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World War I and the Depression


generals John J. Pershing
generals John J. Pershing

By the beginning of the 20th century, agricultural conditions had improved slightly and the Populists generally drifted back into either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. From 1900 to the beginning of World War I in 1914, however, both political parties in Nebraska were characterized by a growing belief that more government action was required to meet individual needs. Nebraska enacted a direct primary for the nomination of political candidates, and in 1912, George W. Norris, a Republican who also believed in an active government, was elected to the first of his five successive terms in the U.S. Senate.

World War I had a profound effect on Nebraska. The state’s farmers, aided by bountiful rains and high prices for crops, reached new heights of prosperity and additional land was brought under cultivation. Nebraskans took pride in the fact that U.S. generals John J. Pershing and Charles G. Dawes were both from Lincoln. But many Nebraskans also doubted the loyalty of the state’s large German American population, many of whom spoke German in everyday conversation and read local German-language newspapers. Nebraska’s State Council of Defense was given broad powers of investigation to ensure uniform support for the war and created an atmosphere of persecution for German Americans and those who opposed the war or expressed radical political views.

In the 1920s Nebraska saw some degree of prosperity, but farmers suffered. Wartime demand had increased the amount of land under cultivation. When demand disappeared after the war ended, crop prices dropped sharply. In addition, operating costs steadily increased. As a result, in the 1920s farmers did not prosper to the degree that other segments of the population did.

The depression that followed the stock market crash of 1929 hit Nebraska particularly hard. Few Nebraskans lost much money in the stock market, but crop prices, which had been relatively low in the 1920s, fell even lower after the crash, and in December 1932 crop prices reached the lowest point in Nebraska history. Droughts then aggravated the distress of farmers, causing low yields and severe dust storms. In response, desperate farmers began vigilante activities, trying to keep products off the market to increase prices. Produce trucks were halted on the roads to Sioux City, Iowa, and milk trucks were overturned along roads leading into Omaha. Farmers also organized penny auctions to allow farmers to rebuy farms that banks had taken over. After foreclosing on a farm, a bank would try to recover its costs by selling the farm at auction. At a penny auction, farmers offered ridiculously low bids and intimidated other would-be buyers so that the farmer could buy back the farm at an extremely low price. Finally, in February 1933 farmers marched on the capitol in Lincoln to demand that the government place a moratorium, or a temporary freeze, on foreclosures; three weeks later, a foreclosure moratorium bill was enacted.

Crop prices improved somewhat in the late 1930s, but drought hampered farm production throughout the decade. The number of people in Nebraska on some form of government relief reached more than 15 percent of the population and did not diminish substantially until after World War II began in 1939. "Nebraska" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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