The Drought And The Dole

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Few places are more unpleasant ban Washington in the summer, and the summer of 1930 was worse than most. The pressures of the business downturn had kept Herbert Hoover a prisoner in the White House through a hot June and a hotter July —the stock-market crash was less than a year old—and in those days before air conditioning, editorial writers were beginning to express concern for the President’s health. Whenever he could break away for a weekend, Hoover would lead a caravan of Cabinet members and other influential guests to his Rapidan River fishing camp three hours away in the Virginia mountains; even there the heat was inescapable that summer. He had announced plans for an August vacation in the Rockies, where he proposed to make a leisurely tour of the national parks, and his most ardent critics could not deny that he certainly had earned the rest.

“The President, it is understood, has more than an interest in nature and a love of the outdoors in visiting the Western region,” the New York Times commented. “Some of his friends assert that he desires to test the strength of his own position after fourteen months in office.…” The events of recent months had certainly tarnished his position, but as yet there was little indication that the damage was much more than the surface wind-erosion of politics. Hoover was an authentic American hero, the managerial genius who had organized relief for starving Belgium and Russia, who had taken command of the broken levees and the submerged fields of the Mississippi River delta during the great flood of 1927. Most people believed him now when he said that the slump had touched bottom—and public trust, like confidence in Insull utilities or the Bank of the United States, could prove the margin of recovery.

The mood of the boom persisted as that steamy summer began. Unemployment, the administration reassured the country, wasn’t as bad as the bread lines made it seem. Stocks were drifting downward after an impressive recovery in the spring, but Wall Street blamed that on the doldrums of the season. Not even in the best years of the Jazz Age had so many Americans travelled in Europe, and those who didn’t get over still had enough money to spend a half million dollars a day emulating Bobby Jones’s grand slam on miniature-golf-course putting greens. They fretted about the heat as much as the Depression. If clouds remained on the Presidential horizon, few, unfortunately, were rain clouds.

 
 
 
 

It was hot—hotter than anyone could remember. The country had never known a month as hot as July, the weather bureau said. In Arkansas during one forty-three-day stretch, the mercury reached i oo degrees or more on all but one day. A grocer in Petersburg, Indiana, opened up his store one morning to find a newly hatched chick hopping on top of a basket of eggs; the heat had been as effective as a sitting hen. A newspaper report from Quitman, Georgia, stated more or less seriously that a small field of popcorn popped spontaneously on the stalk. The story was straight out of Paul Bunyan, of course; so were the heat and the drought. For it was dry, too. Descendants of a Mrs. Roof in Ohio stirred around in their attic and discovered her diary, which seemed to indicate that only the 1830’s had been drier. A great swath of the middle states of America, running from the Chesapeake Bay to the Rocky Mountains, was affected by drought; the prospect not only of crop failure but of water famine threatened perhaps a million farm families in the twenty-sevenstate area.

In places the leaves were turning brown in early August; people walked dry-shod in what were ordinarily the river bottoms of the Ohio and the Mississippi, and fish were stranded and were dying in stagnant pools that had lately been trout streams. Water sold for a dollar a barrel in parts of southern Illinois, and motorists were known to have paid as much to have their radiators filled as they did for gas. A southern Ohio farmer named James Mead described how he “chopped down bushes and small trees in order to let the cattle eat the green leaves and thus to keep them from starving while we hoped and prayed for rain. Many birds are dying for lack of food. The seeds of weeds even have failed to ripen. Apples have literally been cooked on the trees. We are hauling water three miles.”

A heavy stillness enveloped the land; as day after day passed without rain, the sky took on an eerie copper tinge. Farmers watched helplessly as one crop after another failed that summer. Some went deeper into debt than they were already; others found that not even their vegetable gardens would grow, and lived on root crops and fried green apples. One Arkansas county agent reported that half of his two thousand farm families were without “feed for their stock or food for themselves.” His state was the hardest hit; banks were failing along with the crops, and cases of typhoid and pellagra were reported on the increase—the one caused by bad water and the other by vitamin deficiency.