Luverne: The Great Depression, by L.A. Marsden

11 Nov

Luverne: The Great Depression

a true story by Lawrence A. Marsden

The Great Depression came to the farm lands quietly. No fan fare. No leaps from high buildings. Just a slow, plodding erosion in farm prices due to ever-increasing stores of grain and more and larger feeder lots bulging with cattle.

Our town was in the heart of the farm community. Main Street existed for the Saturday forays by the farm folk. Nelson’s Department Store, the only one serving the 2,500 townspeople, could outfit you with denim overalls – the kind with the crossed suspenders in the back – with longjohn underwear and even the new and shocking BVDs (known to the locals as baby’s ventilated diapers). And this was only the start. Whatever you needed you could find in that store, whether a dress for a wedding, a suit for Sundays, or shingles and red paint for the barn.

Out front Nelson’s had benches on the sidewalk. While the women shopped, the menfolk would sit and discuss the things of real importance to them. A prime topic was always the weather. In all my growing years in Luverne, I never remember a season where the weather was “just right.” It was always too wet or too dry, too hot or too cool. Corn should be knee-high by the Fourth of July. If it wasn’t, alack! If it was, the grasshoppers would probably get it. In short, always prepare for the worst, because it is probably going to happen.

With this type of cultural climate, it is easy to see in retrospect why the thirties didn’t cause panic in our area. There wasn’t much money, but shucks1, there never had been. No one went hungry because every farm had its garden, and every home in town did, too. Each farm had a few head of milking cows, and on the Saturday visits each farmer would bring in any surplus to the cooperative creamery to swap for butter and cottage cheese. Come Fall and the advent of cold weather, each farm family would butcher a steer and a hog or two. Momma would busy herself canning stew beef to go with the beans, peas and corn already straining the pantry shelves. Poppa would salt and smoke hams and sides of bacon. No one – but absolutely no one – ever wanted for something to eat.

We did have a County Poor Farm, so named not because the land and buildings weren’t good, but because a place was needed to house and feed the few indigents who had no place else to turn. The Farm was really a beauty. Located right on the ede of town, the house was a large frame building replete with the cupolos and ginerbread [woodwork] of the Victorian era. The base color was a pastel yellow trimmed in white. The outbuildings consisted of a dairy barn, a hog house, a chicken coop, a machine shed, a silo and a corn crib. Each person staying at the Farm had his or her share of work to do. They weren’t accpetin charity; they were actually earning their keep. The Farm was really run as a business, and has been continued up to and including today2. In all those years it has been able to sell its surplus production and has never cost the county taxpayers a dime.

But – it was an absolute disgrace for a family to have a member staying there. This was a day of self-reliance and family pride. You took care of your own. Never mind if you couldn’t afford it or it was “inconvenient.” You simply couldn’t hold your head up if you had kin folk at the Farm.

So who stayed there. It was simple. Only those with no family ties in the area. Most of the time, the Farm was short-handed for labor.

Life went on in Luverne. Inhabitants of the town were trades people who served the farm community. As in every society, there were those who did worse that average and those who did better than average. Unskilled labor went for a dollar a day. Skilled labor, such as carpenters and plumbers, earned about $25 a week – each week consisting of at least forty-eight hours. Professionals, of course, did better. And so did the few entrepreneurs who owned their own businesses. The Nelson family had the largest house in town, a frame Colonial occupying an entire city block. The owners of the grain elevators and of the two bans fared well, too. As usual, the few doctors and dentists stayed very busy, but few became wealthy. This was the day of the house call and of the Hippocratic Oath. No patient was refused help because he couldn’t pay. In many cases, payment was literally made with butter and es, and many a Sunday dinner featured a roasting hen traded for a tooth extraction or the setting of a broken arm. Lawyers, too, played an important part in the area. But the backbone of Luverne society came from the land.

Southwestern Minnesota was settled in the late 1800’s by the pioneers rushing to the opening of the Dakota Territory. From the 1870s through [President] Benjamin Harrison’s term in office, homesteaders flocked to the area. Most were satisfied with their alloted quarter sections (160 acres), but the aggressive ones who saw that the rich land could only increase in value, bought every parcel as it became available, borrowing against the future that land booms can bring. In the panic of 1890 (?)3, there were many [financial] wipeouts. But the few who managed to pull through became the core of who was who in Luverne.

