Camera Rolls: 311:21-25
Sound Rolls: 311:13-15
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Reynold Wik , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on January 27, 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.*
[ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] —college. I have a letter here I wrote to my mother. June 1931. "I'm wondering, Mother, whether you could make me part of a pajama outfit, the lower part? My roommate fixes his pajamas with tape, but we don't have enough tape for two people." I might mention that we frequently fixed our pants in this fashion. If it ripped down the rear you would put a piece of tape on the inside and in thus fashion would be able to get by for short periods of time.
Let me remind you, you can look anywhere you want, not into the camera. You can look at me, anywhere else, not in the cameras. Is there another letter?
This letter was written August 19th, 1934 to my sister, regarding questions of money, let's see. "I'm owing a dollar on room rent, about a dollar and fifty for laundry and miscellaneous, such as suit pressed and food for the next week, adding up to two dollars. In other words I can exist the next two weeks on four dollars and fifty cents. As for the rest it doesn't depend on how much I spend but rather on what you have at home." I might say that at times we wrote home for money, and money was frequently sent to us but it came in cash, nickels dimes and quarters in an envelope, not adding up to a single dollar bill, to say nothing about a five or ten dollar bill . Well that's about it from the...
I was wondering, speaking of talking about fixing pants with tape...
you tried everything imaginable to get by without spending cash.
** For example if your shoestrings wore out you took a piece of twine and tied a new shoestring. You half-sewed your own shoes by getting a slab of leather and a shoe lash and tacking it on. In the Depression you had rubber soles that were put on as patches...they had a glue on the back of them and you just slapped them on the bottom of your shoe. The only trouble was they worked loose and as you walked along they flapped against the pavement and eventually fell off. At times there were young people who cut up car tires and made their own sandals, which you were walking on part of the casing.
Can you give me a litany, a list of the ways you used to fix Model T cars. You were talking about shoes and pants, you also did this for cars.
Yes, there were several shortcuts—the bottom line was how to get by without spending money. Instead of buying chains for the car you just took a piece of rope and wrapped it around through the spokes of the wheel and this would get you out of a mud hole, in most cases. When the fenders rattled and cracked and bent you'd take a sickle out of the mower, or an old sickle used in the mowing machine, which was five or six feet long, you took it to the blacksmith's shop, knocked the sections off the sickle bar, bent the ends of the sickle bar over and put it to hold the fenders up so they wouldn't flop down over the wheels. You used 'em in front and you used 'em in back. I have a picture here of the Ford Motor Company that shows this homemade remedy to hold the fenders up.
Why not just buy a new car?
Well, people would like to do that but these farmers in hard times, you just didn't have the money, the cash. You used ingenuity to get by, to attempt to get by.
Instead of ordering a box of bolts from Sears Roebuck and Company you would go out to the old machinery in the yard, take some wrenches and hammers and take these bolts off the machine. Basically you could reuse them.
** You patched things. Tongues on the wagon was patch on top of patch. The use of barbed wire and bailing wire is famous in agricultural history, fixing things.
I'm going to have you put your historian hat on now. If the farmers are all fixing their old Fords and not buying new ones, using bailing wire and sickles to fix their old Fords, what does that mean for the Ford Motor Company back in Detroit?
Well I have a book here on the price list of Ford parts in 1923. There are five thousand parts on a Model T car, half of which sold for less than fifty cents apiece. Many of the items are one cent, two cents, or three cents. It didn't help the Ford Motor Company to drive a car for ten years instead of three years, which was again bad for the economy because purchasing power was too low. Things just weren't moving. You could walk into a dealer shop in town and no one was in the dealer shop looking at new cars, for example. Obviously sales were slumped, people were laid off. You knew nothing about the suffering of the industrial worker. You were usually too far away from, from him. You were concerned with your own suffering in the tough days, the worst days of the Depression.
I'm going to have you, it's a very, very important idea for this film that both the industrial workers and the farmers are suffering in this time. I'm just going to have you tell me that again. Actually I'll make it as a question. Did you ever think about the men working in the factories and did you imagine that they ever thought about you?
