The April '31 Gazette came out with a drawing of a famous Southdown ram on the cover. Right under the name of the magazine it said in big, bold letters "THREE YEARS FOR A DOLLAR." The need for money in their office and nearly every other business and farm in the country had grown urgent. When you could subscribe to a publication of that stature and receive 36 issues for less than 8-1/2 cents apiece, delivered to your mail box or to your doorstep by Uncle Sam, you know that the economy was in desperate straits. This country, and pretty much the whole industrial world was busted, angry, confused and scared. That is a terrible recipe. The wrath of the Great Depression of the early 1930s left its mark on millions.
But, even then, some of the old moneyed class, playboys and bootleggers were doing handsomely. Jimmy Walker, the playboy mayor of New York City "got sick" when the heat was turned up so he ducked out of town and hung out with other playboy types at a resort in Palm Springs, California, for months. A slippery fellow–as far as I know, he was not successfully prosecuted. I guess if you have enough charm and the right friends that even incompetency, inefficiency, neglect and theft aren't enough to put you away.
The noble experiment, prohibition, was also giving birth to some brand new millionaires. Bootlegging beer and liquor was widespread and probably better organized than many legitimate businesses. In June of 1931, two of the biggest and worst, Scarface Al Capone and Dutch Schultz, were taken into custody. Federal agents estimated that Capone's DAILY undeclared income was about $5,500. Sixty-eight members of this syndicate were indicted.
And, as always, there were some very well-dressed crooks too, such as the three officials of The Bank Of The United States who were found guilty of misusing $27,000,000 in bank funds. That trial took three months. Any way you slice it, our forebears were in the biggest depression in this country's history. It left marks of some kind on nearly all of them. That $27 million would have bailed out quite a few farmers and fed some of the unemployed. There are a number of uses for money besides buying yachts and showing off on the Riviera.
And right in the midst of all this fiscal chaos, on May 1, 1931, the "world's tallest building" was opened for business. It was/is the Empire State Building in the heart of New York City. It reached into the sky 1,245 feet, better than three football fields–end to end. On top of its 86 floors was a mooring mast for passenger dirigibles, enabling passengers to debark in the center of the city. Dirigibles were not the wave of the future in air travel, but there was a lot of noise about them. I guess this was for real big shots who didn't have time to waste.
This construction of the tallest building in the world was supposed to be a gesture of confidence in the future, right in the face of depression.
This called for important people, so both President Herbert Hoover and Al Smith (the man he had defeated in 1928) were on hand for the ceremonies. It was Hoover's job to throw the switch on the building's lights and utter a few appropriate words. I don't know what Al Smith's job was, but by that time, I'll bet he was really glad he had lost the election in 1928. And having mooring masts for dirigibles landing on top of this thing was a really stupid idea.
Hoover was, in many respects, a victim of the times. He was wise in some ways and tone deaf in others. For instance, in spite of all our troubles here at home, he was so concerned about the economic plight of Germany that he proposed to our allies a one year delay in collecting war reparations from that country. It didn't sell. France, in particular, was opposed. But on this one, I suspect Hoover read it right. He feared a rogue police state in Germany if conditions got much harsher in that country. They did, and the world got Hitler. Now, not everything hinged on a one year postponement of reparations, but at least it indicated that Hoover was more concerned about stability than revenge. I think most anyone who was unlucky enough to win in 1928 would turn out to be a one termer.
Farming was no picnic, but as the folks would say, "We had plenty to eat." The paychecks, whether they be for cream, eggs, hogs, cattle or grain had all shrunk drastically. But huge gardens, home butchering and canning were almost universal in rural and small town Iowa. To be perfectly honest, I don't really remember the spring of 1931. It isn't like your first kiss.
But this I am sure of. Registered Brown Swiss cattle first tiptoed into the lives of our family in early 1931. It came in the form of one little heifer, named Severa's Patsy. The county agent had a connection with some Swiss breeders in northeast Iowa ... so a truckload of heifers were purchased and they were doled out to 4-H boys in the county. One of those boys was my oldest brother, Marv.
In due time, the dairy herd became the primary enterprise on that farm. It has been for way over a half-century now. Swiss cattle have played a big part in three generations of Telleens on that farm. The cows are still brown. As for the neighborhood ... it has changed almost beyond belief. But that is another subject for another time.
