Having Fun during the Depression
Although the 1930s was a time of great hardship, people still found ways to have fun. For many during these years, having fun didn’t have to cost much. Everything was homemade – the food, the games, the music – there were even homemade portable dance floors. But traditional organized activities – like rodeo and football – were popular as well.
Neighbors got together to play cards and other games and to talk. Church socials and school programs gave people a chance to visit and maybe meet someone new. Soda fountains and local dances gave young people a chance to enjoy themselves and to go on dates.
Popular culture was alive and well at the movies and in music and dancing. Children read about Superman in Action Comics and followed the adventures of Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, and Terry and the Pirates in newspaper comic strips. Adults loved to read about the exciting lives of rich people in big cities.
Newspapers ran stories and pictures about high society events.
Mildred Opitz describes what “fun” meant to her as a newlywed in the 1930s, how neighbors gathered and shared their musical talents, and how people found ways to have fun for free. Alvin Apetz says they never felt poor because “you made your own entertainment.” Entertainment was one way to leave behind worries about crops, weather and money.
The radio connected country people and gave them an ear to the world. People liked listening to sports and news, as well as jazz and swing music. Singing telegrams were popular.
During the 1930s, football was almost as popular with Nebraskans as it is today. High school teams were sources of pride for entire communities and the University of Nebraska team was becoming a national force. D.X. Bible had been hired as the University of Nebraska football coach a few months before the October, 1929, Stock Market crash. Under coach Bible, the team won the Big-6 conference championship six years in a row. Many Nebraska players were tough young men who had grown up on dirt-poor farms and small towns.
In the late 30s, the Federal Writers Project captured the spirit of Nebraska football.
“Football in Nebraska is more than a diversion for college students. A State university game is an event talked about and eagerly followed by rural and urban fans. If the day of a football game is not too cold or rainy, the streets of Lincoln are sure to be jammed with people and cars, brightened with pennants and chrysanthemums. The highways are crowded for miles around. Broadcasts of games are picked up in almost every store and gas station from Omaha to the western border; farmers sometimes neglect their cornhusking in the afternoon to hear the game over the radio.” — Federal Writers Project (FWP) Guide
In 1936 Coach Bible moved to Texas and was replaced by “Biff” Jones, a U.S. Army major. In his first season, Biff’s team was ranked 9th in the new Associated Press football poll (1936), and they continued to do well. On December 1940, the Cornhuskers were invited to play in the Rose Bowl against second-ranked Stanford University. The team played in front of 92,000 screaming fans, the largest crowd ever to see a live Nebraska game. In a hard-fought game that included a fractured shin bone and two players knocked unconscious, Stanford won 13-7. The Stanford coach praised Nebraska’s team as “the toughest we met this year.” After only five years as head coach, Biff Jones was called back to West Point at the beginning of World War II.
Rodeos were another organized entertainment activity that remained vital through the Depression. Rodeos showed off some of the skills of cowboys who lived on the ranches in rural Nebraska. Interest in rodeo competitions began early in the settlement period and remained widespread across the Great Plains and West. One of the most popular rodeos was and still is hosted by the small town of Burwell, Nebraska. Again, the Federal Writers Project captured the spirit of rodeo in the 1930s.
“Rodeos held in various parts of the State when local finances allow (as in North Platte or Burwell) still attract good crowds. Purses, if high enough, draw excellent riders from all over the West. When Indians furnish part of the entertainment – generally with dances and ceremonials – the smell of dried meat hung out on lines in their camp is pungent and unforgettable.” – FWP Guide.
Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.