- October, 1929, the Stock Market crashes. Fortunes of investors around the world are destroyed. President Herbert Hoover, an Iowa native, is President of the United States. Many eventually blame him for the plight of Americans. Unemployed and homeless people live in shantytowns they name “Hoovervilles.”
- In 1931, the “Star Spangled Banner” becomes the country’s official national anthem.
- 1931: Gangster Al (“Scarface”) Capone is convicted of tax evasion after years of involvement in bootlegging and gambling, mostly in Chicago. In 1933, the nation repeals the constitutional amendment prohibiting the making, selling, possessing and consuming of alcoholic drinks. Prohibition had been the law since 1920, but was largely ignored by the public, making gangsters rich.
- 1932: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a democrat from New York, defeats Hoover for the presidency. In his first 100 days in office, Roosevelt launches the New Deal including dozens of federal programs to help agriculture. FDR calls for social security, a more fair tax system and a host of federal jobs programs to get people back to work.
- 1932: Nebraska’s state capitol is finished. Built in five phases over a 10-year period at a cost of about $10 million, the building is considered an architectural masterpiece. The large base layer represents the state’s plains, and the 400-foot tower symbolizes the pioneers’ dreams. On top of the tower is “the Sower,” a statue of a man sowing seeds, clearly showing the state’s agricultural roots. Birdie Farr’s father helped build Nebraska’s new capitol. He was in his early 20s and worked on the construction site for about two years while the family lived on an acreage near Bethany, a small town that was about five miles from Lincoln’s downtown and is now part of the city.
- 1933: Adolf Hitler becomes chancellor of Germany. Italian prime minister and dictator Benito Mussolini invades Ethiopia in 1935. Japan invades China in 1937. And Hitler marches into Austria in 1938. Germany, Japan, and Italy withdraw from the League of Nations.
- 1932: Amelia Earhart becomes the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1937 she is lost over the Pacific on a round-the-world flight. Her plane and the bodies of Earhart and her navigator are never found.
- In the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, a black Alabama native educated at Ohio State University, Jesse Owens, wins four gold medals. He breaks Olympic and world records, but German dictator Aldoph Hitler refuses to recognize the American’s achievements. Hitler had declared that the superior German Aryan race would dominate the games. He was wrong.
- 1936: King Edward VIII of England gives up his throne to marry Wallace W. Simpson, “the woman I love.” Simpson cannot become England’s Queen because she’s American and a divorcée.
- 1939: Germany invades Poland. Great Britain declares war on Germany. Soon, all of Europe is fighting. The U.S. enters the war in December, 1941, although FDR is supplying Britain and the allies with guns and material before that date.
- Between 1929 and 1932, the average American’s income drops 40 percent to about $1,500 per year. Milk costs 14 cents a quart, eggs are a nickel a dozen and bread costs 9 cents a loaf. During this decade, 86,000 businesses fail and 9,000 banks go out of business. In 1933 one-third of the U.S. working population is unemployed. By 1932, farm prices are about 65 percent of what they were about 20 years earlier.
Labor strife is widespread. In coal country, disputes between mine workers and operators turns deadly. A General Motors strike spreads to six states, putting 45,000 people out of work. Congress enacts the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, guaranteeing workers the right to join unions without managers retaliating. The Congress of Industrial Organizations representing mineworkers, steel, auto and rubber workers merges with the American Federation of Labor, forming the AFL-CIO.
1935: FDR goes on radio to talk directly with citizens and reassure them that the banking crisis has passed. This is his first “fireside chat” and it gave the President a way to bypass the traditional print media.
In 1938, Congress passes the Fair Labor Standards Act, at first, creating a 44-hour workweek. Later, the act moved to a 40-hour week. Minimum wages start at 25 cents an hour and increase to 40 cents per hour within six years.
1939: Oil is discovered in southeastern Nebraska helping to feed the growing demand for gasoline as more and more Americans buy cars.
- 1933: The Tennesee Valley Authority (TVA) is enacted into law. The project was championed by Sen. George Norris from Nebraska, and one of the first TVA dams was named after him. The massive project built tens of dams along the watershed to provide electrical power to the rural areas, control flooding, provide irrigation and create lakes for recreation.
