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Unit 9


Changing Times

Lesson 1
Dust and Depression

People gathered around a radio
Photo from Ozarka Radio Catalogue, 1927


     For most Americans, everyday life changed after the First World War. Families sat around their new radios. They listened to KGFX in Pierre or WNAX in Yankton. They tuned in to radio stations in New York City and Denver. They heard about amazing things. There were electric irons and vacuum cleaners. Even stoves and washing machines were now run by electricity. In South Dakota, most families cooked on wood stoves. They washed their clothes by hand. Few had electricity, but they knew it was coming. It would make their lives easier, and at this time their lives were hard. Soon dust and depression made them even harder.

Woman Using Vacuum Cleaner
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society

     During the First World War, a bushel of wheat sold for over $2.00. Once the war was over, prices fell (you read about this in Unit 6). By the end of 1920, a bushel of wheat sold for just 97˘. Yet, the cost of farming stayed high. Farmers still had to pay for tools, seed, livestock, feed, and the land itself.

     Even before the war, South Dakota looked for ways to make the economy stronger. People’s lives would be better if they had more money. The state bought a coal mine in North Dakota. It built a cement plant near Rapid City. It sold gasoline from state service stations. Citizens could buy fuel and cement at lower prices. The state also started a rural credit system. It loaned money to farm families to help pay for their homes and land.

     Because farming was so hard, something more had to be done. Senator Peter Norbeck (you read about him in Unit 7) thought a new industry might help. It was called tourism. People from other places were already coming to the Black Hills. Tourists came to gaze at the Mitchell Corn Palace. To bring more visitors, Norbeck started Custer State Park. The state also released thousands of Chinese ring-necked pheasants in South Dakota. Soon there were large pheasant populations. The birds brought hundreds of hunters. Tourists and hunters brought more dollars to the state.

Farmer on a Drag
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society

Car in Badlands
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society

South Dakotans on the road
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society

     Still, the economy did not do well. South Dakota sold its coal mine. It gave up its gasoline program. The rural credit system failed, and hundreds of people lost their farms. Then in October 1929, the stock market crashed. The Great Depression swept over the whole country.

     Factories closed; people lost their jobs; and banks failed. Many families did not have enough money to pay for their houses or farms. Men moved from town to town, looking for work. Sometimes entire families packed up and moved to California, Oregon, or Washington. They thought life would be easier there. Instead, they found long lines of people looking for jobs. People were hungry, out of work, or even homeless. The Great Depression gripped the entire United States—and much of the world.

     In South Dakota, the land itself seemed to dry up with the economy. Terrific dust storms swept across the plains. This area became known as the Dust Bowl.  At nine o’clock in the morning, streetlights came on. "It was as dark as midnight," said a man from Sioux Falls.  Great gusts of wind drove dust under doors, around window frames, and through cracks in the walls. It covered everything—inside and out. Mrs. Ben Huggins from Geddes remembered that "the dust was so thick on the bedspread, you couldn’t tell what color it was."


Dust Drifts Near Lake Byron
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society


     Outside, dust drifted over fence posts like snow. Topsoil blew away; crops failed. Then the grasshoppers came. "They came and stripped the lilac bushes, just stripped them right off," said Mrs. Huggins. The grasshoppers ate everything—garden vegetables, wheat, and corn. Many people had to give up their farms. When the Great Depression began, there were 692,894 people living in South Dakota. Almost fifty thousand moved away in the next ten years.

crashed (v.), failed; lost its value

depression (n.), a period of business failure and lack of jobs

economy (n.), the system of making, buying, and selling goods and services

gripped (v.), kept a firm hold on something

released (v.), let go

rural (adj.), of the country

topsoil (n.), the top layer of soil that is fertile