William C. Pratt
The northern Plains witnessed the last great farm revolt in its history during the 1930s, when a flood of protest spilled across the region, fed by the springs of hard times and earlier insurgencies. The countryside, for one last moment, forced itself upon the rest of the country and demanded attention for its plight. After a period of high visibility, these efforts receded in the wake of New Deal programs that seemingly undercut the rural revolt. Many of the protesters arrived at an accommodation with the new regime, accepting “half-a-loaf now” in terms of wheat allotment checks and refinanced mortgages instead of “pie-in-the-sky” dreams of “cost-of-production” and the “cooperative commonwealth.” Some, of course, continued to resist the sirens of expediency and accommodation, at least a bit longer. 1 But most observers agreed that Depression era insurgency peaked in 1933 and had pretty much wound down by the 1936 election.
This article examines several aspects of the farm revolt that need further elaboration. What I have attempted here is not a new interpretation but a new way of exploring the topic. It is based upon pursuing hints in a range of sources, and at places I suggest a new departure for the study of rural insurgencies in this region. Some of my assertions and generalizations are based upon explorations at the county level in northwestern North Dakota and northeastern South Dakota, two sections with extended histories of agrarian activism. While most of the discussion is limited to the northern Plains, a number of the points have applicability to the study of the 1930s farm revolt elsewhere.
This movement was not monolithic, and an examination of its efforts in individual locales frequently shows important divergences.