- In a period of drought, major dam projects are completed across the country, in part to put people back to work. In 1936, the Hoover Dam (photo at right) across the Colorado River is completed. The dam supplies power to fast-growing Los Angeles and irrigation water to the Central Valley. In Nebraska, the Kingsley Dam is completed.
- 1937: The Great Flood overwhelms cities along the Ohio River. Two years earlier, the Republican River flood in Nebraska killed hundreds.
- Total U.S. population is about 123 million in 1930. The estimated U.S. farm population stands at a little more than 30 million. The number of farms in the U.S. peaks in 1934, and the average farm size is about 350 acres.
- During the 1930s, boxing matches are so popular, they spur the sales of radios. Friday Night Fights are an institution. Joe Louis defends his world heavyweight crown three times in 1938, a record in boxing history. His most memorable match was against the former champion Max Schmeling. Louis beat the German in 2 minutes and 4 seconds, battering him so badly that Schmeling was hospitalized for 10 days. More than 70,000 people attended the fight in Yankee Stadium in New York City. Earlier that year, Louis had knocked out Nathan Mann at Madison Square Garden, and Harry Thomas in Chicago Stadium.
In 1934, Arthur W. Mitchell – who was born in Alabama and moved to Chicago – becomes the first black Democrat in the House of Representatives (Illinois 1935-1943). Throughout the decade, race relations are tense. In 1937, William Hastie becomes the first black federal judge as President Roosevelt appoints blacks to high offices. The president’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, is strongly opposed to segregation and invites the National Council of Negro Women to have tea at the White House, a symbolic gesture that changed a long-standing tradition from earlier First Ladies. Agricultural chemist and noted African American scientist George Washington Carver receives the Roosevelt Medal for his role in developing products from cotton, peanuts and other crops.
CBS news chief Edward R. Murrow coordinates radio broadcasts from several European cities to keep urban and rural Americans informed of the coming crisis on the continent. These radio broadcasts make world events more real to isolated Americans.
Prominent 1930s artists include Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry, Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper, Frida Kahlo and controversial Mexican artist Diego Rivera. The Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center were completed in the 1930s. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, a Wisconsin native, builds the famous “Fallingwater” house in Pennsylvania. Federal programs such as the Public Works of Art Project (PWA) help artists survive the Depression by paying them to paint murals in public buildings across the country. Many of these 1930s murals depict rural and urban life during that era and still exist in civic buildings. In South Dakota, Mount Rushmore is finished. The Golden Gate Bridge opens in San Francisco, California, in 1937.
In 1937, Cook County Hospital in Chicago opens the nation’s first blood bank. Accidents and illnesses are still common. Medical advances – safer blood transfusions, new medicines, and improved anesthesia – are pioneered during the 1930s and will be vital during World War II.
- In 1936, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) starts a television service. Thousands of Americans see television at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. However, World War II delays the development of television until the 1950s.
- In 1930, 58 percent of all U.S. farms have cars, 34 percent have telephones, less than 20 percent own a tractor and less than 13 percent have electricity. The number of combines nationally rose from 4,000 in 1920 to 90,000 in 1937, despite the financial hardships of the Depression.
- Federal policy encourages road building to help move agricultural products from farms and small-town cooperatives to larger markets. In 1935, the Motor Carrier Act brought trucking under federal regulation. Farmers see an increase in the use of trucks to haul crops and livestock to market.
- In 1939, the first commercial air flight crosses the Atlantic Ocean, and the helicopter is invented.
Crops & Livestock
- The extreme weather conditions also bring diseases to the small quantity of crops that can be raised. In the 1930s, farmers didn’t use special hybrids that were bred to resist disease.
- The federal government provides assistance to school lunch programs in the early 1930s, helping to feed hungry children. Later, the Federal Food Stamp Program is started to help low-income families buy food. Many proud and independent families feel humiliated to have to stand in line and “accept relief.”
- Nebraska Farmer magazine sponsors a national corn-husking contest. In 1933, Sherman Henrickson from Lancaster County, Nebraska, becomes national champion, husking by hand 27.62 bushels of corn in 30 minutes.
Pests & Weeds
- The first outbreak of grasshoppers comes to Nebraska, South Dakota, and Iowa in 1931; the last plague hits in 1939. The grasshoppers descend on Great Plains crops, devouring whatever the drought has not already destroyed and exposing the soil to erosion. The insects eat grass, corn, wheat, vegetables, tree leaves, and even clothing hanging outdoors.
Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.