We thought about things in a general way. We knew that Henry Ford had reduced the cost of a car, got it down to two hundred and sixty dollars in 1923 for a new Model T Roadster. The workers in the factory, we knew they worked on the assembly line, but we knew nothing about an assembly line, whether this was hard work, whether it was long hours, whether it was speed-up work. We tend to go along with the farmers' bias that the unions had raised wages, thus raising the cost of the finished product and generally speaking those of us on the farm did not think kindly about labor unions. We would agree with Ford who opposed labor unions way up into the late '30s, at least.
In the very early '30s, or around '29, '30, '31, late twenties, did you as a young man or as a teenager ever conjure up an image of what the factory might have looked like? I'm trying to get whether a farmer had some sense of what...
Well we had seen pictures of the Ford Motor Company in Detroit and in Dearborn, and the river ridge plant. We were aware that it was a big industrial...but we had no feeling of animosity towards Henry Ford personally because we believed that he'd attempted to keep prices down. We used to say that Ford made a profit of one dollar per car, that he sold a million cars, he made a million dollar profit but he was entitled to it. We didn't know that his profits were much more than that. In order words, we were rather sympathetic to Henry Ford as an industrialist as compared to other people who made gasoline, for example.
As you were sitting in Aberdeen, South Dakota and talking to your neighbors, the other farmers, can you tell me a little bit more about, if I'd walked into a barbershop in Aberdeen and heard people talking about Henry Ford, what notion of Henry Ford would I have come away with from hearing you and the neighbors talking about Ford?
Well, prior to 1929 the average was really sympathetic with Henry Ford because Henry Ford posed as a rural person. He was born on a farm, he spoke the language of the farm.
—Farmers' feelings toward Henry Ford. You can raise your hands, you can be as expressive as you like.
Well it's interesting to note that the farmers did write Henry Ford. A mountain of letters poured in. He received about a thousand letters a day for a period of thirty years, and these letters reflect, I think, their attitudes toward Ford. In the early '20s they wrote to Ford actually believing that he would solve major economic problems of the country, that since he could produce a successful car why couldn't he successfully solve these economic problems. And the letters took on that tone. Some kind of a plan, some kind of a scheme would do the trick. However, after 1929 the tone of the letters tended to change. They were now letters begging for money. Not only farmers but bankers in small towns. Farmers finally realized that the problem was too great to be solved by one industrialist. It was like attempting to build the Panama Canal. The job was bigger than both Ford and the individual farmer. The letters took on a tone of well, help me personally, but we're not expecting you to solve the problems of the world, economic problems like some kind of panacea.
Was there a tenor of betrayal in any of the letters in rural America, do you think?
The letters had all kinds of overtones in them. Some of them were angry letters, that Henry Ford could lay off workers and then talk about all a person had to do was get out and work. Ford talked about going down the street and painting houses, and farmers would write in and say, "How are you going to paint houses if you can't get the money to buy the paint?" They knew of Ford's wealth and when farms were being foreclosed there was anger. "Why don't you personally assist farmers to greater extent than you had?" Now Ford did give away a few automobiles-two hundred and fifty-four in his lifetime-but he did not believe in permiscuous charity. And the letters and correspondence revealed this. But if you're desperate you think about some wealthy person and maybe if you write him a letter he'll sympathize with you and send you a check. The letters, many of them are pathetic. Some of them are thirty-five pages long, just an outpouring of lamentations, grief, losing the farm, thrown out on the street, begging for enough money to buy a sewing machine so you can take in sewing and thus make a little money for the farm family. They're enough to bring tears to your eyes if you sit and read them.
Tell me about Ford's wealth. In 1930, '31...
Well it was generally believed that Ford was the richest man that you knew anything about. They didn't know anybody in General Motors. One feller wrote to Ford saying, "You're the richest man in the world, and I am the poorest man in the world. It looks to me like we ought to get together and make some kind of a deal." There was this awareness of Ford wealth. At the time of his death later on his estate was valued at 2.3 billion dollars, but that was in the late forties and not 1932.
I'm going to have you tell me once more, as you just did, the story about the poorest man in the world and the richest man in the world. One fella asking Ford, "Since you're the richest man in the world..." You can go ahead.
