Commodity Prices During the Depression Era

Illinois man discusses the fluctuations in commodity prices that impoverished many farmers during the Depression Era
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The Depression Era did not arrive on a specific day, various economic indicators were evident some years earlier. My dad often discussed neighboring farmer friends losing their land at the conclusion of World War I when commodity prices dropped, making it impossible for them to pay for land that they had purchased at an inflated $600.00 per acre, and they also lost their original smaller farms in the 1920s.

A new neighbor persuaded my dad to buy the new Fordor Ford Sedan in 1923 for $750.00, but he didn't like that car so he traded it in on a new 1924 model 4-cylinder Buick which was $1,040.00. Then dad bought a new 1924 Fordson Tractor including a new Oliver two bottom breaking plow for $465.00 total. There was no sales tax in that era. In 1925 my mother bought a Kodak folding 2 A Brownie Camera at E M. Leslie's store for $9.50, reduced from $10.00 the preceding week when the War Tax from World War I was taken off such items. Prices are given to indicate values on what I remember of a bygone era.

EM. Leslie's store was closed when he went broke, and the bank beside it had failed. Mom met an old neighbor coming out of the bank so he told us that this was the saddest day of his life, because bank regulators required all stockholders to sign over all of their properties, so he lost his farm.

We had little idea of the impending depression other than my dad grumbling about $8.00 for a fat hog. A grain elevator went bankrupt so my dad lost around $400.00, being as unsold grain always goes into the bankruptcy settlement, so he got nothing. Remember, that was nearly the price of a new tractor. On dollar day Robeson's sold Headlight brand bib overalls for $1.00 per pair, so dad bought a pile high enough to last for a year. We knew nothing of designer labels, we didn't have a new faded look, and bought a larger size due to shrinkage, because Sanforizing was not known. Blue chambray shirts were 75ft, canton flannel husking gloves were 98ft per dozen, a 100 lb. bag of potatoes was $1.00, a

48 lb. bag of flour was in a cloth bag for 98ft, and a 100 lb. bag of sugar was $4.00 in a cloth bag inside a strong burlap bag. My dad's lost grain could have bought a lot of things.

The 1928 election concealed the hard times. Republican candidate Herbert Hoover talked of two cars in every garage, and prosperity was just around the corner. My dad was a fourth generation Democrat, and I well remember a neighbor man yelling at me in glee that my dad's candidate had lost, but that man's joy was short-lived.

A bank on the north side of Main Street in Urbana failed in 1929, and it reached right into my school class. The president of the bank was prosecuted, and sent to prison, but his son continued to school for awhile. We were not affected at home by the bank failure, but some depositors lost their life savings, and one committed suicide. The bank president was sent to prison for eight years, and everyone in the community was upset that a man who stole chickens to feed his starving family received fifteen years in prison, a travesty of justice. Lester L. Corrie, being an Urbana businessman, persuaded banks to close for a week. He had Urbana Money printed which was guaranteed redeemable at face value, so I remember we used some of it until the banks reopened.

I can't really say that the Stock Market Crash of 1929 had any immediate effect on us. The Republicans and the Democrats were blaming each other for the hard times. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a convincing orator so he won the election in an overwhelming landslide. Men who held State jobs were dismissed to make way for Democrats.

March 20, 1933, brought widespread changes when Roosevelt was sworn into his first term as President of the United States. A moratorium on banks was ordered, all were closed to begin reforms, Mom said we had $2.00 in cash in the house, but we did survive. Bank deposits came in under the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, abbreviated FDIC, which is still very much in effect. A depositor who has less than $100,000.00 is insured for the' full amount. A bank may close, making it very inconvenient for him for a few days, but he will get back every cent. The inaugural of President Roosevelt was barely over when Congress repealed the Volstead Act, more commonly known as Prohibition, or the selling of liquor in the United States. The very first day that taverns were permitted to sell liquor, some high school boys skipped school. Not one was past eighteen. I didn't waste time or money on it.

The darkest days of the depression came during Roosevelt's first year. People were in severe financial straits, jobless and broke. Sweeping changes for farmers did keep some from losing their farms. There was a corn hog program which was controversial. When city folks were starving, pigs were killed, and bodies were burned or buried to bring hog prices up to a profit. My dad would not participate. He continued the same way he had operated all of his life. We got no government subsidies at all. Others did get subsidies.

Getting a job was impossible from the farm, so the government had the Civilian Conservation Corps established. No chance for my dad, because he had land, but his cousin's son got to go because he was only a hired farmhand. It was called CCC.

President Roosevelt spoke frequently on the radio, referred to as Fireside Chats. One was memorable. He said to all farmers in danger of losing their farms, "You write me a letter tonight giving particulars, and I will see what I can do to save the farm."

The NRA was signed into law by President Hoover in his last year, so President Roosevelt implemented it under the true name of The National Recovery Act. Evidences were in store windows where participating businesses displayed posters NRA with a Blue Eagle emblem under which was printed BUY AMERICAN in large letters until World War II broke out.

Did anyone foretell the depression? Certainly, noted economist Roger Babson had predicted it, but was ignored. Nobody would have ever heard of him if the depression had never occurred.

I claim the depression lasted into World War II.

I have learned that the youth should listen to their loving parents, grandparents and older people for some words of wisdom. Those people should also listen carefully to their children, they might learn something.

Emmett Kirby
Champaign, Illinois


Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community. 

 


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