So, to get this train back to 1931, I'll just let Rank Forbes, the Gazette's purebred livestock field man describe Iowa as he saw it in the spring of 1931. This is from the April, 1931, Gazette:
" Iowa's farmers are digging out, and they are doing it with livestock. 'Where the tall corn grows' tells but half the story. With my own eyes I have seen that Iowa's greatness results from feeding her produce to livestock and marketing it on the hoof, leaving behind countless tons of manure to sustain the soil's fertility, that more crops may be raised to feed to more livestock. And so on, through the endless cycles."
This is what Rank Forbes said 75 years ago ... I'm not sure he would immediately recognize the state now.
One of the articles in those '31 Gazettes was entitled "Give Grass A Chance" by C.H. MacDowell, president of Armour & Company Fertilizer Works. He said, "In such times as these, the fencing and fertilization of pasture lands may prove one of your best investments." The way I read that is "leave those tillage costs and row crops to your neighbors." Sometimes spending less is the best way to make more. MacDowell was a precursor to today's graziers, such as Gene Logsdon and David Kline.
Jim Poole was the Gazette's Market Editor. Let me give you a couple of his paragraphs describing 1931:
" Much of the inquiry reaching my desk carried solicitude concerning prospective livestock markets. This quest for inside stuff is futile for the simple reason that none is available." In other words, there wasn't any inside scoop on how to outsmart the markets. Then he went on thusly ... "In company with securities and all other commodities, the grade has been downward. Shrinkage in value has been enormous, in many cases unprecedented. It has been an irresistible movement, generating a set of treacherous markets. Occasionally, the apostles of sweetness and light have become voluble on the subject of corner turning, only to find their philosophy confounded. Each resistance point had yielded in its turn."
In other words, he wasn't seeing any light at the end of any tunnels. Poole was an eloquent man. I think some vegetarians and English teachers read Poole's market reports just for the poetry of it. He concluded this one with "Of the three major branches of the livestock trade, lamb is decidedly the healthiest." I'm surprised he didn't say that it was "least ill."
To call them troubled times is an understatement. So with all that bad news and all these discouraging words, who are my favorites from that time? For that, I'll choose a musician and a humorist.
First to the musician, Arturo Toscanini, the great Italian-born conductor of symphony orchestras. As a guest conductor at a May concert in the country of his birth, he refused to play the Fascist National Anthem. Both he and his wife were manhandled by Mussolini's bully boys and they were placed in virtual house arrest for almost a month before they were allowed to return to the United States. Arturo stood up to Mussolini early on. Anyone who regards classical music as sissy stuff should rethink his position. Arturo was no sissy.
My other candidate for favorite person from 1931 would be Will Rogers, the cowboy humorist from Oklahoma. In May of 1931, he declined accepting a doctorate in Humanity & Letters. He said, "What are you trying to do? Make a joke out of college degrees? They are in bad enough repute as it is, without handing them out to comedians." Rogers did, however, say that he might possibly accept an A.D.–for Doctor of Applesauce.
Those were very trying times ... thank heaven for the Toscaninis and Rogers of 1931. We need folks like that in every age and occupation.
Strangely enough this "bad news economy" actually served as a sort of stimulant for the draft horse trade. The fuel that horses burn was homegrown hay and grain–not purchased gasoline. Horses provided their own replacements. There were no baby tractors. Surplus colts were saleable. That was the nub of it. It was a good argument in 1931.
The land grant colleges were very involved in the draft horse trade. It went well beyond maintaining a stable of purebreds; generally Percherons and/or Belgians.
You could, for example, write to the University of Minnesota and get a copy of the articles of incorporation and bylaws for a county horse breeders' association. It called for a non-profit, no stock, one man, one vote co-op organization with a colt club in each block. The other land grant colleges had similar ideas.
As Sam Guard said, "This accomplishes precisely what Breeder's Gazette has been advocating; the use of intermediate credit for financing the purchase of top purebred draft stallions to improve the horse stocks of the local community."
In the spring of 1931, Michigan State held its first auction at East Lansing with very satisfactory results. The colleges were also working with the dynamometer people to bring horse pulling to more of the county fairs.
In brief, the state colleges in their animal husbandry sections were providing a lot of leadership to the draft horse interests. Not the least of which were plow days, offering farmers instruction on using the multiple hitches. They were allies of the serious horse farmer–and I suppose you could say their colleagues in the engineering departments were not–although they had quite a bit to do with the construction of the first dynamometer.
There were a lot of draft horse people in 1931 who were hopeful, not of recapturing the city streets, but of holding their own on the farm.