Hard times farming: Farming during the depression

Carl C Getz and Lowell L . Getz

Introduction

To start farming with no inherited land, no money, and without financial backing is challenging irrespective of the economy of the times.  Money required to buy the initial necessary farm equipment and supplies is difficult to obtain.  This was especially true during the Great Depression of the 1930s when few, if any, banks had money to lend and the potential for sufficient income to repay a loan was low.  Very few wishing to start farming on their own were able to do so.

Carl C Getz, was one such farmer who, with no personal resources other than his reputation as a responsible hard-working hired farm hand, began farming at the very beginning of the depression and endured until better times.  The present account documents how he and his wife, Evelyn, were able to begin farming in 1931 and how they managed to survive the years of the depression.

Carl was meticulous in keeping records of all his farm-related expenses during his entire life.  A review of his records for 1931-1940 not only documents the meager resources on which they survived, but provides an excellent insight into the difficult times of farming a Midwestern combined crop-livestock farm during the Great Depression.

Family background

Carl was born at Worth, in northwestern Missouri on 2 September 1905, the second of five children, two sons and three daughters, of the second marriage of his father.  In 1916 the family moved to a farm near Rolla, Missouri, 80 miles southwest of St. Louis.  This farm was only marginally successful, and not large enough to require the help of the sons.  Accordingly, in the spring of 1921, at the age of 15, just after having graduated from grade school, Carl left home to begin working as a hired farm hand.  He lived with the families for whom he worked, typically during the “farm season”, March-November.  Some years he stayed on through the winter, if there was work available at that time.  His farm work took him to a number of states: Butler, in far western Missouri; Huntington, West Virginia; Victor, Iowa; Lincoln, Illinois; and finally in September 1924 to Chesterfield, Illinois.

During the autumn of 1924, Carl worked as a day laborer for several different farmers around Chesterfield.  In April 1925 he moved in with the Thomas L. Dowland family to work as the “hired farm hand”, at $40.00 per month.  Tom and Edna Dowland had two children, Evelyn, 17, and Wendell, 9.  Carl eventually became more than the “hired man.”  In August 1926 he and Evelyn were married.  For the first year of their marriage, they lived with her cousin two miles to the south, while Carl continued to work for Tom during the farming season.  In the winter, Carl cut fence posts for another farmer, Ed Carter, who owned considerable near-by timber land.  In 1928 Carl and Evelyn moved to a small three-room house, the “Doughty House”, a quarter of a mile southwest of Tom and Edna, while Carl continued to work for Tom and Ed.

Farming for themselves

In the autumn of 1930, Carl made arrangements with Evelyn’s great uncle, Robert (“Bob”) H. Rigsby, to take over farming, “on the half’s” of his 220 acre farm, a mile west of Tom and Edna.  The farm comprised of 160 acres of tillable land and approximately 40 acres of pasture.  The rest of the land was taken up by the house and yard, the hog, horse, and cattle lots, and a garden.  There were sheds and pens for raising hogs and a cattle barn and a lot sufficient for feeding out 35-50 head of steers each year.  A farm of 160 acres of tillable land was an average sized Midwestern Illinois crop-livestock farm in the days of horse-drawn equipment.

Figure 1 - Map of Farm

Fig. 1.  Map showing boundaries of the farm.  The square lines represent one mile square sections (640 acres within each).  This map is from an 1895 plat map; James Rigsbey owned the farm at that time.  He sold it to Robert Rigsbey in 1900.  The red lines inscribe the boundaries of the farm.  The hatched-lined area is pasture land and that taken up by the house, barns, and lots for livestock.  The “timothy field” was planted to timothy in the autumn of 1932 and remained in timothy the remainder of the time.  The red numbers are the houses mentioned in the narrative: 1, Bob Rigsbey farm house; 2, Tom Dowland house; 3, Doughty house.