It was interesting to read Henry Ford's mail, to sit in his home and read these thousands of letters that poured in. I find letters in there from some of my neighbors that had written to Henry Ford. One farmer wrote in and said, somewhat humorously, "Since I'm the poorest man in the world and you're the richest man in the world it seems to me like we should get together and make some kind of a deal." Most of these letters were answered by secretaries with form letters, so the person was satisfied. He got a letter that was signed by Henry Ford himself.
Again, remembering that the audience will not hear my question, can you, it's 1931.
Take three up.
Yes, I would say that farmers suffered economic problems in the 1920s. There was one Depression from 1920 to '23 and then they got caught again in 1929, and times were actually tough, very tough. For example, on our farm instead of buying new fence posts for the farm we had old well pipe which we put in at the blacksmith's shop, cut it up into six foot lengths and fenced a hundred and sixty acres of land, trying to save money. The prices were so low that in our elevator there was a sign put up there by the elevator manager, "Shelled Corn: Two Cents a Bushel. Corn on the Cob: Three Cents Less." Corn was actually a minus one cent on the market. Our farm we lost two quarters of land, that's three hundred and twenty acres, because we couldn't pay the taxes on it, and the loan on a hundred and sixty acres of land was only twelve hundred dollars. We could not raise twelve hundred dollars to save a hundred sixty acres of land. It was foreclosed by the county for non-payment of taxes. The pinch is revealed in numerous ways. My brother actually, in the blacksmith shop, put on new planks on the plow lays himself, firing up the Fords and battering out these lays because he didn't want to go to town and spend money. The radio battery would go down. Instead of taking it to town, costing seventy-five cents to charge the battery, you took a generator out of a car, bolted it to a platform and started the one-horse engine to spin the generator to recharge the battery. All of these techniques-my mother wrote a letter saying my brother was down in the shop boring holes in the wheels of the tractor to attach new lugs, a tough job, because she said thus he was saved sixteen dollars instead of having the job done in town. You didn't have money for a halter for a horse because leather was expensive. You just took a rope, tied it around the horse's neck, and tied it to the manger in the barn. All of these techniques were money saving propositions.
Did you, reminding you that the audience will not hear my voice, did you and your neighbors ever think that this was just the Lord's work?
One tended to believe that this was just destiny at work, that there was nothing you could do personally to resolve the question. It was fate just like bad weather was fate.
** It wasn't 'til later that they discovered that there were things to do to help the farmer, but that's another story in the mid-thirties with the coming of the New Deal. We were naive in that respect, that we were just victims of circumstance, that everyone was suffering and therefore grin and bear it, or try to grin, as it were.
Take four up.
The tough times on the farm were a real nightmare. It was an emotional trauma. My brother, for example, thought about leaving the farm and moving to town and becoming a janitor in the courthouse. But he learned that he would be ineligible because they would only hire a man and wife couple for a job such as that. You dreamed about how you were going to escape, how could you continue in those tough economic times. In my case I stayed out of college four years because of economic problems, then finally went off to college and went into the teaching profession. When help came through federal legislation, something was lost. The free individualism that the farmers prided themselves upon was shattered. They had to go down to the county courthouse and sign up for welfare relief, and for some of those hardworking farmers it was one of the hardest things they had to do. You're now proving to yourself that you could not take care of yourself financially and had to rely on an outside source, and it just broke the hearts of many of those old-time, hard-working farmers of the Midwest.
[production discussion][cut] [change to camera roll 311:23] [sound roll 311:14]
Take five up.
Well, living on the farm we had absolutely no guarantees that times were going to get better.
** If times were tough, the possibility that this would continue. Then the question was how are you going to escape? One of our neighbors went to Northern Minnesota to catch fish so he could feed his family and this stave off starvation. Others talked about moving but it was difficult to move because you didn't have the money to move. It cost money to move across country. Maybe life was better in California or in Oregon, but how are you going to get there? How can you leave friends and family and take off by yourself?
** The frustration and pain that went with it is difficult. The cry of the Midwestern framer, unable to see solutions at the next year or the future year, and coupled with much of this, the calamity was compounded because crops failed. Hail storms ruined crops. Grasshopper invasions occurred, and you had to compete with these forces of nature as well.
The audience will not hear my voice. I think in your book you talk about pioneer dreams slipping away, is that...?
