Camera Rolls: 312:18-20
Sound Rolls: 312:09
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Herb Plambeck , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 30, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
OK. What I really want to have you start with talking about is your family farm, and what it was like, and especially thinking about the late 20s coming into the '30s, what—tell me about your dad, and how the farm got going, what you grew and that kind of stuff.
Well, it was a long time ago, but it was back in the early 20s when the worst things happened. In the mean time, there'd been an ambition on the part of our family to own their own farm. They had been hired people and they had been renters, and now the time had come to have a farm of our own. And in the 1920 era, my father decided this is it. So he
did a lot puzzling about it, because it was high, $400 an acre. But the bankers, the bankers in the community said, "Oh, Herman, better buy now, because next year it'll be at least 100 years, $100 higher."
** And so the farm was bought, and we were all jubilant. I was twelve years old at the time, and I, I was just as happy as could be that we now were like the rest of our neighbors. We had our own farm. But, well, unfortunately, our dream didn't come out quite the way we'd planned it. Within a year, the land prices in that community dropped severely. In fact, it would've been difficult, even if it would've been possible to sell, to get anything more than $100 an acre for what we'd paid $400 an acre for just 12 months before that.
** And it was truly devastating, because prices on farm products also plunged, plunged way down. I remember visiting with some other folks of that era, and, and, and they reminded me about the fact that hog prices dropped to $2.50 dollars a hundred weight, as compared to one time in more recent years that they were $58.00 a hundred weight, and other things in comparison. Corn, for instance, although that comes a later time, it comes in the early '30s, but corn plunged down to ten cents a bushel, some people even less than that. And it was so, so terribly low that it was used for fuel. People burned it instead of coal.
How were you personally effected by the, the economic collapse? What, what happened to your life? What, what happened to your expectations and what...?
Well, my dream had always been to become a famous author [telephone rings], so I wrote little stories and—
OK, so, actually, if you could just start again about how you were personally affected. But now I'm thinking sort of '29, you know, after these, these prices have come tumbling down.
Well, naturally, the drop in farm prices and the terrible situation on the loss of land was very difficult for all concerned. However, my father, who had come to this country from Europe, was a bit on the stubborn side, and he refused to let them take his land. So we struggled. But it did cost me a high school education, something I very much wanted, and later on nearly cost me a college education. But we, we just did the best we could. We ate very poorly. We didn't know, well, we had no such things as a social career, such things as we have nowadays. It was all really poverty. And it lasted through a period of time, into the late 1920s, and into the early '30s, which really were about the worst.
How, what did you do to get by? What was survival like on a farm like the one you lived on?
Well, you made your old clothes do. Sometimes your shoes were a little bit worn out, the soles were pretty thin. You didn't do any buying, really. You just raised your own produce. And the things you had to have, salt, sugar, and so forth, you managed to get that. But it was, it was plain hard work, actually. And trying to survive, which we fortunately did. But they were tough times. No money to buy coals. We bought or you burned corn instead, which sounds almost unthinkable in today's world, but that's what we did. And machinery was made to last as long as it could. You simply have to fix it yourself. Of course, in those days we had horses. Horses do get older, and as time goes along. [laughs] But we did get a colt every year, and that helped. And, well, you just had, had to make do. We were not alone. There were many, many others. But most, actually most people who had paid so much for farmland, too high, lost the land. And then came all kinds of strange things, like penny sales, and...
Actually, I was going to ask you about that, so could you, do you remember foreclosures? Or do you remember the mood in the community when foreclosures, can you tell me a little bit about that?
Well, I certainly remember the mood at the time that we were losing our land. In many cases, there were suicides. People simply could not take it. They had worked so hard, they had tried so hard to keep what they had, and it was taken from them. Other things that happened, neighbors would come together, and they would learn about a sale that was about to take place, and they would all congregate, hundreds of them, and they had an agreement among themselves that nothing would go higher than five cents. Well, if you had a corn planter that really should've been selling for $50.00 or more, and somebody offered five cents, obviously that sale never went through. The auctioneers went nearly crazy trying to get something for... but it was impossible.
What was, how did people feel about the banks? Do you have, do you remember what it was like at the time? What was the kind of...?
Yes, I certainly do remember that.
There was considerable bitterness
** , particularly to those bankers who had advised farmers like my father to buy at what was a very high price with the argument that it was going to go higher. Everything was going to go out of reach, through the sky. Well, they were wrong. Dead wrong. And so there was a rather strong feeling that bankers didn't know very much, or at least not as much as they should.
I'm just going to, actually, let me skip ahead to another question. I was going to ask you about the Farmers' Holiday. Do you remember what, can you give me some background on them? What was the kind of mood, and what was the thought behind the withholding of crops that they were trying to organize?