Carl and Evelyn lived on the farm, were responsible for the farm work, including providing the equipment, hired hands, “incidental expenses”, and up-keep of the buildings and lots.  They shared the other operating expenses and the income with Bob on a 50:50 basis.  Minor income, as from selling chickens and eggs, milk and cream, and calves from the milk cow, was not shared; neither was garden produce.  Carl and Evelyn moved onto the farm in late autumn of 1930.  The winter wheat already had been planted that autumn by Bob and was not part of the arrangement.  Bob took care of the expense of harvesting the crop in July 1931 and retained all income.  Bob had a boar and several brood sows that were used to start the hog production.  He did not ask Carl to assume half of the worth of the breeder hogs.  By 1930 Carl was sufficiently well-known in the community as to be able to obtain on his own recognizance a loan of $1,000 from a distant relative of Evelyn to purchase the necessary equipment and horses to start farming.

Carl and Evelyn Getz 1932

Fig. 2.  Carl and Evelyn Getz. The photograph was taken in summer of 1932.  They are standing outside the Bob Rigsbey farm house

The farm

During the 10-year period of this account (1931-1940), a basic corn-wheat-red clover crop rotation was in place on the farm.  A 30 acre field was planted in timothy in autumn 1932 and remained in timothy during the rest of the period of this account to provide hay for the livestock.  The remainder of the acreage was in the rotational system, with approximately one third, each, in corn, wheat, and clover each year.  During most years, 2-3 acres of the wheat acreage were planted to oats or barley for food for the horses.  Two years he planted a few acres of the clover acreage to “hay beans”, and one year to alfalfa, for cattle fodder.

All of the corn grown on the farm was used to feed the livestock, primarily the “feeder cattle” and hogs.  The corn crop was insufficient to meet the feed requirements, however; between 500-1,200 bushels of ear corn were purchased each year to supplement that grown on the farm.  The wheat crop was sold to the Chesterfield Cooperative Elevator for cash income.  During the ten years of this account the wheat was cut and bundled by a horse-drawn wheat binder and placed in shocks until threshed.  A near-by farmer, Lewis (“Push”) Banks, owned a threshing machine and made the rounds of the six to eight farmers in a “threshing ring”, spending three days or so threshing at each farm.  The straw from the threshing was blown into stacks near the cattle barn and used for bedding in the barns.

One hay crop of clover (“stubble clover”, the clover that had been sown into the wheat during the previous winter; some of the wheat stubble left standing in the field was mixed in with the clover hay) was cut in the autumn of the year the wheat was harvested.  The following year, the one or two hay crops were harvested and put in the barns as loose hay.  The last clover crop was let go to seed and the seed threshed by a clover “separator”, similar to the threshing machine, but designed to separate out smaller seed, such as clover.  That which was not needed to plant in the wheat field that winter was sold.  The first crop of timothy hay was placed in large stacks in the pasture near the field.  The timothy hay was brought to the barns and used to feed the cattle and horses.  In February 1937, Carl baled some of the timothy to make it easier to move it to the feed lots.   The last timothy crop usually was let go to seed and threshed and the seed sold.

The records

I have copied the records of annual income and expenses for 1931-1940, down to the penny, just as Carl entered them in a ledger book.  The economics of the time were such that even a penny was a significant sum of money.  These entries are for the entire farming operation, as shared by Carl and Bob.  There is no record of the minor income—from sale each year of the calf from the milk cow (they had only one milk cow at a time) each year, sale of eggs, cream, and chickens.  Such income would not have exceeded $100.

For most of the years the main sources of income were from the sale of the wheat crop, the hogs, and the cattle.  Wheat prices ranged from 37 cents to 96 cents during the ten years and return from the crop varied from $197 in 1932 to $1,292 in 1937.  Although there was little cost in planting and maintenance of the wheat crop, labor costs for shocking ($30-$65 for extra help, in addition to the wages of the hired hand) and for threshing the wheat ($25-$230 each year) reduced considerably the net profit.

