Tuesday, 17 August 2010 11:10

75 Years Ago Late Late Winter/Early Spring 1930

Written by  Maurice Telleen
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(From the January, February and March 1930 Breeder’s Gazettes and general news sources of the period)

Some folks regard history as an endless series of important dates to be memorized, generally featuring leaders who were either heroes or scoundrels, but rarely a mixture of the two. Same way with time periods such as the 1920s (roaring) and the early 1930s (soup kitchen poor); that begin and end with the abruptness of a sunrise and a sunset. While there is considerable truth in both generalizations, it was not a case of black and white. Sweeping generalizations, without nuance, often just serve as an excuse for not paying attention.

I have fantasized about this sort of thing. For instance, what would be the best way to study or teach American Agricultural History for that period between the wars…1918 to 1941? How would you best capture the nuances and contradictions?

There would, of course, be a list of recommended books, representing different points of view, to be sampled, digested, approved or ignored …but with none of them weighing more than four pounds. The only arbitrary thing about it would be the four pound rule. Some authors don’t know when to quit…thus the four pound rule.

The official text for the class, the only required reading, would be three good monthly or bi-weekly farm magazines from that period along with the Sunday editions of a couple big daily newspapers and a couple magazines of general interest (such as Time, Atlantic Monthly, etc.) Those publications would be considered your core resources. In so far as possible the publications would range from liberal to conservative…not be mere carbon copies of one another.

There would be none of this true-false or multiple choice stuff. If it can be graded by a machine, forget it. As for the recommended books, they would simply help on your understanding and commentary. You could probably get by without so much as even looking at some, but it wouldn’t be near as much fun. Might even throw in a required book review or two as well, just to keep you honest.

Now, having unburdened myself of that splendid suggestion to history teachers at absolutely no charge, let’s get at the January, February and March Breeder’s Gazettes from 1930 and the general news of the day. It was a mighty unsettling time… moreso than most.

On January 5 of 1930, Joseph Stalin, the premier of the still new Soviet Union ended agriculture as generations of farmers had known it, especially in the rich farming areas such as the Ukraine. With a stroke of the pen he collectivized all Russian farms and created in their place, huge collective farms. Each peasant (Stalin’s designation, certainly not theirs) was “allowed” to own a house, a garden, a stable and one milk cow. Other livestock and farm equipment became the property of the state.

It is said that thousands escaped to nearby Poland. Others went elsewhere-witness all the Ukrainian names among the draft horse breeders of Western Canada. And, a great many were given the choice between a one way ticket to Siberia or a bullet in the head. It was one of the largest forced migrations in history. The goal, it seems, was not simply to collectivize assets, but to destroy the “culture” in agriculture. Those proud people were not “eliminated” because they were failures but because they were successful…and a potential threat to Stalin’s vision of the future.

It was a sorry day for both freedom and farming…and in the end, it didn’t work so hot either. Stalin’s timing was either pretty good or lucky in that our own economy and that of Western Europe was unravelling so fast that we had abundant concerns (both rural and urban) of our own to worry about. It is awkward to deliver lectures on fire safety when your own house is smoking.

Here at home, the 18th amendment banning alcoholic beverages was ten years old, having gone into effect at midnight, January 15, 1920. The “noble experiment,” as it was sometimes called, was in deep trouble. To put the worst possible face on it, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company reported that deaths from alcoholism among its policy holders in the last year was six times the rate of ten years before. That sounds almost too bazaar. I don’t know if the issuance of that report was an accident or not. Whatever the case, it appeared that it had not only failed in its purpose but the traffic in booze had created a whole new category of crimes, complete with bootleggers, graft and murder.

The situation in our Supreme Court in early 1930 was not unlike the one we have at present. In February of that year the Chief Justice, William Howard Taft, resigned…and promptly died. He must have weighed over 300 pounds, which is, I suppose, beside the point. But that is not what was churning up the water. It was the old conservative-liberal split in the Senate…not wholly unlike now or any time where an appointment to the Supreme Court is at stake.

Hoover was a conservative so he appointed one of his lodge brothers, Charles Evans Hughes. Hughes had served as an associate judge from 1910-1916. In 1916, he removed himself from the Court to run for president on the Republican ticket. Woodrow Wilson beat him by an eyelash. Hughes, meanwhile had gone on to serve as Secretary of State for both Harding and Coolidge in the early ‘20s.

