From the Archive — From the February 2016 issue

Rebellion in The Corn Belt

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The picketing had not been stopped when we arrived in Sioux City. We had come through Indiana and Illinois into Iowa. In two days we had not passed through wild land or woods, as we must have done in New England, Pennsylvania, or New York. The East is now much wilder than the Middle West. There is now no uncultivated land in these states. The countryside is spread out like a beautiful and tended park. This is the heart of America. It is more American today than is New England.

The farmhouses are ample, well set back from the road, as often as not on a little eminence. Shade trees surround them. There are nearly always shrubs and flowers. The great red barns and outhouses are flanked by brick silos. Fine cattle graze in the fields. There are droves of fat hogs; for Iowa makes its living from hogs and corn and dairy produce. The fine barns and the houses need paint. This is the first stage of decay and dilapidation. It is four years since the farmers have made costs of production.

It seems incredible that failure and bankruptcy should hang over these opulent farms. Never was there such rich, abundant country. The soil is so black it is purple. Sioux City is the only sprawling, down-at-the-heels place we have seen. It is a strange thing to realize that the owners of these peaceful farms have been out picketing the highways and illegally obstructing them.

In ordinary strikes there is a concrete organization to combat. The worker is fighting the owners of a certain mine or mill. The picketing farmers have no such definite enemy. It is almost as if they were picketing the Depression itself. They are organizing against ruinous prices, with foreclosure and bankruptcy as their enemies.

Highway No. 20, leading to Sioux City, has been the scene of some of the sharpest clashes between deputies and farmers. It has won itself the proud name of “Bunker Hill 20.” On the night we visited No. 20 a score of men were sitting round a campfire. A boy was sprawled out on an automobile cushion asleep. Everyone was in overalls. Their sunburned faces shone red in the firelight.

A lamp in a smaller tent glowed in the darkness. A trestle table stood near at hand. The Ladies’ Aid brings substantial meals to the picketers. The irregular circle round the fire, the high moonlit poplar trees, the lighted tent were like a stage set for a play. There was an air of immense earnestness about the farmers. They had been swung completely out of their usual orbit, but they are sure of the righteousness of their cause. An old man with white mustache said: “They say blockading the highway’s illegal. I says, ‘Seems to me there was a Tea Party in Boston that was illegal too. What about destroying property in Boston Harbor when our country was started?’ ” He sets the note of the evening.

“If we farmers go down bankrupt,” says one of the younger men, “everything in this country goes down. If we get enough to live on, everybody’s going to go to work again.”

“When we can’t buy,” says another, “there can’t be any prosperity. We ain’t been buying nothing, not for four years.”

“My binder’s fallen apart so, don’t know how I’m going to get through this year.” The conversation moves slowly from one man to another with quiet deliberation. There is a cry: “Truck!”

They hurry out in the roadway. All of them carry heavy stakes, some made from axe handles. None of them is armed, though a young fellow pointed to a little mound of quarter bricks.

“Plenty of Irish confetti,” he said cheerily. Beside the road, handy to use, are heavy spiked logs and planks bristling with spikes to throw in front of trucks. This truck is empty. There is a short conference. The truck passes on its way. “Good night, boys,” calls the driver.


From “Rebellion in the Cornbelt: American Farmers Beat Their Plowshares into Swords,” which appeared in the December 1932 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 165-year archive — is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.

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