Annual Farm Income

The cost of purchase of the “feeder steers” was recorded, but Carl did not attempt to record separately the proportion of the purchased corn that was used to feed the steers.  Since the hogs were raised from pigs born to the brood sows, there was no initial costs to be deducted from the hog sales.  The primary expense for the hog production was the cost of corn purchased for feed.  As for the cattle, there is no record of the proportion of purchased corn used solely for hog feed.  We can only incorporate the total amount of corn purchased into the calculations of the overall expenses to determine the net income for any year.  Other lesser amounts of shared income and the sources are listed as per Carl’s entries in the ledger book.  The major shared expenses, in addition to the purchase of feeder steers and eared corn, included “tankage” (ground dried animal carcasses), seed beans, corn, and alfalfa, cottonseed cake, and threshingcosts.  All minor shared expenses are listed.

Annual Farm Expenses

All years, Carl had one “hired man”, who was paid by the month and provided room and board in addition to the monthly wages.  The monthly wage varied between $20-$30/month during the ten years.  Carl also hired “extra help” on a daily basis during times he and the “hired hand” could not do all the work.  Such times included shocking wheat, cutting and shocking corn, putting up hay, and speeding up working of the ground and planting crops in the spring.  A few years, he would hire extra help when the wheat was threshed.  However, hired hands of the others in the “threshing ring” shared much of the necessary help for threshing.  I have listed the “hired hand” and his wages/month, the “Extra help” (total number of individuals hired, the total days worked), and the total wages for each year.

Hired Hands Summary

Carl kept a detailed list of the incidental expenses (equipment repair, purchase of such things as nails, lumber, replacement “sections” [blades] for sickle bars, sharpening of plow shears, replacement parts for the farm equipment, harness repair, etc.) only for 1937.  Based on this list, it appears that $175 per year was a reasonable estimate of the annual amount for the incidental expenses.  I have not recopied this list; it is availble in its original form in the scanned ledger sheets.

Incidental Operating Expenses for 1937 (pdf)

Bob had sold all his equipment and horses when he retired from farming, thus he contributed no equipment or horses for Carl to use.  Carl listed the equipment he purchased and the price for each item needed to start farming in 1931 and for additional equipment purchased during each of the subsequent nine years.  This equipment is itemized as Carl recorded the information in the ledger.  Carl borrowed a few necessary pieces of equipment (e.g., wheat drill, manure spreader) from neighbors the first year or two, before buying his own.

Farm Equipment Purchased

Scanned original ledger entries

Carl’s original ledger sheets have been scanned and placed on the web site.  He recorded on one page all his equipment costs and the price of each piece of equipment or horses he bought.  Carl  kept a running account for each day of the items purchased and the amount and for each source of income and the amount.  At the end of the year, he made a clean ledger copy of the shared expenses and income.  These clean ledger copies were scanned.  In addition, the original listings of the regular full-time hired men and all the “extra help” men have been scanned and placed in the web site.  The original ledger listings of the incidental expenses for 1937 were also scanned.

Equipment Purchases (jpg)

Expenses/Income (pdf)

Hired Hand Summary (pdf)

Incidental Operating Expenses for 1937 (pdf)

Start-up

Carl spent $973.65 the first year for the necessary equipment to begin farming; most of the equipment was new, only a few items were used.  Over half of funds were used to purchase two teams of horses and a team of mules.  In 2008 dollars, his start up costs for all the equipment and horses to start farming were $13,781.04.

Income

In addition to the detailed itemized lists, the annual figures are compiled and summarized in respect to the total income and expenses for the farm, and Carl’s net income, taking into account money he spent on hired hands and extra help, incidental expenses, and equipment (Table 1).  Because there was no shared cash crop the first year and the hogs were not ready to for the market until January 1932, there was no income from the farm for Carl and Evelyn in 1931.  They had a net loss of $2,121.60 for that year.

