home | many pasts | evidence | www.history | blackboard | reference
talking history | syllabi | students | teachers | puzzle | about us
search: go!
advanced search - go!

“Like a Thick Wall”: Blocking Farm Auctions in Iowa

Some may think of farmers as conservative, but that view ignores a long tradition of rural radicalism in the United States. In the early years of the Great Depression, that radicalism found powerful expression in the subverting of farm foreclosures and tax sales. The technique was simple—when a farm was foreclosed for overdue taxes or failure to meet mortgage payments, neighbors would show up at the auction and intimidate any potential buyers. Then the farm and equipment would be purchased at a token price and returned to the original owner. Nation magazine reporter Ferner Nuhn witnessed such an auction sale in Iowa and described this practice in March 1933. These efforts saved the livelihood of many South Dakota and Iowa farmers who were devastated by the depression, but they were not enough. Between 1930 and 1935, about 750,000 farms were lost through foreclosure and bankruptcy sales.

A raw, chilly day. The yard of the farm, churned black in a previous thaw, is frozen now in ruts and notes. Where the boots of the farmers press, a little slime of water exudes, black and shiny. Through a fence the weather-bleached stalls of corn, combed and broken by the busking stand ghostly in the pale air. The farm buildings machine-shed, chicken-houses, pig-houses, corncribs—sprawl and gather again in the big, hip-roofed red barn, and strike a final accent in the thrust of the tiled silo. The farm is kempt and has a going air; there is nothing run down about it. The fields spread away, picking up other farm dusters sections off—remote, separate, dim under the big gray sky. One feels the courage of the isolated units, each swinging its big segment of earth. Perhaps they call for too much; perhaps the independence is doomed; but something of worth will be gone if it goes.

There are 300 farmers here. It is a Quaker community, long established, conservative. The farmers are mostly middle-aged, very workaday in overalls, sagging sweaters, mud-stained boots. They talk quietly in their slow, concrete manner, move about little.

They are neighbors of a farmer who can no longer pay interest on a $2,000 mortgage. These farmers have known him for years; they know he would pay if he could. They know the debt and the interest are three times as hard to pay off now as when the mortgage was given. Some of them know that soon their own property may be endangered by defaults. They know that this particular mortgage was given on stock, and that the farmer has offered the stock in settlement. And they know that the mortgagee refused the offer, demanded a sale instead—a sale of personal property, as provided by law.

The mortgagee stands off at one side, with his attorney. They are talking with the auctioneer. The farmers look that way once in a while, and while their glances are not friendly, they show no open animosity. The auctioneer comes away. Some farmers surround him; they want to be reassured that no household goods will be put on sale. The auctioneer reassures them. The farmers nod grimly; that much has been accomplished anyway. There are no leaders, no haranguers, no organization. In fact, this is the first affair of the sort in the county.

There is a movement toward the barns. The auctioneer mounts a wagon. The first thing offered is a mare. It is rather strange that live stock is offered first; the usual order is machinery first. The defaulting farmer stands silent holding the mare; he is a man almost elderly, quiet, staid-appearing; and he stands embarrassed, smoothing the mane of the mare. The auctioneer goes through his regular cry. The mare is sixteen years old, sound except for a wire cut and a blue eye. What is he offered, what is he offered, does he hear a bid? He tries to make it sound like an ordinary sale. But the crowd stands silent, grim. At last someone speaks out. Two dollars. Two dollars! Unheard of, unbelievable, why she’s worth twenty times that!

The silence of the farmers is like a thick wall. The rigmarole of the auctioneer beats against it, and falls back in his face. The farmer holding the mare stands with his head hanging. At last, without raising his eyes, he says, “Fifteen dollars.” This is a new and distressing business to him, and he is ashamed to make a bid of less than that. . . .

“Do I hear a twenty, a twenty, a twenty? Why, she’s worth twice that much.” The auctioneer is still going through the make-believe. He keeps it up for five more minutes. A pause, and a voice speaks out. “Sell her.” It is not loud, but there is insistence in it, like the slice of a plow, with the tractor-pull of the crowd reinforcing it. The auctioneer hesitates, gives in. The silent, waiting crowd is too much. “Sold.” After that there is less make-believe. Three more horses are offered. They are knocked down to the farmer, with no other bids, for ten dollars, eight dollars, a dollar and a half. The farmer is learning. The machinery comes next. A hay rack, a wagon, two plows, a binder, rake, mower, disc-harrow, cultivator, pulverizer. A dollar, fifty cents, fifty cents, a quarter, a half a dollar. Sold to the farmer. His means of livelihood are saved to him.

