After four years of economic depression, farmers across the country were looking for new, and sometimes radical solutions to their problems. Nebraska was the center for some of the most radical events, and the movement culminated in violence at Loup City.
As early as 1932, some farmers were trying to raise agricultural prices by physically keeping produce off of the market. The theory was that if farmers could reduce the supply, demand would rise and prices would rise in response.
In Iowa and Nebraska, a group known as the Farm Holiday movement built road blocks on the highways leading to the agricultural markets in Omaha, Sioux City and Des Moines. They dumped milk into ditches. They turned back cattle. But the blockades weren’t effective, and police eventually opened the roads.
In Madison County in northeast Nebraska, angry farmers organized into the Madison County Plan. They were credited with inventing the penny auction idea. As the Depression continued, some in Madison County began listening to a fiery Communist organizer, “Mother” Ella Reeve Bloor. Mother Bloor had come to the Midwest to build alliances between urban workers and radical farmers. Throughout 1933 and ’34, she spoke often in Nebraska, from Madison County to Loup City and Grand Island in the central part of the state.
In February 1933, thousands of farmers marched on the new capitol building in Lincoln demanding a moratorium on all farm foreclosures. The Legislature responded within a month and halted foreclosure sales for two years. However, they allowed district judges to decide how long a foreclosure could be postponed or to order the proceedings to go forward anyway. Radical farmers were furious when the first test case ended with the judge ordering a sale to go forward.
Frustration continued to mount. Supporters of the Madison County Plan claimed that they had 30,000 card-carrying members. Mother Bloor continued to try to recruit them into the Communist Party.
In Loup City, there were two clearly defined factions and each had a newspaper telling its side of the story. One newspaper, The Standard, demanded higher farm prices, cancellation on payment of feed and seed loans, a moratorium on mortgages and reduced taxes. The other paper, The Times, called for the “American Legion boys of Sherman County” to become vigilantes and not “allow a communist to come to Loup City, speak from a platform in the district court room, openly insult every Legion boy by calling them ‘cowards’ because they dared fight for their country’s flag.”
Mother Bloor kept coming back, sometimes in the company of an African American couple from Grand Island, Mr. and Mrs. Floyd Booth, who were also Communist organizers.
In June, 1934, the government designated Loup City and Sherman County as one of the worst drought areas of the plains. That same month, young women who were working as chicken pluckers in a local creamery plant were talking about striking for better pay. Mother Bloor, the Booths, and others from Grand Island announced they would travel to Loup City and speak in support of the strike.
When they arrived on June 14th, Flag Day, they spoke in the town square, and then marched to the creamery where the managers of the plant gave in to some of the demands, but refused to recognize any kind of union representation. The radicals marched back to the town square.
They were followed. A group of locals and guards from the plant confronted the farmers. Someone yelled, “Hey Rube” which apparently a signal. Suddenly, the two groups were fighting each other. Fists flew. Blackjacks made of bars of soap in stockings knocked several people unconscious. Some were carried to the hospital. Others fled in their cars and trucks. The rally was over.
The Times rejoiced about how “Red blooded citizens in Sherman county displayed their loyalty to the Stars and Stripes last Thursday when they drove ‘Red’ invaders who came here looking for trouble out of Loup City.” The article suggests that there may have been an element of racism in the action when the paper said, “there are not over a dozen farmers in Sherman County who are in favor of importing a colored man from Grand Island [Booth] or anywhere else to stir up trouble for them.”
Mother Bloor and her supporters were arrested, tried and given jail sentences and fines. They appealed and lost all the way up to the Nebraska Supreme Court.
Gradually, the New Deal programs began to make a difference. More people had some sort of job, and radicalism began to fade.
Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.