The Farmers' Holiday was a movement in which people who were rather hard hit formed an organization which they did call the Farmers' Holiday. And actually it was a part of the overall procedure of stopping sales, stopping actually marketing.—
—because they thought maybe if they stopped marketing that perhaps things would get better. And, actually, they did not get better. And it became—
We just ran out of film. You are doing—
So yes, tell me about the Farmers' Holiday.
The Farmers' Holiday was an unfortunate movement. It came about through desperation, because farmers were so hard hit and were losing so much that some farmers banded together, not a lot, but enough to make it quite an impression. And of course they tried to stop sales, they tried to stop production, actually, in many respects. But it finally came to an almost tragic ending when they dragged a judge at Sioux City, Iowa off the bench. And he was from Le Mars, Sioux City area, and he was actually dragged for part of the time with the intent that they were going to hang him, actually murder him. But better heads prevailed and this didn't happen, thank goodness. But it was a short-lived movement. A man named Milo Reno was sort of a instigator of it, and he and others who were very radically minded. Bear in mind now there were other organizations, Farm Bureau, Farmers' Union, The Grange, that also were suffering, but did not go to extremes of that nature. It was a sad commentary on our, on our farm living at the time.
I was going to ask you your memories of—and Hoover, when he was elected, really came in with the pledge to do something for the agricultural prices. He saw that. He set up the Federal Farm Board, which he hoped would help stabilize prices. Did that help you and your family's farming?
No, during the period of Hoover's administration, as you know, there were terrible things. The stock market dropped, and the farming conditions were not improved. We in Iowa had hopes, because Hoover was one of our own, an Iowa man, born in Iowa. But it didn't take very long, and farmers were as opposed to him as anybody could be, because conditions were frankly desperate.
And the Federal Farm Board, which, did that help? You didn't feel an impact?
The Federal Farm Board was set up with the intention that it would make a difference, but we didn't see it.
I was going to move forward now to at the time of the 1932 elections. You had told, told Leslie a really interesting story, I thought it was, about your going with your dad to actually see FDR speak. I was wondering if you could just tell me that story again?
Yes. FDR was invited to the American Farm Bureau convention in Chicago, which was quite a ways, nearly 200 miles, from our farm. But by that time, my father and many others in the community were totally convinced we had to have a change, and we were going to cast our votes with President Roosevelt, or it was Mr. Roosevelt. And he came to Chicago and took the platform, and I remember vividly, because I had a fairly good seat. And here was this gentleman with a handicap, struggling just a bit to get to the podium, and to stand there. But he spoke. And he spoke, you know, with such vision, with such hope, with such sort of, oh, the things we wanted to hear, frankly, were being said. And it was a large crowd that came from all over the country or at least from all over the Midwest. And it was the, the turning point as far as many farmers were concerned, because Mr. Roosevelt did have some other plans, at least we were going to get out of the terrible bog that we were in.
Did, was that unusual for your parents to be voting Democratic, to be looking to a Democrat?
Yes, my father was—
All right. So, again, if you could just very concisely tell me about the cow wars?
There was actually a cow war during those tough times in the early '30s. It was a case of the farmers having to submit their herds to tests for tuberculosis. Some cattle were infected. We wanted to get rid of those, and did, of course, by way of this test. But unfortunately there were enough who objected that it was necessary for the governor to call out the National Guard, and they were encamped not very far from our farm, actually. So we went there, and I, that's the first war that I participated in. [laughs] It was rather a quiet one. And some several hundred soldiers were encamped, and made sure that the testing was done. Actually, those who objected the strongest were later imprisoned, one man for three years, because he stood in the way of the law. The governor said he would carry out the law and he did.
OK. Now I want to go back and repeat a couple of things that you already told me about. But can you give me an example in this period, 1929 to '32, these Hoover years, give me just some concrete examples of prices falling.
Yes. The period from 1929 to 1932 was probably the hardest period in the history of American agriculture, because prices fell terribly. They just dropped all the way to the bottom. I remember as a 4H boy and selling hogs for as little as $2.50 a hundred weight. Today they're much higher, have been up to $58.00 for a hundred weight.
I'm sorry, could you do that, but think about, they had, rather than looking forward to today, I really liked the way you worked in the 4H, but instead of saying, "Today they're more," sort of that they had been. What had they been in, sort of, what had they been in 1925, or 1927? Do you remember?
All right. Well, yes, they varied quite a bit, but I actually have those figures...
OK. So, again, those prices falling.
The period 1929 to 1932 was a sad period in agriculture, because prices fell terribly. As a 4H boy, I had raised hogs, and we sold them for anywhere from $8.00 a hundred weight up to $15.00, something like that. But by the time of the early '30s, hog prices had dropped down to as low as $2.50 a hundred weight. Corn had dropped down to ten cents a bushel, so low that it was used for fuel instead of coal. And other prices were somewhat comparable. But there were times when it was just utterly impossible to raise the livestock or the crops for what they were being priced at the market. It was a rough, rough period.
