Topping Onions on the Family Farm: Growing up during the Great Depression

An Iowa woman talks about topping onions as a child while living on her family farm, and surviving the Great Depression

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Back in 1923 we lived on a family farm near Pleasant Valley, Iowa. Many farmers around there would put in an onion crop at that time and ask the area children to come top onions for 7 cents a bushel. I was 10 years old then. My mother took the five of us children to a neighbor's onion field and we all topped onions. At the end of the day I was paid a silver dollar, a half dollar and a quarter for 25 bushels topped. I was so thrilled. Of course we had to put half of it in our savings account. But we all kept topping onions for years. Most of us managed to top 100 bushels a day! Dad used his truck to haul the onions to the train depot. That kept the whole family busy for a couple of weeks each summer. It also taught us to save part of our money. We still had those bank accounts in 1932, when, on December 22nd of that year, our bank closed! We did get all our money gradually, and we kept on adding to our bank accounts.

In 1930 my sister and I graduated from Davenport High School. After that we taught in one-room schools. When the banks closed in 1932, I hadn't cashed my paycheck that month as I had signed up for life insurance. That made me the only one in the family who had some cash, my monthly paycheck of $95. The insurance agent didn't get his money for a couple of months after that, as we used what money we had to buy necessary groceries.

In later years, there were no longer any young people who were willing to top onions for such a small amount of money, so gradually the onion farmers all gave up! I am glad there was an opportunity like that for us. I am sure it taught us to save part of our money, and today we are much better off because of that.

Olivia M. Wiese
Davenport, Iowa


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.