Well I've got to think about that a minute.
Is that a true statement?
The farmers kept taking about the virtues of rural life, constantly, and how they're going to keep the boy on the farm. At the same time they had the feeling that he would have to leave the farm in order to survive, and it was not a solution merely staying on the farm, and in most cases the sociological movement occurred. Younger people leaving the farm, looking for work in town, and actually moving out of state.
I want to get back to Henry Ford again. During the hard times, can you tell us what kind of advice Ford was giving? Ford had retreated to fair land, he was sending out all this advice to farmers. What was that? What was he telling them to do?
Well Henry Ford was unable to cope with the magnitude of the crash of 1929.
He was baffled, confused and inept in proposing solutions. He talked in simplistic terms, that if people were ambitious and get out and work this would solve their problem. The problem was overproduction and underconsumption, not more production.
** He talked about being innovative, of projects that you initiate yourself. A bootstrap formula was really what it was, and if you pulled hard enough on your bootstraps you'd come on up out of the mire. Well, farmers were tired of the bootstrap formula. It was no panacea. You were desperate, you were out of money, banks had closed. Counties were foreclosing on property. Your backs were to the wall and the pronouncement of a multi-millionaire was little consolation to most people. It was irrelevant.
What would have been relevant? That's an unfair question [coughs].
There had been some talk about cooperative movements. If you pulled all your grain together and held on to it you might help kill off the middleman. But farmers have never been able to implement that successfully as well, although it's been tried over and over again. Some thought Ford should have an assembly line to make all kinds of farm machinery and thus reduce the prices. Henry Ford had no intention of making all farm implements. There was some talk about the baloney dollar, but that came later, that you should work for script and not money, but that was really a panacea that came later in the '30s.
I want to shift gears and go back earlier in the '20s, or even the teens. What I want to talk about is Henry Ford's great achievement, have you talk about what—prior to the crash did Henry Ford liberate rural American farmers from something?
The farmers generally were grateful to Henry Ford for producing a cheap car that was practical and within their reach. They appreciated the social impact of the automobile. It gave them freedom to travel.
Prior to the automobile there were people that lived their whole life that never traveled more than 50 miles from home. Women particularly were isolated on farm homes.
** Now you could get in the car, go for a ride, go to town and it was a great liberating factor. It gave you some breathing room, some independence, and there's something about getting into a car and taking off to see the sights that was a grand adventure. You could attend programs in town which you could never attend riding a horse and buggy. Educational programs, county agent programs, cultural events. You could go to town and see the doctor if you were injured or hauled into town. The automobile was an educational vehicle. You could consolidate schools and go to high school, whereas prior to this you probably would never go to high school because it was too difficult to travel ten or twenty miles.
I'm going to cut you off and I'm going to have you keep rolling. Tell me in the first person now, not as a historian but as someone who grew up on the farm, tell me about your own introduction to the Model T and what that meant to you. Not the historian but the...
Mother bought a Model T car in 1921 and I started high school in 1923. I drove the Model T the twenty-two miles a day to go to high school with my brother Dave and sister. We learned to drive that car and some of its idiosyncrasies, how to tinker it. If the car ran on three cylinders you kicked the coil box under the dash to try to get the thing running again. The tires blew out, you boots inside the tire and chain-link on the outside. The water boiled out of the radiator, looked like a geyser at Yellowstone. But you accepted for granted most of your problems could be solved.
I drove a car when I was eleven years old. My nephew
** Richard Wik drove a car when he was eight years old.
** For young people this was a wonderful achievement, a glorious event. And most of the rural people had Model T cars. This was about the only car they really felt they could afford, and in this sense it was a liberating influence of great magnitude.
I don't want to put words in your mouth but is it in fact safe to say that Henry Ford was a liberator of some sort? Again remembering that people will not hear my voice.
In a sense the rural people gave Henry Ford the credit. He always advertised a cheap car for the masses and took the credit for being original on this point, which he was not, but he did make a practical, cheap car. It had plenty of weaknesses in it as many farmers knew, but it was the first car they owned for many of these people and they developed a fondness for it, an affinity, a nostalgia for their first experience on the American road.
Let's go back up into the Depression-I'm sorry to be jumping around.
No, that's all right.
