Main Street in Crisis: The Great Depression and the Old Middle Class on the Northern Plains

By Catherine McNicol Stock | Go to book overview

3
COMMON DISCORDS Conflict and Contradiction in Old-Middle-Class Culture

Most days at the bank in Garretson, South Dakota, where Benjamin Wangsness worked for his father, Tom, were typical small-town banking days, quiet and uneventful. One day in the 1910s, however, Benjamin overheard a conversation between his father and a potential client that was so remarkable he remembered it all his life. Like other Dakotans, bank president Tom Wangsness cared deeply about his work and about his community, but by all outward appearances he cared about character most of all. As his son put it, he was a true "gentleman" in all his affairs, "an impeccably honest businessman and a church and civic leader." He held others to similar standards. "His major requirement for granting a loan," for example, "was good character." Thus he carried over any farm family whom "he considered . . . worthy in trying to do their best." No matter what his ultimate decision about a client, however, he gave everyone who walked in the door "a respectful hearing."

One client pushed the banker's respect to its limit. The town drunk in Garretson was a man known simply as "Mike." Mike came into the bank that day "in his usual condition" and asked Wangsness"for a loan of ten dollars."According to Benjamin, "Dad strung him

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