Plains Folk

Keeping the Faith in the Coteau


Last week I told the story of some hard times in the Missouri Coteau, the grassland region of central North Dakota. Such times were the subject of an exhibit panel I took out to the research day at the Central Grasslands Research Extension Center, near Streeter. Besides the ghastly business of liquidating cowherds in the 1930s under the Drouth Cattle Purchase program – shooting cattle and bulldozing them into pits – the photographs in the exhibit depicted such developments as poisoning grasshoppers with homemade tub broadcasters and making mattresses with surplus cotton shipped in from the southern states.

The other exhibit panel I brought out, though, was called “Keeping the Faith in the Coteau.” Both the hard-times panel and the keeping-the-faith panel were compiled from the same source – the annual reports of county extension agents during the 1930s. Whereas the first panel told nothing but sad stories, the second one depicted how people kept their spirits up and kept the feeling of community alive even in the worst of times.

For instance, I get tickled every time look at see a photo of this darling girl from Kidder County, Arlene Rothi, overall-clad, showing her beef cattle at 4H achievement days. You see, she’s the only girl in the photos. And she keeps winning top honors for her steers.

And then there are all those photos of women in homemaker clubs. These clubs had to have been important during the worst years of the depression. Club meetings were a reason to put on something better than a housedress, and while they brought together people enduring the worst depression in history, they focused on finer things.

Men, too, kept the faith individually and collectively. They participated in cooperative projects such as cattle-dipping, which required group investment. All those photographs of farmers operating homemade contraptions to combat grasshoppers are evidence, yes, that the infestation of insects was severe, but also that farmers had lost neither hope nor their powers of invention.

Over the past fifteen years or so there has been a change in how we think about the Great Depression of the 1930s. Until then when historians spoke of the Great Depression, the plotline was simple. The people of the United States were knocked prostrate by the depression, and lay senseless on the ground until Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal picked them up, dusted them off, and got them working again. Ordinary people were helpless, without the power of the government, to save themselves.

Then historians began to notice that despite the depression and even the Dust Bowl, ordinary people retained initiative and did lots of things to hold their families and communities together. Not that they didn’t welcome help – heck, I have never sent a check back to the U.S. Department of Agriculture! – but they were not helpless, either.

And that’s what I see in these historic photographs from the Missouri Coteau. People doing things, people deserving of sympathy, not merely pity.

One day in 1937 Professor Alfred Arvold, founder of the Little Country Theater at North Dakota Agricultural College, drove out to the pavilion on the shores of Lake Hoskins, in McIntosh County. He was scheduled to speak there on the one-word subject, “Neighborhoods.” When he arrived, there were 400 people awaiting him. People keeping the faith in the Coteau.

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