selection from SEEDS OF REVOLT (1933)
by Mauritz Hallgren

CHAPTER EIGHT
THE FARMERS MARCH

 

DIRECT ACTION AT LAST

It was only a question of time until the smoldering rebellion of the farmers should express itself in the form of direct action. Until August 1932 the metropolitan press and most of the capitalist press in general paid little heed to the incipient farm revolt. The newspapers passed over in silence the many symptoms of rebellion.It was only when the farmers of Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Missouri, reaching the end of their patience, went on strike, blocking shipments of milk and produce to the larger towns, that the press suddenly awakened. The instinctive reaction of the law-and-order elements was to call for troops to put down the strike. The small shopkeepers and city dwellers remembered that Governor Turner of Iowa had used the state militia the year before in stopping the Iowa "cow war." But the authorities, better informed and better advised than the petit bourgeoisie of the towns, saw clearly that the farm strike was bound to end in failure. Without a disciplined, unified organization covering the entire country the farmers could never hope to stop produce from entering the cities. The farmers, too, must have known this. Yet so desperate was their plight that they went doggedly on with their strike, though time and again their leaders sold them out by arranging compromise agreements and "truces" without their consent.

In Iowa and one or two other states violence attended the strike. In the neighborhood of Des Moines a "wrecking crew" of fifty men was used to clear the roads of pickets. Sheriff. Slocum of Union County disarmed the strikers after a convincing show of force. Tear-gas bombs broke up a picket line of three hundred farmers near Council Bluffs. Fourteen men were wounded when a carload of armed strike-breakers fired into the picket lines near Cherokee. The sheriff of Cherokee County was clearly using violence as a pretext for asking that the state militia be called in. In several communities pickets were arrested on dubious charges. But at Clinton, Cherokee, Sioux City, and Des Moines the prisoners were promptly freed (25) when crowds of angry farmers threatened to storm the jails. In the meantime the strike movement spread into other states, into North Dakota, Michi
gan, Indiana, Ohio, New York, and Tennessee. In the end, however, the movement collapsed, as was perhaps inevitable, for it could not be carried along without organization. Nevertheless, this very lack of organization showed how spontaneous was the decision of the farmers to turn to direct action once they had convinced themselves that real, enduring help was not to be obtained through political channels.

This spontaneity the farm leaders either ignored or tried to suppress. Governor Bryan of Nebraska told the farmers to go back home and plan to "battle with ballots" in November. The Grange remained silent throughout the strike. Edward O'Neal, president of the National Farm Bureau, called (26) on his followers to "back up law and order" and "put an end to hysterics." He termed the strike "a futile, sporadic effort of a few minority groups of misguided farmers" and certain "radical, non-farmer agitators." The relatively radical Farmers' Union announced that it was supporting the Farm Holiday movement, but was opposed to mass picketing. Milo Reno, originator of the Farm Holiday scheme, one day declared that "you could no more stop this movement than you could stop the revolution of 1776. I couldn't stop it if I tried." (27) And the very next day he arranged a truce with the commission merchants and milk-distributors without so much as a "by-your leave" to the strikers he was leading. Many of the farmers were not thus easily to be denied or misled. A group of deserters from Reno's organization met in Sioux City in September. They organized '6 the Farmers' National Emergency Relief Conference for Rank and File Farmers and arranged to meet in Washington in December. They invited Lem Harris, a farm student with radical inclinations, to be their national secretary. This was the beginning of the first truly revolutionary movement in American farming history. (I do
not forget the embattled farmers at Lexington; but during the War for American Independence the farmers
were used merely as pawns by the tradesmen and smugglers of New England who wanted to free themselves from the political domination of the British agrarian ruling class.)

The strike movement languished during the winter of 1932-3, but did not die out entirely. Picketing was resumed from time to time, particularly in the Iowa and South Dakota sector. There were occasional outbreaks of violence. Governors of the affected states talked a great deal about relief programs, but their aimless discussions came to nothing. The farm leaders were satisfied that the outbursts of August and September had been sufficient, according to Milo Reno, "to awaken the public conscience to the condition of the farmers of the nation." But the farmers did not think so. Having found the strike an inefficient if not an entirely ineffectual weapon, they, turned to other methods. They blocked foreclosure sales by mob action. In Oklahoma a group of farmers hauled a cannon, a relic of the World War, from the town square out to a farm where such a sale was to be held. From somewhere they obtained a half-dozen shells. Whether or not the shells were blanks is not important. The mere appearance of the field-piece was enough to frighten the sheriff into calling off the sale. In Iowa (29) a noose was dangled before the representative of an insurance company, the only bidder for a farm property that was being foreclosed. The agent was told to raise his bid to the point where the farmer about to be dispossessed could be relieved of all his indebtedness to the company. The home office of the insurance company quickly agreed to this demand. It was obviously afraid that the farmers really meant to lynch the agent.


The mob spirit spread rapidly. Thousands of foreclosure sales were stopped. In many communities threats of lynching were heard. To quote a dispatch from Omaha: (30) "These farmers are no longer in good humor. They are in ugly temper, intimidating sheriffs and bidders on farms. They are telling some courts what they will stand for and what they will not stand for." In one Iowa county the radical farmers actually took over a court building as their headquarters. In time the larger insurance companies in New York, holders of farm mortgages nominally worth approximately $1,700,000,000, announced (31) that they had agreed to a farm moratorium. Though they tried to make it appear an act of altruism, the insurance companies were really confessing that the farmers had won by their direct-action tactics. Unable to collect anything from the farmers in any case, the insurance companies could well afford to appear altruistic. However, an even larger proportion of farm mortgages was held by the banks, many of which had virtually all of their funds in farm paper. When they could not collect, they had either to seek assistance from the big commercial banks in Chicago and New York, or to close their doors. In either case this situation increased the strain on the sagging banking structure of the country. The Red strikes in Detroit contributed directly to the financial crash of February and March 1933; the direct-action tactics of the farmers in the Middle West and East no doubt also played a contributory though perhaps less important role.

25.Farm News Letter, Farm Research, Inc., Washington, D. C., September 8, 1932.
26.New York Times, August 31, 1932.
27. Ibid., August 31, 1932
28. Farm News Letter, September 16, 1932.
29. New York Herald Tribune, January 5, 1933.
30. New York Times, January 22, 1933.
31. Ibid., February 1, 1933.