southwestern U.S. in 1950 and spread to Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska by 1953.
“I was raising oats for seed for Bob Wagner. The oats looked beautiful. They were in the flowering stage and then we had three hot, dry days. The heat burned the oats up,” Miller said.
During his years of farming Miller and his wife, Marge, milked 35 cows by hand and raised 1200 pigs a year.
“That was a lot back then,” he said.
While Miller was working at the Yankton Sales Barn he had became acquainted with a man who was feeding garbage to his pigs.
“The man was from New York. He was feeding his pigs garbage – they were eating week old cookies, cake and bread,” Miller said. “I guess he did well – he kept doing it. It all had to pass a health standard.”
He would pay Miller $40 for a 40 pound pig.
Miller would send a truck load out to New York whenever he had enough.
The business transactions ended when the guy started offering to pay Miller eight dollars for 40 pounds pigs instead of the $40.
Dust and dirt could be depressing during the 30’s
By Deanna Anderson
The first recorded dust storm on the U.S. Plains was in 1932.
Fourteen dust storms were recorded that year and the number had tripled by 1933. By 1934 an estimated 100 million acres of farmland had lost all or most of its topsoil.
“Black Sunday” occurred in April of 1935 when winds in the 60 mph range caused the sky to turn almost black.
Gloria Vogle has lived on a farm north of Coleridge since her marriage to Norman Vogle in 1957.
Vogle remembers the heat and the dust storms that hit northeast Nebraska during the “dirty thirties”.
Vogle was born in 1926 and grew up on a farm that was a little over five miles northeast of Wayne.
Vogle was just a young girl living with her parents but she still talks about the terrible dust storms.
“We could see the dust storms coming in from the south. The sky was brown,” Vogle said. “We would get to the house and hurry up and shut the windows and the doors.”
Women during the ‘30s remember wiping piles of dirt off the windowsills in the morning and again at night during those years. The fine dust would creep in even if the windows were closed.
Windows and doors had to be kept open the majority of the time to help cool off the house.
“My mother would hang wet dish towels or wet pieces of sheets in the screen door to try and keep some of the dust out,” she said.
With no electricity, Vogle’s family did not have the convenience of fans and of course there were no air conditioners.
“It was hot but we survived,” Vogle said. “My sister and I would sleep on the living room floor if it was real hot.”
A lot of people who were desperate for relief from the heat tried sleeping outside.
Some people soaked bed sheets in cool water and slept on the wet sheets.
News stories tell of people in Lincoln who rolled blankets out on the lawn of the State Capitol building and slept.
Gardens were a necessity. Jars and jars of canned goods were put up and stored in caves or basements.
Water would be carried to the gardens.
“My sister and I carried water from a cattle tank down the hill to the garden,” Vogle said.
Kitchens heated up even more with all of the canning and baking that needed to be done.
“We had a kerosene stove with three burners. We had an oven which my mother would set on top of the burners. The canning was done on an old cook stove in the kitchen,” Vogle said.
Vogle’s family always butchered their own meat. A flock of chickens gave them the eggs they needed and some were butchered.
Her dad farmed with horses.
“We had three teams of horses. The dirt would be stirred up when they plowed. They had to put the weeds under. Now they just go in and plant and spray for the weeds and the insects.”
They definitely did not have access to a large among of insecticides back in the ‘30s.
Vogle remembers the huge numbers of grasshoppers.
“The wooden fence posts were covered with grasshoppers. They were in the weeds and on the grass,” she said. “They were everywhere.”
In all of her 86 years she has never seen grasshoppers like she did as a young girl in the ‘30s.