The Communists (?) of Madison County (1933)
Updated: Oct 7, 2018
When I was preparing for this trip a friend sent me a very useful book, Cornbelt Rebellion: The Farmers' Holiday Association (Shover, 1965).
The Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, published by the University of Nebraska, has a short entry about the Association:
The Farmers Holiday Association, active from 1932 to 1937, served as the nominal organization behind a protest movement by mostly midwestern and Great Plains farmers in reaction to more than ten years of depressed farm income. During World War I farmers met increased worldwide demand for food by increasing their farm sizes and mechanizing their operations. Both strategies proved to be problematic following the post-World War I crash of the farm economy that occurred when foreign markets contracted and wartime price controls ended. After a decade of neglect by the major political parties, many farmers looked to protest movements and third parties as the Great Depression compounded their economic difficulties.
The Farmers Holiday Association grew out of the National Farmers Union, an organization that lobbied for farm aid and tariff reform, as well as operating purchasing and sales cooperatives. The name referred to the famous "Bank Holiday," farmers noting that if bankers could take a holiday to reorder their business, they should be allowed to do the same.
Participation in the Farmers Holiday Association was widespread:
Although the organization was national, it received greatest support in the Upper Midwest and Northern Great Plains: Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, and North Dakota drew the largest number of followers. Each state chapter acted independently. In Nebraska, the Communist Party attempted to gain some degree of control, but despite considerable activity and media exposure, it had only limited influence (Encyclopedia of the Great Plains).
The Association's work was focused on putting political pressure on state and national government to address a wide range of issues, including below cost-of-production crop prices, high interest rates, and an increasing number of farm foreclosures. Much of their activity involved meetings and marches but also blockading roads and sometimes dumping of crops to keep them from being delivered to market and protecting local farms by organizing to keep bidding at the auctions for foreclosed farms to a penny.
The Association was organized into local chapters. In his book Shover described how the small town of Newman Grove, Nebraska became a particularly radical outpost of the movement. According to his account, local radicalism prompted - and was reinforced by - the arrival of communist organizers from New York City, one of whom rented a room in town (NOTE: Unfortunately I don't have the book with me on the trip so can't quote it).
I found Newman Grove on a map and the vision of Communist organizers from the Lower East Side of Manhattan taking up residence to collaborate with local farmers made me want to see what it was like today.
As I have with other towns, I wrote to the Newman Grove High School and asked if I might do a workshop with a class. Even though that didn't work out, I planned to visit.
The town of Newman Grove is about eight blocks square. It feels notably more prosperous than many of the small towns I've driven through; when I mentioned that to someone in town they smiled and said it was known as "Boomin' Newman". Farming in the area is largely corn.
This area of what is now central Nebraska was Pawnee tribal land. The Pawnee "unwillingly ceded their lands to the U.S. Government in 1833, 1848, 1857 and 1872". According to a history by the University of Nebraska, white immigrants (particularly from Norway and Sweden) settled in Newman Grove in the 1860s. Shell Creek runs through Newman Grove, bordered by large cottonwood trees planted by the immigrants. This area is now the very pretty town park, including some campsites.
The evening I arrived in Newman Grove I met a local livestock feed salesman. We were talking about the local economy and I asked about farmers' reactions to turmoil from recent trade disputes. He said that in all the time he'd lived in Newman he'd never seen "anyone be upset with the government". I told him this was particularly interesting to me given what I'd read about fairly radical organizing in the 1930s. He had never heard of the Farmers Holiday Association but he thought I should go to the cafe at the bowling alley in the morning and talk to older men who gathered there and offered to make introductions.
When I arrived at the cafe early the next morning the table of retired farmers and businessmen were gracious about letting me intrude and patiently answered my questions about farm prices and their concerns that currently low prices weren't going to recover. None of them had heard of the Farmers Holiday Movement but a couple of them, in their 70s, had heard their parents talk about the "penny auctions" for foreclosed farms.
After the group left I had a longer conversation with Graham Koehler, retired superintendent of the local power company who was very kind.
