“Everybody was in the same boat.”: Remembering the Great Depression

05 May 2020

Most Americans regard the Great Depression as a phenomenon that began in 1929 with the stock market crash and continued until the beginning of World War II. On the Great Plains, however, the problems went much deeper, and the hard times began much earlier. An agricultural depression of considerable magnitude was under way by 1923 and continued without break until 1939. During the 1920s, crops were good, but prices were depressed, and many expansion loans made during World War I were called in but could not be paid. Much of the banking system failed, and many independent farmers and ranchers became tenants. Thus, the depression of the 1930s hit an area already in bad economic shape. And with it came other horrors—in particular, drought.1

Whether through tales from grandparents or second-hand accounts, stories of South Dakotans surviving the Great Depression haven been woven into our collective memory.  Now, as we face an uncertain future, the recollections of those who lived through turbulent times can provide support for the present.

In the 1989 South Dakota History article “South Dakotans Remember the Great Depression” edited by Gerald W. Wolff and Joseph H. Cash, South Dakotans who experienced the uncertainty of the Great Depression recalled how they dealt with the stresses of the  time. When interviewer Stephen Ward asked Ella Boschma if there were “a lot of people very despondent,” she highlighted both a feeling of togetherness and the need to keep moving forward similar to what people are seeing today during the COVID-19 pandemic:

“Not too many. I mean, everybody was in the same boat. . . . I know my niece and husband came over, and I was out in the trees. We planted a lot of little trees. I was out there hoeing around them trees, and they asked, ‘What are you doing?’ Just keep busy, you know, do something.”

Gladys Pyle, interviewed by Paul O’Rourke in 1971, echoed this sentiment:

“We were like everybody else; we were trying to hang on as best we could, and get our taxes caught up, and not lose anything. That was just universal.”

As these oral histories taken in the decades after the Great Depression show, South Dakotans grappled with the natural extremes and economic hardships of the era. Many lost their farms and left the state. Others moved to town and fought to survive.

dustbowlbookofdays_coverimage.jpgComing at the end of May, a new book from the South Dakota Historical Society Press will offer a personal account drawn from the diaries of a woman living through the Dirty Thirties. In A Dust Bowl Book of Days, 1932, author Craig Volk uses the Depression-era writings and memories of his grandmother, Margaret Spader Neises, and mother, Joan Neises Volk, to invite readers into the day-to-day life of Margaret as she cares for her family. She bears witness to her husband’s work struggles, her children’s illnesses, and forces of nature beyond her control. Margaret’s fears give rise to pithy, poignant observations. Whether documenting the escapades of a young temptress, her family’s attempts to stay one step ahead of the banker, or her own whimsies, Margaret creates a vivid portrait of her life in simple prose. You can learn more about this era of South Dakota history by reading A New Deal for South Dakota: Drought, Depression, and Relief, 1920–1941 by R. Alton Lee.

—Jennifer E. McIntyre


1. Excerpted from the introduction of “South Dakotans Remember the Great Depression” by Gerald W. Wolff and Joseph H. Cash. Access the entire article, for free, online at sdhspress.com/journal.

Taken in 1932, the image at top is of a dust storm hitting Mitchell, South Dakota. Dakota Wesleyan University