For the years 1932-1940, the net annual income for the farm ranged from approximately $1,281 in 1936 to $4,980 in 1937.  This amounted to a net profit of $8.00 to $31.12 per acre of tillable land; most years the net profit was $9-15/acre.  In 2008 dollars the total net income for the farm ranged from $19,922 in 1936 to $74,705 in 1937, or $125-$467 per acre, within the same range as for the county (Macoupin) today (2008).  Because he realized only half the net total farm income and from that had to bear the costs of the incidental expenses, hired hands, and equipment, Carl’s overall net income ranged from only $312 in 1935 to $2,194 in 1937, or in 2008 dollars, from $4,904 to $32,919.  For five of the nine years his income averaged $623, about $9,725 in today’s (2008) dollars.

Year

Gross Shared Income

Shared Expenses

Net Shared Income

Carl’s Share of Income

Hired Hands
Wages

Incidental Expenses

Equipment Purchases

Net Farm Income

Carl’s Net Income

1931

0

1,658.40

-1,658.40

-829.20

143.75

175.00

973.65

---

-2,121.60

1932

3,610.31

1,564.95

2,045.36

1,022.68

126.87

175.00

50.00

1,693.49

670.81

1933

4,180.50

1,297.80

2,882.70

1,441.35

165.04

175.00

200.00

2,342.66

901.31

1934

4,492.13

1,483.65

3,008.48

1,504.24

193.75

175.00

10.50

2,629.23

1,124.99

1935

5,612.25

3,594.83

2,017.42

1,008.71

296.40

175.00

225.00

1,321.02

312.31

1936

5,972.75

4,283.23

1,689.52

844.78

233.37

175.00

0

1,281.15

436.41

1937

8,887.18

3,316.13

5,571.05

2,785.52

331.10

175.00

85.00

4,979.95

2,194.42

1938

5,211.72

2,464.67

2,747.05

1,373.52

335.35

175.00

110.00

2,126.70

753.18

1939

5,759.16

3,153.14

2,606.02

1,303.01

279.82

175.00

160.00

1,991.20

688.19

1940

6,695.21

3,437.05

3,258.16

1,629.08

233.67

175.00

110.00

2,739.49

1,110.41

Table 1.  Summary of annual income, expenses, and total net income for the farm (Net Farm Income) and for Carl’s portion (Carl’s Share of Income).  The costs of the hired hands, incidental expenses (repair and maintenance of the farm equipment and of the fences and buildings on the farm), and equipment were the responsibility of Carl, reducing his net income, accordingly.  The only year he itemized incidental expenses was 1937; the total cost for that year was $177.33.  This approximate amount ($175) is deducted from his share of the net income of the farm to estimate his overall net return from the farming operation each year.  There was no shared income for the first year of the arrangement, 1931.  The only cash income for the year was the winter wheat crop; this had been planted by the owner of the farm, Robert Rigsbey, the previous autumn and was his income alone.

Survival

A large garden provided much of Carl and Evelyn’s food.  Peas, beans, carrots, cucumbers (most made into pickles), tomatoes, squash, and beets were available during the summer and were canned for use during the winter.  Rows of onions provided green onions in the summer and those that were left to grow formed large globular onions that were tied in bundles and hung in the cellar for use in the winter.  Wild raspberries and blackberries from patches in the pasture on the farm and on Tom’s farm were picked and canned.  Cherries from a large sour cherry tree at the edge of the garden were canned and used to make cherry pies throughout the year.  Leaf lettuce, spinach, and radishes from the garden were used during the summer.  Young ears of field corn were picked for “roasting ears” during the summer.  A large potato patch supplied white and sweet potatoes throughout the year.

Twenty to thirty laying hens were kept to provide eggs, a few of which were sold.  Frying chickens, raised from eggs from the laying hens or from young chicks purchased from Sears and Roebuck mail order catalog, supplied meat during the summer and autumn; some were also sold.  A few of the chickens were held into the winter for baked chicken.  One milk cow provided milk most of the year and a small amount of cream for sale now and then.  As indicated above, the one calf born each year was sold.  One or two hogs, each, for Carl and Bob were butchered in winter for additional meat.  The hams and bacon slabs were sugar cured and hung inside oiled paper bags in an old smoke house.  The farm did not have electricity during the ten years of the account and commercial frozen locker storage was not yet available.  Sausage was fried and canned in jars; other cuts were also cooked and canned.  Lard was rendered from the intestinal mesenteries and sides of the “belly” for use for frying food.

