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The Market for Farm People

by Helen Hill

U.S. Department of Agriculture

December 1936

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How ya gonna keep 'em

Down on the farm,

After they've seen Pa-ree?

THE answer to this ditty of demobilization was, we weren't gonna. Even in 1920 a good many flivvers showed their tail lights to the old red barn for the last time—about 900,000 people left their farms for the city that year. But in 1922, the number jumped to two and a quarter million, and for the next seven years it never sank below the two million mark. During those seven fat years in the cities the new hard roads seemed made pretty much for one way traffic. In 1922, for every two people who were headed for the city, less than one was headed for the farm.

During the seven fat years, in other words, the cities were bulling the market for farm people.

The Chambers of Commerce blazoned the story. Population boom. Building boom. New busline. Um-teen thousand people on the payroll of a single corporation. The people behind those headlines were mostly not the products of the cities—who ever heard of anybody being born in New York? Neither were they to any important extent immigrants from other shores—certainly not after 1924. A very great many of them were country boys and girls, come to the great city to share in and create the rewards of the New Economic Era.

Not all of them, of course, were young. I remember the top floor of the YWCA in one of the big automobile cities in 1926. The whole place had been turned into a dormitory, with bunks at 50 cents a night for newcomers to use until they got settled with a job and a regular boarding place. The turnover was rapid; the bunks were all full all the time. A woman was sitting on the edge of one of them. A New England spinster, she had listened to an agent of one of the motor companies who travelled through the country districts telling of the earnings which factory work could produce. She had sold the farm and come west. She was too old. That is to say, she was over forty. She couldn't make the output that they wanted. She was going back.

But most of the bunks around her held nimble-fingered youngsters who could slap numbers onto speedometer ribbons in the tempo of America's quickening pace. During the decade of the 1920's, the number of farmers in Michigan decreased by 25,000; but the population of the state increased by 32 percent.

In those days, muscle brought an attractive price as well as speed. I remember the 12th Street Station in Chicago, one January morning in 1924. It was about 18 above zero; not bad, for that time of year. The Seminole Limited came in while I was standing there; I watched the day coaches empty themselves of Negro families, ten, twelve, fifteen to the group. They wore the cotton clothes of the Deep South. Ihey walked in (a few carried) shoes that were a painful novelty. They straggled off towards the Lower South Side. The net migration of colored people from the farms of Georgia and Texas amounted to nearly 300,000 during the 1920's, while the Negro population of Chicago more than doubled.

The market for farm people, during the seven fat years of the 1920's, was a market that belonged to the bulls.

AFTER 1929, the market for farm people vanished. 1) Not only that. As the hunger of the industrial depression penetrated deeper and deeper, the answer to the ever more pressing question,

How ya gonna keep 'em?

turned out to be

Down on the farm!


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003