Migration Out of the Great Plains
During the Dust Bowl years, the weather destroyed nearly all the crops farmers tried to grow on the Great Plains. What few crops did survive sold at such low prices that farmers could not earn a living. Farmers who rented the land and farmhouse couldn’t pay rent, and farmers who owned their land couldn’t make payments. Parents packed up their children and belongings and moved West. Most Nebraskans moved to California, hoping to start a new life. Each year during the 1930s, the number of children starting first grade went down. The 1940 government census showed that about 65,000 people had moved out of the state of Nebraska during the “Dirty 30s.”
Alvin and Delbert Apetz knew farmers who couldn’t make payments on their land so the bank took over their farm. Many once-proud farmers packed up their families and moved to California hoping to find work as day laborers on huge farms.
Walter Schmitt had just graduated from high school in 1930. He says many farm day laborers (people who worked by the day or by the week) were unemployed and many began moving to California in search of a job. While it was hard to see his friends leave, he says, “If they couldn’t make it, what else could they do, really? Many of them had families… So, it was probably the only thing they could do. At that time in the cities, you know, there were people standing on the street corners selling apples and pencils, to try to make a living. And it was just as bad out here in the rural area – maybe not quite as bad. We’re a little closer to the soil. But, it was felt, very definitely. And it was felt in the business places in town.”
Helen Bolton’s family hung on throughout most of the 30s, but eventually had to leave for California. They found jobs in the defense industry, but eventually returned to Nebraska.
Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.