Living

Regardless of the scarcity of money during the depression, people still had to have a life, or to be able to spend at least an hour or so now and then when they could forget their financial stresses.  Any relaxation and entertainment were restricted by the limited available resources, of course.  Carl and Evelyn were no exception.  Although Carl had not gone beyond the eighth grade, he was a avid reader.  Because there was no money for magazine subscriptions, they traded hams or slabs of bacon to magazine salesmen for subscriptions to the Prairie Farmer, Colliers, Saturday Evening Post, and the American Magazine.

In general there was little or no money for entertainment.  There were, however, free events or ones with minimal charges they could attend.  Every Saturday night during the summer, there was a free movie in the Chesterfield town square, sponsored by the town stores.  In winter they made infrequent visits to a movie at the Marvel Theater (35 cents) in Carlinville, 12 miles away.  Square dances were held once a week at various farm houses or the Chesterfield Grade School gymn during most of the year.  The women would bring sandwiches, pies, cakes, tea, lemonade, and coffee for those attending.  Carl was one of the regular “callers” at these square dances.

Carl, Evelyn, and Lowell Getz in 1938

Fig. 3.  Carl, Evelyn, and their son, Lowell. The photograph was taken in summer of 1938.

Epilogue

With the coming of World War II, farm prices increased and the income for Carl and Evelyn grew accordingly.  By the early 1940s they were able to achieve an adequate life style and by the end of the war Carl was able to pay off all his debts.  Carl also acquired more equipment, including a tractor and all the necessary accessory equipment, a combine, and a truck.  He was now almost completely self-sufficient.

Bob Rigsbey died in January 1946 and the farm was purchased by a neighboring farmer, John Kallal.  Carl and Evelyn moved two miles to the north to begin farming for cash rent while Carl gradually increased the acreage he farmed.  In March 1956, Carl was diagnosed with lung cancer; he died in August 1956.  Evelyn moved to a house in Chesterfield that had been left her by an Uncle.  There she lived until she passed away in August 1985.

Concluding remarks

The situation Carl and Evelyn Getz found themselves in and the conditions they endured were really no different from those of most Midwestern farm families during the 1930s.  The exception was that Carl and Evelyn started farming for themselves at the very beginning of the depression.  They had to live with the initial debt throughout the depression years, until the war brought higher farm prices.  As for their day-day life-style during the depression, it was no different than that of the other farmers who already were established at the beginning of the depression.  Those farmers also had to deal with the very low prices and extreme scarcity of money.  Most were still feeling the adverse effects of the farm recession of the 1920s when the even more drastic depression of the 1930s hit them.  Many other farmers in the vicinity worked smaller farms, some as small as 80 acres.  Their income was accordingly lesser.  Still, they, too, endured.  Even though there was little money to buy material things, at least farmers were able to provide for much of their own food and necessities from the farm itself.  This allowed them to survive more independently than those living in towns and cities, where they were unable to provide their own food.

Because of the economics of farming today, we will never again experience farm families attempting to survive on the income from 160 acres of tillable land. Much greater acreage must be farmed to recover the costs of equipment and still realize a profit.  Current equipment costs are almost beyond belief.  What could one buy with the $13,781.04 (2008 dollars) Carl spent for all the necessary means to start farming 160 acres (a typical sized farm for the 1930s)?  And, he spent only $29,824.32 in 2008 dollars on equipment over the entire 10 years.  The need to buy supplies in bulk amounts also necessitates farming large acreage to turn an adequate profit.  Carl’s account of the exact amount of income from the various sources and itemized expenses each year during the depression of the 1930s provides a detailed insight into what specifically was involved in the “last hurrah” of the small farmer.  His accounts document precisely what small family farmers had to make do with during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

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