Before I forget, you had a couple of Depression jokes from earlier that I wanted to get on film.
Well, to farmers' credit, most people had a sense a humor. Times were tough but you could still crack a joke if you felt so inclined. Depression jokes had to do with hard times. They often repeated and were not particularly original. They would say, for example, that it was hot that even the wagons hung their tongues out. That the weather was so hot that even the chickens plucked themselves. You had stories circulating that grasshoppers were so bad that when they ate up your garden and ate the onions you could smell onions on their breath when they flew by the house. There's a story of a farmer that circulated which is a typical Depression joke that he sold a carload of sheep and shipped it to the packing plants in Chicago, waited a long time for his check, he finally got a letter where the packing plant manager had said, "Sorry but the sheep didn't pay the cost of freight, so please send a hundred dollars to cover the cost of freight." The farmer wrote back, "Sorry, I don't have any more money, but I do have some more sheep." [laughs]These were the types of stories that circulated.
The next take up is six.
I'd like to read a letter that I wrote to my sister.
I'm going to have you put the book over on this side. Is that OK?
I'd like to read a letter I wrote to my sister Elsie in St. Paul in 1925. This is the way it went. "If you were home you would see us start off to high school each morning. As we tear down the highway the radiator of the Model T blows off steam. The wind whistles past our ears and you might hear me yell, "Dave, choke 'er a little more. Now turn the carburetor down. It's only hitting on three cylinders. Tap the coils. Wear my mittens. Keep 'er going or we'll be late for school."
Great, great. Picking up on what we were talking about when we broke, can you give me just a couple of sentences about Fords and farmers and use the word "dignity" somewhere in there?
Or even one sentence.
I think the car gave the American farmer a sense of dignity and pride. He could now drive to town. He could meet people. He was independent, and this gave him a feeling of dignity, well-being and good feeling.
Good. I'm going to pop back up to the Depression. Thinking once again of my fifteen year-old son, who's a high school kid, can you explained what caused the Great Depression? [laughs]
The cause of the Depression—it had I suppose many causes, multiple causation—but to rural people the main cause seemed to be the maldistribution of wealth. As Kenneth Galbraith had explained in his book "The Great Crash," the farmer reasoned he didn't have any money in his pocket. He could not buy something, and therefore the whole system ground to a close. It didn't seem to be a problem of production. It seemed to be a problem of consumption, and how could you get goods moving again. If the farmer is out of money, the working man is in debt. Who is out there that can purchase the manufactured goods? The farmer reasoning was, "The Depression is caused because I don't have any dollars in my pocket." Nothing to spend, nothing to buy, and the system is just sick at that point.
Good. Let's cut for a minute.
Henry Ford was very popular among rural people because he identified with farmers in his advertising, quotes of Ford in the newspapers. He talked the language of the farmer. He would criticize bankers, lawyers, the middlemen, all of which were common complaints of rural people. He would say for example that there was no business so big that it couldn't be handled over a milk stool, for example. Well farmers could understand this. He said, "Well what's the best building in town? Well it's the First National Bank. Why is it the best building in town? Because we are paying for it in high interest." He was really a Midwestern populist in talk, and American farmers had strong populist talking. He seemed to hate the same things they hated and therefore he had this identification with the rural line.
If he was a populist in talk what was he in substance?
Earlier Ford he was somewhat radical because he was innovative, and only in later years did he become more conservative and lose touch with the common man. For example he talked about using farm products to make gasoline as early as the First World War. This was language farmers liked to hear. That farmers could grow their own fuel was a thing which they appreciated. That interest rates were too high they would subscribe to "the middleman was sapping the profits." They went along with this.
I just thought of something. With the Ford went on this adventure into anti-Semitism. Remembering that the audience will not hear my question, can you talk a bit about Ford's anti-Semitism and prevailing consensus of anti-Semitism or Nativism in rural America?
The rural people
** in Fall County had their own biases and prejudice because they lived in isolation, and Henry Ford's comment in the Dearborn Independent about a Jewish conspiracy was not surprising to them because they were quite anti-Semitic themselves.
