MPR’s John Ydstie interviews William Henry Waters, a North Dakota farmer during the 1930s and 40’s, who reflects on the struggles of living through the Great Depression. This program was presented in marking the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Depression.
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(00:00:00) William Henry Waters is old enough to have seen good times and bad born in Iowa 94 years ago. He moved to North Dakota as a young man and homesteaded a farm near Robinson in the central part of the state there. He married raised a family and made his living on the land for Bill Waters. The 1930s was a difficult time so bad that he lost his farm and bought it back twice the last time in the prosperous years of the 1940s somewhat free love body, but strong in mind Bill Waters now lives in the Eventide Lutheran Home in Moorhead there in his room, simply furnished with a bed chair table and a bookcase full of books and mementos. I talked with Bill about the Great Depression. (00:00:46) We had the dust storms also the thirties, you know, Everyone is not in fact, they only had one I had one good Rye crop because the crop was a good a trained dancer. You're 35. I think it was and then it rained after it in the shock and it sprouted and grown and they didn't want to take it the elevator when he got its rest. You take it to an elevator and here I will take this little but don't bring no more 35 40 cents a bushel. That's what should or they give you. They didn't want that sprouted grain. They had to move it around to keep it'll spoil entirely. See (00:01:29) you lost your farm and bought it back twice. Yeah during the third royal (00:01:33) I'm long addicted of Bank of North Dakota lost it twice against and what it back. (00:01:41) Did that way on your mind in the 30s when you were losing the farm, you kept mortgaging it and (00:01:46) put all yeah, it didn't make you happy. That's sure but I didn't let it worry me too much know that don't do you no good. I makes it worse. Somebody's talking about Williams and day out here. I forgot about I told him I said that just makes it worse you're going to worry the trouble is there and then you have the worry trouble on top of it. Yes. You've met (00:02:09) did you farm it all or did you just give up completely? Oh (00:02:13) tried to do some a little but you get some years you got three four bushels an acre. Maybe when didn't pay for expenses on them. No. Well, we had to get we had cellular cattle or but she milked cows. Well everybody something so all the head of course. And sometimes they ship cattle to Market and they old Freight guys got a bill the old some Freight you didn't sell for enough to pay the freight down there think of it. That's what happened in the 30s because I want I want a big scale and cattle any like some guys like it kept eight milk cows got rid of the rest. and about $60 worth of shelled corn. That's the government loan money. See I didn't have no 60 bucks didn't have 60 cents maybe and got a government loan about 60 bushel of that shall coin and I had a mill to grind it and about beep hopeful in the Grand Forks beat or Sugar Mill Factory. You get a great big bag of that signal 400 pounds and terrible big bag light stuff and I had a choice in about that way and great long learning for them. They put some of that pulp in they were tossed and then couple of hands full know this ground corn on top of that then they skim milk and separated the Cavs didn't drink poured it right on top and let's good protein skim milk and you'll see the cows the first time they'd seen that Stuck a no down shook their head in Old bit the bed. They wouldn't touch it first time. Well, I just left it there. I don't know the morning or night. I give him first night out next time. They started tasted up a little bit to get the left most of it. Again. The third time lord elected up is getting hungry. Of course. I ain't all the head. I had some other roughage stuff too, but y-you're see him then they licked all the human would have eaten two three times as much I guess like it seemed like and the milk pretty good all winter. Yes, it (00:04:52) did. They look a little skinny (00:04:54) boy that one fat. No, but they want not real important. No, no, no one and about. Hey, of course got alfalfa. Hay supposed to come up from down here. If I go somewhere around here because they want big good shape here either. (00:05:09) Did you lose a lot of your neighbors during the doing? (00:05:12) So yeah, some of them. Yeah. Oh, yes. Yeah some had went to California lots of when it all went West but one guy put on his car when he left going to Paradise. (00:05:30) Were you tempted to follow him? (00:05:31) No. No, I never had I figured like this I could only get something to eat right up there the grocery store. That was turned down once right I had to Penny or 10 bucks or what I had. Yeah, so I said my wife and I we decided we'd stay there. We didn't want to have to go we did not undergo with often among strangers but inside it off right among people that knew you as long as you want a big crook see so we stayed there and we never went hungry either anytime. What do we had a penny of didn't (00:06:11) you didn't have a penny sometimes (00:06:13) that's right. Didn't have to Cent stamps to mail letters. Sometimes many of them said that we didn't I know (00:06:20) yeah must have been a tough life. (00:06:22) I don't know we didn't suffer so much seem like we never went hungry. No, it didn't them cows milk pretty good all under and I tell you what help me. Of course. I was such a sir. Yeah, it's the ISS. ER I had that all through the 30s to help me. I got it in 28 a run for it and 28. I had 11 townships. Got a big territory. That helped us get to the 30s awful lot to longer. The milk cows here bringing in some checks, (00:07:00) you know nowadays the Marriage counselors and so forth cited financial problems are one of the toughest things on marriages. Did you find that during the 30s when things were so tough and you didn't have two cents to your name that it was tough on your marriage. (00:07:18) No, we both understood it and then you complain who am I to complain all that? We didn't love it. But we were we didn't complain long as we had we never went hungry. That's amending not only get you to that's the worst thing you can get you get to getting hungry. Then you get to get desperate sometimes, you know, (00:07:38) yeah. Did your neighbors? Do you know of neighbors that were going hungry? (00:07:41) No. No, I don't know I didn't. No, they are the government help. There's no need of there anybody starving? No, I don't want that's the first thing you take it years away back that could happen. When I was a kid. There's no government help. Then you paddle your own canoe or sunk. They are just up to you then or some friends. No government stuff that came in way later. Yeah. Yeah. (00:08:16) Weren't you a little discouraged though after five years of dust storms? Well, this is got any last 10 years. Yeah, I know but by 1935 I think I would have packed up after five years and no (00:08:30) props. Why would you go, you know the one work good either the country the whole country is gone in the bum too. Yeah. I don't worry. No wonder why they went then the is well off to go among strangers. Yeah. I wouldn't know a lot of the same way. I suppose now there's a wood. Well, there was quite a lot of them went off that way. That's why they went West all them. But that one guy that had that placard on his car is going to Paradise. He couldn't have been Paradise because he was back in two years. He's living down Valley City today been back in North Dakota ever since After two years he was out there so it won't Paradise for that guy. I know you come back your North Dakota the poor place. He left live in everything. (00:09:28) Well, you must have must have run through your mind that this must be the end of the world. If you had ten years at dust storms the ninth bought the ninth year. You must have thought that maybe you did something wrong out here. You get it done. Yeah. Yeah (00:09:42) exactly we did. Yeah, (00:09:47) didn't you get a little desperate and by that time (00:09:50) not really desperate no course you got discouraged figured well. Let's everything go you figured the Dickens on everything. That's I'm going to stay. I'm going to live longer again. Don't live a die. That's it. Yeah just staying. We never got really desperate know my wife or I either go because we hadn't really suffered. We had been hungry. That's the main thing gets you're desperate. Yeah. No, we hadn't got desperately. No, (00:10:24) well, how did it all end? How did that old depression and well that's 40 then (00:10:29) I'll tell you then in the 40s it started to rain and the war came on and the prices went up and we raise crops that just a difference from the 30s to the 40's (00:10:42) 94 year-old William Henry Waters reflecting on the Great Depression in Moorhead. This is John. It's tea.