Mr. Koehler had grown up in Newman Grove and talked in detail about the changes in farming he's seen in his lifetime. "Years ago, he said, farms were owned by families and you could have 80 acres and a family could make it. Today, guys are farming 2,000-2,500 acres and ground is expensive, about $14,000 an acres". He told me about his very clear memory of his father buying his first tractor on October 31st, 1949. When the tractor was delivered his father sent his son up to the house to get the checkbook and he remembers his father leaning on the fender as he wrote out the check and saying, "How in the world am I ever going to pay for this". The amount was $1,999.
Today a tractor costs $250,000, a combine can cost $500,000, pivot irrigation equipment and pumping water is expensive. Yields have gone up from 60-65 bushels an acre when he was a boy, to 200 bushels today - "real easy" - today. Still, the cost of getting into (or staying in) farming is prohibitive. Mr. Koehler pointed to a younger farmer in the cafe and said, "He needed $11 million to start, but his father and father-in-law had money and they helped him".
Mr. Koehler also shared fascinating stories about his time being stationed in the Philippines during the Vietnam War, including his observation that "people here don't know what life can be like".
He also described longstanding resentments between the Protestant population of Newman Grove (there are two Methodist and one Lutheran church) and the Catholic population Lindsay, seven miles away. Even in recent decades mixing of young people from the two communities was actively discouraged.
Lindsay is the site of the Lindsay Corporation, a multinational manufacturer of agricultural equipment, including pivot irrigation. According to Mr. Koehler, the executives of the company used to live in Lindsay and were intimately involved in the community. These days, he said, the corporate headquarters are in Omaha and the executives live there. That's had an impact on the company's commitment to Lindsay as a town. He also said the company hires many Hispanic workers. Someone in town later told me, when I asked about the Hispanic population in the area, that there were people who worked at Lindsay but - as far as they understood - local landlords there didn't rent to them.
After I said goodbye to Mr. Koehler I went to the Newman Grove library to see if there was any information there about the 1930s. The librarian on duty turned out to be history buff; while she had never heard of the Farmers Holiday Association she was interested in finding out what she could.
When I gave her some dates in 1933 she went back into the archives and came up with photocopies of articles from the Newman Grove newspaper that described rifts between the "radical faction" of the Association (also known as the Relief Conference, based in Newman Grove and led by A.O. Rosenberg ) and the Nebraska State-level Association.
While the State-level Farmers Holiday Association wanted "moratoriums in mortgages, stopping of foreclosures, etc.", "The Relief Conference presented a set of demands which declared against paid lobbiests, asked for a moratorium on all mortgages and interest for two years, demands the stoppage of all foreclosures for two years, gasoline tax exemption for all use except the highway traffic, repeal of the deficiency judgement law, cash relief for farmers administered by farmer committees, 25 to 50 percent reduction on all public officers' salaries, abolition of state militia, freight rates and yardage charges cut to 50 percent, lawyers', dentists', doctors' and veterinarians' fees set by law, elimination of lobbying, no state aid for state or county fairs, retaining plan of electing county commissioners and county assessors, drastic reduction in automobile and truck licenses, 50 percent reduction in high school tuition...issuing of Abraham Lincoln type of 'greenbacks' to provide state aid for passes through closed banks...to take over and renew all mortgages that are due or may become due in the future and to reimburse all those who have lost farms, homes or business through foreclosure from 1920 to 1934, an interest rate of 3 percent for real estate mortgages..."
The articles described the "communistic" characteristics of the Newman Grove group and the librarian recalled that in the past she'd heard some mention of people with some of the last names listed as being "communists". She even called her father to ask him about the history and reported that he recalled his father talking about the penny foreclosure auctions but that "he would never have been involved in anything that involved wasting food". She also looked up some of the people mentioned in the exhaustive Newman Grove Centennial Book and copied a page that referred to one of them, Julius Hansen, who "...was a colorful feisty person" and "...left Norway a serf on a feudal estate...rose to a rather affluent farmer and businessman to have lost it in the depression and spend his last years on relief" (244).
By the time I left the library she was considering the possibility of putting together a little exhibit about this aspect of Newman Grove history.
Communists, serfs, immigrants. The money needed to farm, the banks. Democracy, government policy. Popular resistance and resistance to resistance. Capitalism in Newman Grove today and ninety years ago. I am grateful to the people who made feel so welcome there.