Many of these people had strong ties in the East. Most were well educated and, during the good times from 1900 through 1920, were frequent visitors to the cultural centers in New York, Philadelphia and Boston. It was this group that brought the Chatauqua group to Luverne, and who sponsored live theater with the Clint and Bessie Robbins troupe4.

 My Great Aunt Vi was one of this cadre. A pioneer girl, she came to Rock County with her father and mother, homesteaded 160 acres, and spent the first year in a sod hut du from the treeless land. Heated by the sun in the summer and by buffalo chips in the winter, they survived not only the lelments but the Sioux Indian uprising of 1879 (?5). She later married Albert Barck, an attorney who was deeply into the land acquisition bit. Together they managed to put together land holdings comprising 22 farms, or a total of over 3,500 acres. Albert died in 1901, but Aunt Vi, who stood all of five feet tall, more than took his place. Costumed in black lace, her tiny waist corseted in to under twenty inches, her slender neck circled by a black velvet choaker with circular diamond pin, her long grey hair upswept into a bun topped off with the latest broad-brimmed hat – she was imperious. On her ample bosom was always attached a gold pince-nez. When the occasion arose, she could always squelch any business or social adversary by merely unreeling her glasses, holding them to her eyes with a glance that could be positively withering.

My mother and I came to live with Aunt Vi shortly after I was born in May of 1919. My father, Aunt Vi’s favorite nephew and business partner in some land ventures, had died in November of 1918 during the devastaing influenza epidemic of that year. In Aunt Vi’s eyes, I was eventually to take his place.

When the Depression years hit, I was all of thirteen. Nevertheless, I became her confidant. I learned that part of her land holdings had been sold in the early 1920s and that she had taken mortgages for much of the payment. On land farmed by tenants I learned which were not able to bring in enough income to cover taxes. Where cash rent was due, like the doctors and dentists, we took part of our payment in kind. I because her companion on trips to the various farms and, during harvesting, was her emmissary standing atop the threshing machine making sure that two out of every five bushels went into the landlord’s grain wagon.

Life went on, and life was generally good. Only two unpleasant incidents related to those years still stand out in my mind. One of her finest farms had been sold to a very industrious tenant named Elmer Sandstede6. During the good years of the ’20s he had prospered and, instead of payin off his mortgage had spent his money on building a fine house and, for those days, state-of-the-art outbuildings, including a very modern dairy barn equipped with automatic milking machines. He had borrowed heavily from the Rock County Bank, givin them a second mortgage on his property.

The year was 1933. Drought had hit much of the midwest in 1932, but rain surpluses remained high and prices of corn, oats and barley continued their downward trend. Sandstede became financially strapped. In early July he came by our house to talk to Aunt Vi. I sat in on the meeting.

“Mrs. Barck,” he began, “I am in real trouble. I owe the bank over two thousand dollars in back interest. They say that they are in trouble, too, and that they have to be paid. If I pay them, I can’t pay you. I just don’t know what to do.”

I knew that Aunt Vi had counted on the income from this particular mortgage since the farm itself had always been so productive. I new that she also had interest payments to meet on several ban loans. This normally stern, proper woman lifed her head, returned her pince-nez to its resting place on her bosom, sighed and replied in a quiet, resigned tone of voice, “Mr. Sandstede, we are all in this mess together. You do what you have to do. I can wait for my money.”

Sandstede, tears in his eyes, thanked her and left. The next morning we received a phone call from his wife. Late that night Elmer Sandstede had gone into his new dairy barn, put a shotgun to his head, and pulled the trigger.


1Marsden originally typed “Hell” here, and edited it. Midwestern morays, no doubt.

2This must have been true at the time of this writing. Cannot confirm nor deny the existance of a county poor farm in Luverne today. Here’s a link that features a postcard with a photograph of the Rock County Poor Farm in Luverne that Marsden refers to: http://www.poorhousestory.com/poorhouses_in_minnesota.htm

3The panic Marsden refers to is probably the Panic of 1893: http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h792.html

4An article on the couple. Note: 1983, used in the article, should probably be 1883. http://homestakeoperahouse.org/one-of-the-most-popular-groups-on-the-road-show-circuit

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6Marsden is inconsistent with the spelling of this gentleman, using Sandstedd and Sandstead as well. I use Sandstede.

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One Response to “Luverne: The Great Depression, by L.A. Marsden”

  1. neasha1 May 29, 2014 at 9:53 pm #

    What a blessing that you have these treasures from your father! :))

    ~~Neasha

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