Dakota Datebook

Unemployed Citizens League

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

 

In 1932, the U.S. unemployment rate was at twenty-three percent. In Minot, that summer, about one hundred men who had lost their jobs banded together to “make their way” through their misfortune. The men formed a group called the Unemployed Citizens League and “they let it be known that they would be willing to go out and take any honest job at almost any price in order to get food, clothing, and fuel” for winter heating. Caught in a predicament, they had “wives and children depending upon them for support,” and they intended to find work without asking the city or county for welfare.

The men did all kinds of work – odd jobs in the summer, shoveling snow from a surprise October storm, and helping farmers with threshing, picking potatoes and other farm work, being paid with beef, pork, potatoes, poultry, butter, eggs and vegetables.

The Minot Unemployed Citizens League, led by manager Elmer Johnson and bookkeeper Jack Bell, devised a remarkable enterprise to carry them through the winter of 1932 to 1933. The League leased a coal mine, located six miles northwest of Minot on the road to Burlington, from Rodney Hunnewell, and set forth digging out lignite coal for sale or barter to people needing coal for winter heat.

Hunnewell let them use old mining equipment he had on hand and sold them dynamite for blasting – and rails and coal cars for hauling out the lignite. The coalmine came at no up-front cost. Instead, Hunnewell accepted a royalty of twenty-five cents a ton on the coal, which sold for a mere $1.60 per ton.

Iver Halvorson, a coal miner from Burlington with 28 years of experience, gave the League the benefit of his knowledge to help them dig the coal from a twelve-foot wide vein. Other experience miners included Clarence Brown, Bert Carr, and Tom Tift.

The crew used two mules to pull the coal cars, and employed Ross Whitaker as the muleskinner. The miners joked that it was easy to distinguish muleskinner from the mules “because Ross wears a hat.”

And so, in the months prior to the make-work programs of the New Deal, the Unemployed Citizens League of Minot took their own fate in their own strong hands – digging coal and working in the fields in a cooperative spirit, at a time when the economy had broken down in the days of the Great Depression.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.

Sources:

“Unemployed Citizens League Operates Coal Mine Near Minot With No Expense,” Ward County Independent [Minot, ND], December 1, 1932, p. 1, 4.

“Unemployed To Cut Wood, Earn Clothing,” Minot Daily News, October 18, 1932, p. 8.

“Unemployed Citizens Are Provided Jobs In Building Of Road,” Minot Daily News, October 12, 1932, p. 1.

“Employment Status of the Civilian Population: 1929 to 2002,” U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2003, http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/hist¬_stats.html, accessed on November 16, 2010.

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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