The Great Depression hit the country in October 1929 with the largest stock market crash America had ever seen. By 1933, millions of Americans were unemployed and nearly half of the nation’s banks had gone under. While sheer distance from the financial hubs of the eastern states put a severe strain on Idahoans during this time, diverse commerce, a can-do attitude, and a state of plenty allowed Idaho to navigate the trials of the Depression in much the way they had before the crash: with hard work, ingenuity, and a simplified lifestyle.
Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein are perhaps the most published photographers of the early 1900s who traveled the country documenting the day-to-day struggles of rural America during the Depression. Collectively, their photos — of which there are precious few of Idaho — remind us of just how far we’ve come and how much we have to be thankful for today.
1. During the Great Depression, families and individuals would often come together in times of financial hardship to stave off homelessness.
When land was seized by the bank and auctioned off, Idaho locals would come together to bid the lowest price possible to get the property, pay duly, and immediately return the home to the original owner in inspiring acts of community. When this wasn't an option, the Resettlement Administration (RA) would relocate struggling urban and rural families to communities owned by the federal government.
Oneida County (1936)
2. In an an economy gone south, a sturdy work animal was often a family's livelihood.
The Depression hit Idahoans hard -- family incomes dropped by as much as fifty percent with the sharp decrease in potato prices.
Adams, ID (1939)
3. Writing letters and first-hand journal entries was a good way to pass the time.
One always hoped to hear good news from loved ones that their fortune had turned around. Magazines that still remained in business back East would often publish these letters and diaries as serial stories.
Gem County (1939)
4. Bathrooms were scarce in rural, small-town Idaho -- yet another struggle Idahoans faced.
This tub has no permanent home other than hanging on the wall for later use.
5. Sometimes a decorative or homemade touch could create a small boost in morale when things got tough.
These plants were brought by the lady of the house from Montana in 1939.
6. Even in times of trouble, Idaho farmers, miners, and loggers still kept a smile on their faces.
Bonner County, Idaho (1939)
7. Fortunately, Idaho is a land of unimaginable bounty; hunting and fishing helped sustain families through a difficult time.
8. Much like the Midwest migration to California was prompted by a new American Dream, Idaho experienced a number of surges in population throughout the Depression.
The gentleman pictured above came all the way from Nebraska. Bonner, Idaho (1939)
9. Idaho residents would clear-cut large portions of land and sell them to incoming families.
Many of these new families had moved to larger cities at the start of the Depression in hopes of a better life, but moved back to rural areas later to get away from the hustle and crime of urban life.
10. After clearing a tract of land, remaining stumps were removed using dynamite.
Fourteen sticks of it, to be exact.
11. While trying to beat the financial hardships of the '30s, Idaho families would occasionally overcut the land in hopes of making a larger profit, but it rarely paid off.
Priest River Valley, Idaho (1939)
12. Not the type of people to give up, however, Idaho families would simply grow hay in between the stumps, getting double-use out of the land.
Priest River Valley, Idaho (1939)
13. As the Depression lessened, new opportunities and businesses emerged with the help of various government loans.
Pictured is the Sawmill Self Help Co-Op, which saved Ola, Idaho from financial ruin during the Depression. After years of drought and state-wide economic struggles during Idaho's transition away from its former industries, without the sawmill, Gem County would not have pulled though.
14. Hardworking men of the Sawmill Co-Op, and a few giant Idaho logs ready to be sent down to the mill.
15. The faces of Idaho's other beloved and once-largest industry.
Expansive grazing ranges and a dry climate ideal for sheep raising made for an unrivaled industry; by 1918, the sheep population had reached 2.65 million, nearly six times the state's human population. Numbers of shepherding operations began to decline not too long after the turn of the century.
16. Through it all, perseverence, a rural foundation, and an inspiring work ethic is what created the blissful, beautiful Idaho that we know and love today.
Do you know much about the Great Depression in Idaho? We would love to hear any stories you might have to share. Please feel free to pass along your thoughts and stories in the comments below.