The Devastating Thirties

Many a historian has written the story of the Great Depression in terms of economics, but they who do so bat only in the major leagues.  On the Great Plains drought choked life from the land.  It was the incidence of drought and depression at the same time that produced the greatest social disaster the North American continent has known since the white man ca to these shores.

In the early twenties Griggs County was included in the richest counties per capita in the United States.  By 1936 it was among the poorest.  And before the decade of the thirties was over, Cooperstown, as the county seat, had become a mirror of the dismal tide.

Cooperstown was founded in 1882.  Griggs County organized in 1884.  When the "dirty" thirties came upon the nation, some fifty years later, the pioneer generation that had provided the character and the dedication and the toil were dying out.  That was the toughest part of the story, for the pioneers had given there all to the area, the county, Cooperstown, the nation, and somehow it seemed to have betrayed them.  Most of them had come here penniless, invested a lifetime of hard work only to lose everything they had at the end of their days.

I saw them, their bleak, beleaguered faces and the smile they froze upon their lips to keep the hurt from showing.  I watched them being buried as old age cut them down in endless, repetitive fashion, going to their graves as poor as when they came.  I wrote obituary after obituary, sometimes as many as a dozen in a single issue for the Sentinel- Courier, and I cried over every one of them.

John Syverson and Sons,' Inc., Thompson-McDermott, Albert Larson and Company were the big names on Burrell Avenue in the days before the Great Depression.  There were three banks, The First National, The First State and The Farmers and Merchants Bank, all of Cooperstown, but when the tide of that era had run its course, every one of them were gone.  The present First State Bank stands on the site of the old First National, while the Farmers and Merchants is a revival of a later date.

And so it came about that the depression and the drought and the deaths of the pioneers descended on Griggs County in a single decade.  The social and cultural dislocations were as bad as the economic.  Indeed the continuity of cultural traditions was completely disrupted, and the distinguishments of local history were, for the most part, lost for following generations.

But the same situation seemed to prevail almost everywhere in the United States so Griggs County is really a capsule reflection of the change that engulfed the nation.

It is said that a people who ignore history are fated to repeat it, but it is equally true that a people who worship it are fated to succumb to it.  I like best the attitude of Great Nels who was a farmer in Helena Township on the Ball Hill Creek.  It was in the depths of the Depression.  Great Nels, with a mortgage on his farm, was in danger of losing everything that he had worked for forty years.  But he smiled and shook his fist and he said, "Ven I come to dis country I haf five dollar in my pocket.  It is a good country.  I still got five dollar in my pocket, by jimminy.

The pioneers didn't believe in money.  They believed in work.  They believed that a man who worked hard earned his reward in money or property or whatever.  But they did not believe in these things without work.  indeed, they believed that work put value to money.  And they were right.

They were right about a lot of other things, too.  If a farmer became ill and couldn't work, his neighbors would plow his land and put in his crop.  Dr. Carl Brimi flagged down the Fast Mail at Sutton to get a sick child to a Fargo hospital.  R. C. Cooper carried a sack of flour on his back all the way from Valley City to Cooperstown in the winter of 1882.  You did what you had to do, and you did not complain.  You took the cards that life had dealt and played them out.  Dr. Brimi thought the Fast Mail was going to run him down, but he stood in the tracks waving his flag and refused to yield.  The founder of Cooperstown did not know whether he could make it or not, but he knew he had to try.

Such was the code that prevailed up to and through the Thirties.  It was a simple, unsophisticated code.  But it was honest, decent, and sacrificial, and it worked.  And that is a whole lot to say for any era.

Source: Griggs County History 1879 - 1976 Page 41

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