Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Dirty Thirties: No Easy Street

Ernest Johnson Begins Farming

During the Depression era, independent farmers like my maternal grandfather, Ernest Johnson, found it increasingly difficult to earn a living from planting and harvesting, and frequently supplemented their income through other work. The following story tells how he coped and managed to keep his small farm through difficult economic times in the 1920s and 1930s.

Ernest and Esther Johnson in March 1917.
Fosston, Polk County, Minnesota.

My Grampa Johnson was a farmer in rural Minnesota from 1914-1945. Like his nine brothers and sisters, Ernest Johnson had a Norwegian accent all of his life, even though he and his siblings were all born in America. English was something primarily used at school and social functions, while Norwegian was spoken at home. Upon leaving his parents' farm in 1914, Ernest purchased a plot of land about three miles outside of Leonard, Minnesota in Clearwater County, where Mississippi headwaters trickle from Lake Itasca, mirroring lush pines and running crisp and clear on the long journey to the Delta in the Gulf of Mexico. When Ernest married Esther Agnes Berge on March 22, 1917, he brought his shy, deferential, and bespectacled bride to live on that small farm. In a little clapboard farmhouse with one room up and one room down, my aunt and mother were born, in 1918 and 1920, respectively.

The farmhouse where my mother was born near Leonard, Minnesota, ca. 1920.

Ernest Johnson lived down the road from his parents and some of his siblings. For many years, the creed among farmers, including his grandparents as Norwegian-American homesteaders, was that neighbor helped neighbor, and especially, family helped family. Family is the main reason Ernest's parents left behind a picturesque and productive farm in the green and forest-rimmed fields outside Fosston in Polk County, so that they could follow him and his older brother, Bennett, to Leonard, over twenty miles away. Keeping the family together was not only ideal, but prudent, especially when there was hard labor to be done on a regular basis.

Though the newlyweds were off to a good start, Ernest and Esther's marriage was tragically short. Before their younger daughter celebrated her second birthday, Esther fell mortally ill with tuberculosis and died in January 1922. As per their mother's deathbed request, the young girls were sent to live with their paternal grandparents down the road, Ole M. and Malla Johnson, in order to be close to their father as they grew. It was painfully obvious that Ernest would not have the time nor resources to care for his two young daughters as long as perpetual and solitary work awaited him in the fields. And, what of the autumn and winters, when he must travel here and there to bring in some kind of income? No, it was far better that the little tow-headed girls, Phyllis and Doris, be watched over by their grandparents and a maiden aunt, Mabel, who could help supervise them and make their clothing.

Phyllis and Doris Johnson, Sept. 1921.

Once again a bachelor, Ernest applied himself to whatever would bring in enough money to pay the bills and buy seed. He helped on his parents' and brothers' farms, grew what small crops he could, and took pleasure in training and caring for his horses. Ernest's young nephews and their friends delighted in visiting someone who was "batching it." They could also ride horses away from the critical eyes of their mothers, and Ernest helped their fun along with some of his tricks. His horses were trained to stop dead in their tracks when he snapped his fingers, which sometimes left young riders clinging frantically to whatever they could, like real bronco busters. Ernest Johnson's farm was also a place where boys might find some privacy to steal a taste of their first cigar, or make successful raids on the cooky jar without the usual repercusions at home. Ernest may have been a longtime widower, but he knew how to fend for himself in the kitchen. He made his own doughnuts and canned apples, peaches, and other fruit... and he always kept the cooky jar full, too.

Ernest Johnson shows off his prized team of horses, Tony and Birdie.
My grandfather was very fond of this photograph, taken on his farm
near Leonard, Minnesota, May 2, 1943.

Whenever he could, Ernest Johnson raised sheep and planted seed crops such as flax, clover, and alfalfa, using only horses and a plow. He hunted game and fished to supplement both his larder and his income. He often traveled away from Leonard to help with late summer harvests in the fields of South Dakota and also drove drays for logging companies in the forests of northern Minnesota--hiring himself out however he could. He was often away from home for months at a time, leaving family and neighbors to tend to his livestock, and he returned such favors for them. Truth be told, he even attempted a little bootlegging on the side, but it was thankfully a short-lived venture that ended when others blew up the still during his absence.

With the onset of the 20th Century and increased industry, family-run farms began to struggle. Ernest's father, Ole M. Johnson, had made a success out of his own farm without once using a tractor, but he'd had decades of early midwestern development to build upon his success and reputation. For Ernest's generation, when so many small farms reached for a foothold in existing markets, independence by farming was harder to achieve, especially when the stock market crash of 1929 darkened the forseeable future. When the money was gone and seasonal jobs were harder to find, Ernest Johnson, bachelor farmer, began to look long and hard at new federal programs created by President Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, and the promise of jobs with the Work Projects Administration (WPA). Unemployment insurance would not become available until after 1935, but even then, many farmers who were independently employed were not eligible for the "Dole," as it was often called.

To be continued in Part II...


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  2. Delia - Thanks so much; sorry for the delayed reply!