There is a story, which may even be true, from that election that I like very much. The early returns indicated a victory for Hughes. So he retired to bed with a message that “the president elect was not to be disturbed until morning.” Deep into the night a messenger arrived with the message that Wilson had squeaked through. Marvelous things, those telegraphs that could let the east coast know what the west coast was up to. The “talking wires” as the Indians called them. Anyhow, the messenger must have said, “OK, just tell him he is no longer the president elect, whenever he wakes up.”

The confirmation fight in the Senate was more spirited than bitter. With a vote of 52 to 26, the Democrats knew from the git-go that it was hopeless. But it was an opportunity to sound off about a court that was already so conservative that it wore galoshes and carried an umbrella, even on a clear day.

Now this is a backward glance but the collapse of economies doesn’t happen overnight. A 1928 government report had indicated that the number of U.S. incomes over one million dollars had grown by 40% in the previous year. So the growth rate of millionaires had been racing along at a record speed just two or three years prior to 1930.

In March of 1930, Mahatma Gandhi began his historic “March to the Sea” in India. Unlike ourselves when we had our revolution,Gandhi didn’t attack armories operated by the crown. His game plan was not to seize British arms. His scheme was to march to the sea, picking up followers along the way, and there start a salt business in defiance of the British government’s monopoly on the sale of salt. His weapon was one of civil disobedience. It was his boldest move up to that time. He must have figured that widespread disobedience was less bloody and more effective than outright defiance. A song could have been written about it entitled “Praise the Lord and pass the salt”… instead of “and pass the ammunition.”

That is probably enough of grumpy, self-important old white men. Let’s take a look at something beautiful for a change of pace. A 17-year-old Norwegian beauty was crowned the amateur singles ice skating champion of the world for the fourth consecutive year. She would win it six more times and in 1932 she wontheWinter Olympics as well. She was an absolute knockout, a real beauty, on or off the ice. She went on to appear in several Hollywood movies.

In 1936, she won her third gold medal at the Olympics in Berlin…the one where Adolf Hitler played the ungracious host. For 18 years she playedtheleadingrolein Hollywood’s annual Ice Review as well as starring in several Hollywood movies. This great athlete, beautiful woman and a colorful character became an American citizen in 1941. She was born in Oslo, Norway, where they have lots of ice. Sonja Henie died in 1969. She died of leukemia during a flight to Oslo for treatment.

And now, on to the Breeder’s Gazettes for the balance of “75 Years Ago.”

Everybody makes statements that they wish to heaven they had not made. Here are two examples from 75 years ago: Hoover was a busier president than he wanted to be…in addition to calling business and farm leaders into endless sorts of councils to head off a deepening depression, he had to dispatch troops to Haiti to maintain law and order.

Part of his job was to encourage people, to be a sort of cheerleader. I suppose it was in that cheerleader role on March 7, 1930, that he let slip his comment that “prosperity is just around the corner.” As things worsened in the years ahead, no one ever paid a higher price for uttering six little words of encouragement. It was like a tin can tied to a dog’s tail.

Another example of an “off the cuff” remark comes to us via Jim Poole’s column concerning the livestock markets in the January 1930 Gazette. He cites when the late P.D. Armour, of packing house fame, was asked to take an interest, maybe even ante up a few bucks, in the search for a cure for cholera in hogs. He declined saying, “If it wasn’t for the cholera, hogs wouldn’t be worth a dollar a dozen.” I take it that Mr. Armour was not seriously interested in that new fangled thing called public relations.

Judging from the tone and content of the January 1930 Gazette, I don’t think agriculture was in a panic mode by any means. Not yet. Their coverage of the recent International Livestock Show was as upbeat as usual, with page after page devoted to singing its praises. Although they did catch a little flak in subsequent issues for their total lack of mention of the Clydesdales, Shires, Suffolks and harness classes. A couple of offended readers vented themselves by suggesting that the Gazette had “sold out” to the Percherons. He could have said “and Belgians,” because it had become pretty much a two breed paper where draft horses were concerned.

But that was small potatoes compared to the advertising battles that were being waged on the pages of those old Gazettes from 1930. The manufacturers of farm tractors were pretty well determined to put all the breeds of draft horses out of business. Take a look at these two full page ads from John Deere and International Harvester in that January issue. And bear in mind that those Gazettes were being printed on a much larger sheet. Read the fine print, especially in the McCormick Deering ad. It is worth the trouble. So far as that company (and the others, too, for that matter) was concerned there were no negotiated settlements or compromises. This was a dog-eat-dog fight to the finish.