** They had not associated with Jewish people, they didn't know them personally, and it was easy for them to develop these stereotypes. The farmers were victims of a lot of stereotypes including that. I don't recall that the was read in our home, although it was distributed by dealers throughout the country and it was very anti-semitic for many years. Henry Ford later apologized but the apologies came too late. The rural American had not only prejudice about Semitism but they had prejudice in the field of religion, which was very strong, simply because they were isolated and lacked communication and experience with other groups of people. In this sense Henry Ford didn't shock rural Americans at all. He was merely reflecting some of their own prejudices, and thus they didn't get too excited about it. What's new, they might have said on most any occasion.
Great. Let's cut for a second.
Take eight up.
The prejudice of rural people is quite easily documented.
It was common expression to say, "I went to town and bought something and I Jew-ed the storekeeper down on price."
** And this was common expression, nothing was thought about it being a bias and being dramatically anti-semitic. There were other expressions that we never thought about. For example on our mother's knee, what is the rhyme, Helen? Ten little Indians.
Oh yeah. Why don't you start.
I've got to back up on that thing.
Let's cut for a minute while you can think of it.
Take nine up.
Prejudices were built into the family language. For example as a child you were taught the rhyme "Eenie meanie mynie mo, catch a nigger by the toe. If he hollers let him go, eenie meanie mynie mo." Now there was absolutely no awareness that this carried strong racial overtones. It was part of the English language, and you grew up with it. Not until later were you brought aware that you had been using language which was a slur on people in this country.
I'm going to follow up on this sort of culture of Midwestern America, culture of rural America at that time with Ford. I want to talk about two other things. One is the dancing, the old time dancing, and the other is wet versus dry.
Yes. I think many rural people agreed with Ford during the days of prohibition. Rural America tended to be religious, church attending people and they were in favor of prohibition, so when Henry Ford announced that he wouldn't allow any worker to enter the plant if he knew he had been drinking. Many of the farmers wrote to Henry Ford urging him to run for president on the prohibition ticket. And again, he received strong support on this particular stand.
Henry Ford was a great proponent of square dancing, particularly after the radio came out. He would have his dance band play these square dances and they were listened to far and wide over rural America. To them the music was not classical music but it was music that people could understand, and they could tap their toes and move with the rhythm, and people wrote thousands of letters to Ford congratulating him on putting on the Saturday night dance show.
Can you describe to me what might have been the perceptions of..how did city people think about this, those people who dancing the Charleston and the Black Bottom and drinking bootleg liquor what did they think of it?
I think many people, perhaps people living in cities and towns thought Ford was old-fashioned, that he was not modern in his tastes, either in music or in art or other cultural activities. But this was no surprise because many rural people did not have the opportunity to develop many of their own cultural appreciations, although rural people did manufacture much of their own music on the organ or piano if they had one at home.
Take ten up.
On the farm—
I'm gonna have you start that again and can you look a little bit over toward me. There you go.
On the farm we thought well of Henry Ford for many reasons. Primarily he was probably the only great industrialist we knew by name, as well as his name spreading around the world. But we also drove his car, so we had a personal relationship with a manufacturer. We did not know the great "Captains of Industry" and the magnates of Wall Street, and so he was our hero in that sense.
Can you say for me "He was our Ford"?
Did he have something to do with democracy, with your notions of...
He had something to do with egalitarianism, the common man, that the common man was worthy of respect and was not a second class citizen.
Good. Excellent. Now can you redo for me, in a couple of sentences, three sentences, five sentences, one sentence, whatever you choose, your notion as a farmer, as a son of a farm family that the Depression was inexorable, was destiny, was fate, was an act of the Lord.
On the farm I think in retrospect it appeared that we were the victims of fate. We did not see solutions. We didn't know that this was divine providence that had dished out hard times to us as the old plagues of Egypt, that we were there, we were hit by these perplexing, agonizing experiences and we saw no easy solution, no panaceas that we could formulate.
It did not seem to you that this was something created by humans that could be solved by humans? The audience will not hear my voice.
We tended to equate tough times with acts of God or acts of nature. If nature turns against you what can you do? You're caught. You didn't see an easy solution or way out. You're a victim of circumstance. You happen to get caught in a series of devastating economic crises which seem to be no fault of your own, and yet unable to escape from the reality of the time.
Good. Let's cut. Excellent.