That night there is a meeting in the country chapel. It is a strange affair; nothing like this has happened in this community before. To conspire against the law! It amounts to that. To obstruct legal justice! There is an anxious, almost a bewildered look on the faces of the farmers. But it isn’t justice, even if it’s legal. So the debate-goes on. Ten-cent corn to pay seventy-five-cent debts; a quarter, perhaps almost a third, of all Iowa farms lost to their original owners in the last seven years for inability to meet obligations.

But there is something more than economics involved. A faith, a dream, is involved, and the jeopardy of it shows in their faces as they talk. A dream of land, of freeholders of the land, self-determining workers of the piece of earth they own. And now 47 per cent of the actual farmers of land in Iowa, richest land in the country, are not owners, but tenants. The proportion is steadily increasing. Many of the less resolute farmers have given up the idea of self-respecting, profitable farming, are resigning themselves to the thought of “a bare living on the land.” The shadow of peasantry hangs over them.

But a dream does not die easily. Heat generates from it even in this conservative audience. Old phrases are spoken, spoken with a new meaning. “Justice above the law.” "The Boston Tea Party.“ "The right to save our homes.” Someone describes the affair of the afternoon. The farmers cannot help being pleased at its success. It is a taste of direct action. They organize to use it more effectively.

Another county, the county seat. Trucks, Fords, muddy vehicles of all kinds have been pouring into the small town all morning. There is a big empty space of pavement in front of the courthouse, with “'No parking” signs. The farmers carefully park their cars down side streets. They gather in the courthouse, in the corridors, on the steps. A young farmer lounges near the door with a coil of rope nonchalantly hung on his arm.

Nothing happens. A sheriffs sale is expected, with the probability of a deficiency judgment, but the creditor’s party does not arrive. The gathering is sponsored by the Farmers' Holiday Association. There are 1,000 farmers here. There is organization. Leaders stand up on radiators in the corridors and talk. Make the dollar complete its circuit through the pockets of the big boys, the big-moneyed men, and get back to the producers. Until the American farmer rears up on his hind legs and demands cost of production, we are headed for the poorhouse as fast as we can go. Laws and the Constitution are meant to serve men, and when they cease to do that, the laws should be trampled on.

Still nothing happens. Early in the afternoon the sheriff announces that the sale has been called off. It is just as well—for the plaintiff. He hardly wanted to carry on his action in the midst of the thousand farmers. A settlement has been reached out of court. There is little applause. The farmers listen a bit grimly, then slowly disperse and go back to their farms. But they have accomplished their purpose.

These are fair samples of farmers‘ direct action as it has been going on in the Middle West in recent months. Those who deprecated the Farmers’ Holiday movement of last summer as a futile gesture should consider the present development, for it is a direct outgrowth of that movement, finding its precedents and methods in it. The general movement has had a number of results. It has called attention to the plight of the farmer; it has had real success as a method of dealing with specific debt actions; it is hastening legislative action along the whole line of agricultural problems; it is resulting in organization of farmers, extensive and intensive, such as perhaps has no parallel in history; and it is giving farmers a significant training in direct action.

The success of the protest gatherings (which apparently reached a peak in the Middle West in the first part of January, when perhaps a dozen or a score were taking place daily, though the movement has continued since and spread south and west) has been due, in part, to a general fairness of attitude which has kept public opinion with the farmers. Conciliation is tried first. Committees have been acting in many counties to investigate complaints or prospective actions with a view to compromising debts with fairness to both parties. The number of compromises has probably been greater than that of the sale protests. Nor will the farmers' organizations act to stop foreclosures when it is apparent that a member seeks advantage for himself. Farmers at Villisca, Iowa, have even acted to readjust a forced settlement which they felt was unfair to a mortgagee. Conciliation failing, the common practice in a forced sale is to save only chattels and machinery and working stock—the means of livelihood; grain and market stock are freely offered. The intention is to give the farmer a chance to start over again, and not let him be stripped and thrown upon the county.

