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The Great Depression

The Great Depression began with the stock market crash in October 1929. Because Kansas' wealth lay in farm products and minerals, the crash did not immediately affect the majority of people in the state. However, when America's depression came to Kansas, it was accompanied by a devastating drought. 

During the early 1930s, subsoil moisture in Kansas became depleted. In addition to a lack of moisture, many farmers did not use proper soil conservation methods. In 1933, dust storms began in the Midwest. When the dust was combined with rain, mud balls would fall from the sky. The worse year for the storms was 1935. Dust blew so thick and black on April 14th of that year that it became known as "Black Sunday." Much of the Central Plains became known as the Dust Bowl during this period.

Kansas and other Midwestern states lost population at this time as farm foreclosures and unemployment worsened. People seeking some solution for the state's economic problems began to look outside the traditional political parties for answers. Dr. John R. Brinkley, the "goat gland" doctor, waged a colorful and controversial campaign for governor in 1930. Brinkley, using a powerful radio station he owned to promote his campaign, ran a strong race for governor as an independent and lost in a disputed election.

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Dust Storm approaching Tribune in Greeley County in 1933 (Photo courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society)

The 1930s also saw a renewal of labor strife. Governor Alf Landon sent National Guardsmen to preserve order in Cherokee County when labor troubles threatened the coal mines. A controversial law was passed at the time making it illegal for a man to be out of work if a job was available in the near vicinity.

Kansans were involved in national politics during the 1930s. Two of the men to lose to Franklin Roosevelt in the Presidential election of 1936 were Kansans. Alf Landon was nominated by the Republican Party to run against Roosevelt. The Communist Party candidate was Earl Browder from Wichita.

President Franklin Roosevelt initiated several federal programs to cure the worst effects of the Depression. These programs became known as the New Deal. The bi-partisan Kansas Emergency Relief Committee administered these programs. Evidence of these federal programs can be seen around the state in Works Progress Administration (WPA) construction projects. A number of these programs were directed towards helping farmers cope with their problems. These included the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the Drought Relief Service, which purchased cattle from poor farmers.

Other Kansans also gained fame on the national scene during this time. In 1932, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly the Atlantic alone. In sports, Kansans Jess Barnes, Smoky Joe Wood, and Walter "Big Train" Johnson gained prominence in major league baseball after the war. Glenn Cunningham also set a world record for the mile run.

As the end of the 1930s approached, fascism, the political movement whose principles would eventually lead to the Second World War, was growing throughout Europe. Gerald Winrod, a radio preacher from Kansas, ran as an independent candidate for the Senate on a political platform that closely followed Fascist thinking. The Great Depression would soon be brought to an end by an even greater tragedy. In April of 1940, the Germans invaded Norway and Denmark. For the next decade, Kansans would deal with the Second World War and its aftermath.

Additional Resources

bulletFind out more about the Great Depression.
bulletRead Voices from the Dust Bowl, from the Library of Congress American Memories section.

Study Guide Questions

  1. What devastating event for farmers accompanied the Great Depression in Kansas?
  2. Why were people attracted to non-traditional political movements during this time period?
  3. What two Kansans ran against Franklin Roosevelt in the 1936 Presidential election?
  4. What New Deal programs were directed towards helping farmers?
  5. Identify any WPA projects that were built in your area.

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