Reflections: Local farmers were under stress 90 years ago, too

Mother Nature has once more thrown the Fox River Valley a curveball, this time in the form of a spring and early summer drought that seems to be persisting right into autumn.

This, of course, is far from the first time the area’s farmers have had to deal with drought posing a serious danger to the crops they worked so hard to plant last spring. Because as Mark Twain pointed out: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

Nine decades ago this summer, our corner of northern Illinois was undergoing severe financial and weather stress, both of which were having destructive effects on the farming community that then comprised most of Kendall County.

The economic disaster that would become known as the Great Depression was in full destructive swing, affecting both the area’s farming and urban communities. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Alphabet Agencies” were just getting a good start fighting to right the nation’s sinking economy in 1933 and even the staunch Republicans making up the vast majority of the county’s population were desperately participating. And that included the proudly Republican publishers of Yorkville’s Kendall County Record, who were eager participants in the National Recovery Administration – NRA – that authorized the President to establish codes intended to eliminate unfair trade practices, reduce unemployment, establish minimum wages and maximum hours, and guarantee the right of labor to bargain collectively. Asked Editor Bob Marshall on Aug. 9, 1933: “Have you signed up with the NRA yet? We must all get behind the movement if it is to have the best results.”

Meanwhile the county’s farmers were trying to deal with the unprecedented economic conditions that were bankrupting more and more farmers. A good measure of exactly how serious the crisis was is that virtually every county farmer was seeking government help of one kind or another. On Aug. 9, the Record reported that: “The debt adjustment committee for Kendall county met at the Farm Bureau office in Yorkville Friday night for the purpose of securing information concerning the work of the committee. ... Debtors or creditors in Kendall county who desire to talk over their problems should see one of the of the members of the committee, which will meet from time to time as occasion demands.”

And as if the unfolding economic disaster of the Great Depression wasn’t bad enough, farmers were also dealing with a crippling drought 90 years ago. “The extreme heat wave was broken on Sunday afternoon, June 10 by a north wind and a twenty-degree drop in the temperature,” the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on June 14. “The thermometer stood at 100 degrees at noon. The heat and dry weather last week injured the fruit and small grain crop and was very hard on man and beast.”

A week later, the Record noted the intense heat had damaged what is today U.S. Route 34 between Oswego and Yorkville: “The terrific heat of two weeks ago exploded a number of places on the concrete roads. In the [Gates Creek] ravine just south of Oswego there is a dip that tends to break springs and in many places the top has exploded off the top of the concrete.”

And then there were the chinch bugs. In this day and age of effective herbicides and pesticides, most of us don’t really understand the damage insects did to crops in the years before they were developed. Chinch bugs, which thrive in extremely dry conditions, are voracious and attack crops in their millions. As a 1922 U.S. Department of Agriculture circular explained: “The bugs leave their winter quarters in early spring, migrating to fields of wheat, oats, etc., feeding until the grain is nearly ripe and then attacking the corn and other row crops.”

Starting in June 1933, the chinch bug plague hit Kendall County hard. “According to Farm Advisor Miller chinch bugs are plentiful in most parts of Kendall county,” the Record reported on June 14. “At present they are most abundant in barley and the young brood is just beginning to hatch.”

The Record’s Oswego correspondent followed up on July 5 to report: “All the farmer families are talking chinch bugs, which have invaded this area as never before. They ruined much of the wheat and barley and some oats and are now entering the cornfields. Later and more reports are coming in of the destruction of whole fields of small grain and the entering of cornfields by the chinch bug. Perhaps Illinois farm folks never realized before this hot, dry year how much they have had for which to be thankful.”

The infestation was huge, almost incomprehensible, not only for those of us trying to visualize it today, but just as difficult for those living through it 90 years ago. Reported the Record in August 1933: “Those who have not seen effective chinch bug barriers can hardly realize that from seven to eight bushels of bugs may be trapped in a half mile during one week. Since each bushel contains at least 60,000,000 bugs, it is possible to trap 480,000,000 of these insects per week in one half mile of barrier.”

Eventually, the chinch bug plague eased, helped by concerted effort by local, state, and national Farm Bureau officials, as well as state and federal government assistance. And while the pests returned in 1934 and 1935 with a vengeance, increased federal and state government support proved more effective than in 1933. By 1936 improving weather conditions did their part to suppress the pests.

My dad emigrated from Kansas to northern Illinois in 1919 and later in his life I asked him about the chinch bug infestation of the 1930s. “I knew right away what they were and how dangerous they were,” he recalled. “I’d hoped I’d left those things behind in Kansas, but I hadn’t.” He knew how to battle the things, and helped his neighbors fight them, Kansas-style, until the plague eased.

So while our farmers are being forced to deal with the results of drought, at least they also aren’t having to deal with an economic depression and an insect plague of biblical proportions at the same time.

When it comes to farming these days, one plague at a time is more than enough.

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