If 1933 Was Bad, 1934 Was Really Bad: Drought Ravages State

December 31, 1934

In May the temperatures soared to well over 100 degrees and winds began to blow. Very little rain fell and the winds turned day into night as dust storms blocked out the sun. Many towns have had to turn on their streetlights during day-time hours. Needless to say, crops have been scant. Farmers have salvaged only 21,000,000 bushels of wheat, about 15 percent of normal. Except for the Red River Valley, farmers have harvested very little; in the West around Williston and Dickinson there was no crop at all.

This 1934 drought has had a devastating effect on the economic welfare of farmers, and therefore, the state itself. In Divide County, the hardest hit, farm income has dropped over 50 percent. Nine out of every ten county residents have almost no income. One out of every five county farmers has gone out of business. Other western counties have fared a bit better, but not by much. In Sheridan County farm income is off by 40 percent; 30 percent of the people have no income, and one in seven farmers has been forced to quit.

No crop on George Murphy’s farm near Steele. Courtesy of North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies.

Tax delinquencies have risen sharply, especially in the western half of the state where over 80 percent of the landowners have no money to pay their taxes. Trail County has the lowest number of tax delinquencies, and that figure stands at 14 percent.

The invasion of grasshopper hordes has made the situation even worse. They eat everything - even fence posts. The clouds of hoppers were so thick at Mott in Hettinger County that the city had to turn on its streetlights during the day. At Killdeer the grasshoppers lay in piles four inches thick on the streets, making the driving of a car almost impossible. Counties have been trying to kill off the pests by placing a mixture of molasses and arsenic in the fields. It does not do much good. Rilie Morgan, who edits the newspaper in Grafton, sums it up well when he comments: “the state is face to face with a great emergency.”

October 30, 1933

Lorena Hickok is the chief field investigator for Harry Hopkins who is in charge of federal relief. She prepares confidential reports for Hopkins and the president concerning economic conditions and the progress of federal relief efforts. She is spending a few days observing North Dakota conditions.

You have just arrived here in Dickinson from Morton County. What conditions did you find there?

With a couple of Morton County Commissioners, I drove over a road so full of ruts that you couldn’t tell it from ploughed fields up to a shabby little country church, standing bleakly alone in the center of a vast tawny prairie land. Grouped about the entrance to the church were a dozen or more men in shabby denim, shivering in the biting wind that swept across the plains. Farmers, these, hailed out last summer, their crops destroyed by two hailstorms that came within three weeks of each other in June and July, now applying for relief. Most of them a few years ago were considered well-to-do. They have land - lots of land. Most of them have 640 acres or so. You think of a farmer with 640 acres of land as being rich. These fellows are “land poor.” A 640-acre farm at $10 an acre - which is about what land is worth hereabouts these days - means only $6,400 worth of land. Most of them have a lot of stock, 30 or 40 head of cattle, 12 or 16 horses, some sheep and hogs. Their stock, thin and rangy, is trying to find a few mouthfuls of food on land so bare that the winds pick up the topsoil and blow it about like sand. Their cows have gone dry for lack of food. Their hens are not laying. Much of their livestock will die this winter. And their livestock and their land are in most cases mortgaged up to the very limit. They are all away behind on their taxes, of course, some of them five years!

An abandoned farmhouse in Williams County. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (Farm Security Administration).

You have been taking applications for federal relief. How is that going?

I sat with an investigator who was taking their stories. Again and again on the applications appeared the statement “Hailed out. No crop at all.” One man had sown - I believe, at that, they say “sowed” when they refer to planting of crops - 140 acres of wheat, 25 acres of oats, 20 acres of rye, 30 acres of corn, and 20 acres of barley. All he harvested was little corn. He was lucky, at that. I drove past cornfields today. There lay the immature stalks on the ground and the hail had beaten them down, half-starved cattle rooting around among them. From 800 acres of land one old German had harvested this year 150 bushels of wheat and seven bushels of rye.

What do you see as the greatest need of North Dakotans?

For themselves and their families they need everything. Especially clothing. “How about clothes?” the investigator asked one of them. He shrugged. “Everything I own I have on my back,” he said. He then explained that, having no underwear, he was wearing two pairs of overalls, and two very ragged, denim jackets. His shoes were so far gone that I wondered how he kept them on his feet. With one or two exceptions none of the men hanging about the church had overcoats. Most of them were in denim - faded, shabby denim. Cotton denim doesn’t keep out the wind very well. It was cold enough today so that I, in a woolen dress and warm coat, was by no means too warm when I stood out in the wind.

When we came out to get into the car, we found it full of farmers, with all the windows closed. They apologized and said they had crawled in there to keep warm. The women and children are even worse off than the men. Where there has been any money at all, it has gone for shoes for the children and work clothing for the men. The women can stay inside and keep warm, and the children can stay home from school.

Do you have any observations about the conditions of the livestock?

The plight of the livestock is pitiable. All these people have got to keep their stock alive this winter in roughage - and darned little of that. They’ve even harvested Russian thistle to feed to their horses and cattle. Russian thistle, for your information, is a thistle plant with shallow roots that dries up in the fall and is blown across the prairies like rolls of barbed wire. The effect on the digestive apparatus of an animal, if it were fed the dried plant, would be, I should imagine, much the same as though it had eaten barbed wire! However – “We tried to cut it while it was still green,” one of the farmers said.

Killing a starved cow during the 1934 drought, Hettinger. Courtesy of North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies.

By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.

Grade Level


Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change

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