So then what would happen to someone like your father who had taken out a mortgage with high land prices and no longer was able to pay? Explain how that all...
Well, when we hit the low period, many farmers lost their land, because prices on land dropped from what had originally been paid in many cases $400, even $500, an acre dropped down to $100 an acre or even less, and, and no one would buy it. It was a period when land was worth nothing.
What was the, what did you feel like? Were you scared as a little child, young man?
Well, yes, I was not happy about what was happening, but I think we all know, in those days when you're younger, you kind of dream ahead a little bit and say, "It isn't always going to be this way." And fortunately it wasn't. But it was tough, very tough. I think I've mentioned before that I didn't get to go to high school, and that hurt, whereas I wanted to very much. And some of my early ambitions of becoming a famous author and things like that changed quite a bit when I became a lowly hired man, and that's about as low as we could be in those days.
So what, so your family, can you tell me that, how your family made a decision, they basically decided to have you come back and work on the farm rather than have hired labor? Is that—?
Well, there was no choice for my parents. They had to have help. They could not afford to hire someone. I was 14 and 15 years old, and I was fairly able-bodied, and I became a hired man. My salary, incidentally, was not in cash, it was in four acres of land. And I soon found out that by producing certain crops like tomatoes and sweet corn, and things of that nature, instead of wheat or corn, I did pretty well, and I became a kind of a plutocrat in the neighborhood. [laughs]
I wanted to ask you one more time about the way people felt about the bankers when, when this kind of cascaded. You actually used a phrase when you talked to Leslie about a domino effect, like the way kind of things just fell down. How did people feel about the bankers foreclosing?
Well, the bankers were, in part at least, to blame for some of the things that happened, because they led us and many others to believe that things were going to go higher. Instead, of course, they plummeted, plummeted terribly. And so
the feeling against bankers turned from, "Well, this is a man we ought to listen to," to, "This is a person who hasn't done us any good.
** We won't pay much attention to him anymore." However, there were good bankers, as well as though who had overstated things. Nevertheless, the feeling was not too kind toward the financial authorities in the community.
Please tell me about the time you and your dad went to see FDR.
One of my most vivid memories was when I was a lad and President Roosevelt, or I should say—
You might just start again to say Franklin Roosevelt.
Yeah. One of the most vivid memories of my boyhood was when Franklin Roosevelt became a candidate for president. And we had had a very rough go. Mr Roosevelt came to Chicago to attend the American Farm Bureau convention, and he made a talk in which, of course, he, he made some very hopeful presentations about what we might expect if he were president. And that changed a lot of minds. My father had been a Republican, but no more. After that, he became a Roosevelt fan, and always was, because it was a much better period for all of us.
Now, you were going to tell me something about the kind of life you had on the farm, the social life, the in these, these...
What was life like in these relatively impoverished times?
Life during the Depression, it was a very different life for us young people than what it would've been today. We had very little to look forward to other than going to church every Sunday and attending, you know, the young people's sessions. We played ball. We did get together, our, our community, and we had teams, and we thought we were pretty good, and we had a lot of fun in that respect. When it came to such social functions as dances, I remember very vividly going to our neighbor's, where we had the dance in the corn crib, in the, instead of in a nice dance hall. But we had as much as you could've had at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago. And of course we got to meet the girls, and the girls got to meet us, and it was one of those same old things. You don't change human nature that much, even with the Depression.
I'm really interested just because you were talking about the community. Were there ways in which the community got together and helped people who were in need, helped people?
Oh, yes. I'm glad you asked that. Farm people are very neighborly, and if someone is in need of help, the neighbors will gather together, even at the expense of their own time or cost, for that matter. This has been traditional throughout the ages, and it was especially true during the Depression when someone was hard hit. And that's of course how it happens that at some instances where there was a plan to sell out a farmer, the neighbors saw to it that it didn't happen.
What kinds of things, do you have specific memories of how people did help each other, things that people would give each other? Or—
Oh, sure. If there was an injury or a death in the family, the neighbors would come together and they would help harvest the crop or plant the crop, whatever the case may be. Whatever was necessary was done. And the neighbors, almost without exception, would all join in and make this happen, and make it mean a great deal to the bereaved family or the family that was in need of help.
What, were there also times when people had to help each other with food or clothing because of the Depression? Was that something you saw?
Well, in the rural areas, most people depended on their gardens very heavily, and on their chicken house, and on the eggs that came from the chicken house, and the pork that they processed themselves. The same thing was true of beef and other livestock. No, for the most part we were fairly well fed. We certainly did have any of the exotic items, but we were getting nutritious food from our own farms and gardens.