The chief weapon of the farmer, in his protests, has been simply man power—sheer weight of corporate presence and purpose. Frequently a few lengths of rope are at hand; nooses have been dangled; but it is doubtful if the ropes would ever be used except as threat. In Nebraska the cold water in a horse tank was invoked, but not used, to silence an unwelcome bidder. Intimidation has been used semi-privately. Sheriffs “doing their duty” have been locked in cells, or in brooder houses [chickens].

A final weapon is boycott—social and economic. Landlords who have succeeded in removing a tenant are apt to find it hard to place another one on their land. Farming is so much a communal affair that the new tenant can hardly get along without the good-will of his neighbors and their help in silage and threshing. No trucker will haul for him. Usually he does not stay. A farm near Shelby, Minnesota, has been idle for a year; another in Iowa for two years.

Of actual gun play and violence there has been very little on the part of the farmers. In Kansas, however, a real estate dealer was killed during January after foreclosing a mortgage on a farm, by persons so far not designated. In Wisconsin, Iowa, and elsewhere guns have been used by homestead owners to prevent sheriffs from attaching their property. And at Sioux City recently farm pickets, in a continuation of the local milk war, engaged in a gun battle with truckers in which a number of men were wounded, one fatally. This last incident, while only indirectly related to the debt-protest movement, comes closest to a use of firearms by organized farmers.

But aside from the exceptional violence it is patent that every protested sale, however orderly, has violated the law. State Attorney Good of Nebraska, in a “law and order” statement which hardly recognized the realities of the farm situation, was nevertheless technically right, no doubt, in declaring courts could hold sales void in which bidding was obstructed. Courts, however, have not been voiding such sales. Local judges and sheriffs have done a good deal of nodding, blinking, and looking the other way. The farmer, threatened with losing his home and his livelihood has set rights up against legalities—and legalities have yielded.

To give a decent form to such yielding has now become the worried affair of legislatures and courts. Governors Schmedeman of Wisconsin and Herring of Iowa made the first move with proclamations asking forbearance in foreclosures. By February 7 the Iowa legislature had passed an act which has apparently become the pattern for legislation of the sort—an act intrusting district courts with distributing rents, incomes, and profits of real estate susceptible to foreclosure toward the claim of taxes, mortgages, and insurance, according to a certain priority, until March 1, 1935. Mortgagee or mortgagor may present a demand for court custody. Similar moratoriums, with varying time limits, were passed or are pending in Kansas, South and North Dakota, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Idaho. Deficiency judgments were the target of legislation in various States. North Dakota and Michigan acted to save property involved in tax delinquency. In a notable decision the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the value of land may not be measured by current purchase bids—a ruling which will allow courts to forestall deficiency judgments. These acts and bills—radical enough, it would seem, as against the sanctity of contracts—indicate the purpose of debt legislation. Two points may be considered. They aim mostly at postponement, and they would treat debt problems individually. This latter condition means that a terrific burden will be thrown on the courts. Other borrowers will be heard from, for the farmer carries only a fraction of the total debts, even on real estate. However, such legislation may avert mob action during the periods designated.

But it is clear, since such legislation only continues debts, that it merely gambles on the hope that prices will rise and the farmer be able to clear his own obligations within two or three years. The hope seems hardly warranted. It seems very unlikely that an upswing, even if it comes, will rise to such levels that the huge burden of debt can be met on terms at all comparable to the terms under which it was contracted. Consequently, with human rights of borrowers somewhat recognized as they are now, we are quite certain to enter an era of creditor deflation, with real scaling down of debts, or money inflation, in the offing.

Meanwhile the farmer continues to organize. The Holiday movement of last summer, the sale protests of this winter, are only items in a series of possible resorts to direct action. The growth of the Farmers' Union, sponsor of the Holiday and most militant of farm organizations, under such leaders as Milo Reno, is a sign of the times. The names of local units under its wing are suggestive: Council of Defense, Loyal Order of Picketers, The Modern Seventy-sixers. Its aims, as voiced, for instance, by the highly integrated Woodbury County, Iowa, association, are arresting: “To pay no taxes, permit no foreclosures, stay on the farm until we receive cost of production.” Its tactics are patterned after those of militant labor unionism: the combining of members for purposes of strike and embargo. Some concentrated groups, such as milk producers, have already shown formidable bargaining power.

At any rate, the farmer is not taking the threat of loss of ownership of his land lying down. He has tasted direct action. He may use it more drastically.

Source: Ferner Nuhn, “The Farmer Learns Direct Action,” Nation 136 (March 8, 1933): 254–256.