There were also full page ads from J.I. Case, Oliver, Allis-Chalmers and Caterpillar. Some other good-sized related ads in those Gazettes were from Mobil Oil and Ethyl Gasoline…not to mention several brands of automobiles and farm trucks. In brief, the tractor interests were spending serious money with the Gazette to woo their livestock-minded subscribers to get rid of their work horses.

Let it be said that the horse interests responded with good-sized ads from the Horse Association of America and the Percheron and Belgian Associations, along with smaller ads from breeders and importers. But, in terms of dollars and space, it was a little bit like the Polish Cavalry meeting up with Hitler’s Tiger tanks on the plains of Poland in 1939. Outmanned, outgunned and outspent. I would imagine that this placed not only the owners of the Gazette, with strong draft horse ties, but many others at the agricultural colleges at odds with themselves and each other.

It is time to switch to photography. Livestock Photography was a nice little niche business by then. And nobody was better at it than a skinny little guy named Charlie Belden. Arthur Johnson, editor of the Denver (Colorado) Daily Record-Stockman, appreciated him and used his rangeland pictures generously.

Our final Item from the March 1930 Gazette is the notice of the death of Fred Holbert. It started out with “Fred Holbert has passed on! These words convey a shock to the entire purebred structure.”

“The entire purebred structure” -that may well sound like rhetorical overkill today. But in 1930-and basically for the whole first half of the 20th century and well into the second half there was just such a structure. It was a combination of farmer breeders and wealthy hobby-type owners with a common goal-to produce better animals for themselves, their clients and neighbors. They saw themselves as breed improvers in the endless, but generally good natured, quarrels as to which breed is best. Some fellows knew a whole lot more about the genetics of their barnyard favorites than they did about themselves or their own kids.

For a boy who grew up in an environment like that, making the livestock judging team in college was a lot like one of the local high school jocks who made it on to the traveling football or basketball squad.

Fred Holbert was sort of a “prince of the realm” in that environment. His father, A.B. Holbert had started importing stallions in 1884, just a couple years before Fred was born. By 1920 he had brought over 4,500 head to the U.S., importing as many as 500 horses a year to his complex of buildings and barns near Greeley, Iowa. He specialized in Belgians, Percherons, Shires, both French and German Coach horses and Hackneys.

His two oldest sons, Fred and Tom, often accompanied their father on his buying trips to the continent. Those kids were not globe trotting to show off–A.B. Holbert wanted his sons to know Belgium and France, to know the language (both were fluent in French), and to know how to select horses that would do in this country. The assumption seemed to be -”the boys will carry on.”

A.B. Holbert died at the 1916 International Livestock Show in Chicago while presiding over the annual meeting of the German Coach Horse Association. The two oldest sons took over and were later joined by a younger brother named Ben.

In 1914, like a clap of thunder, came World War I. When the U.S. joined the allies, Fred joined the American Expeditionary Force. During the Argonne offensive he was in charge of supplying horses-for artillery and supply, certainly NOT cavalry. Machine guns and trench warfare had put an end to “charges of the light brigade”-except in the movies. He was decorated by the French government and promoted to the rank of major in our own army. At the conclusion of the war, he supervised the liquidation of some 170,000 head of horses for the American army. We weren’t about to bring them home. That was a lot of horses and mules to “dispose of.”

Fred served the Belgian Association in this country as president for seven years during the 1920s. In 1929, he had been decorated by King Albert of Belgium with the highest honor that could be awarded a foreigner.

He and his brother Tom were the primary authors of the Colt Club plan, whereby farmers would pool their money to buy a stallion for their own members. Via that colt club movement, the Holberts were leading players in the revival of the stallion trade in the ‘20s.

Fred, who had spent so much of his young life as a buyer for his father in both France and Belgium, had married a French girl during the war and they had two little girls.

He was but 44 years old at the time of his death. Many of his friends saw him for the last time at the 1929 International where the Holberts had the 1st prize group of five stallions in both the Belgian and Percheron breeds. He was not in good health. Following the show he went to a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, and died there on January 31.

The last sentence in the Gazette obituary was “His contribution to American animal husbandry was definite and enduring.”

It was, indeed, a very different world with an honest to goodness “entire purebred structure.” We will never see its like again.

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