Farm Horizons, October 2012
Riots over farm prices explode in Howard Lake 80 years ago
By Jennifer Kotila
In the midst of the Great Depression, rural farmers were struggling, finding it hard to pay taxes, interest, and principals on their land and equipment. The expanded mechanization of farming, better seeds, and scientific methods had American farmers producing more, but earning less, according to “Minnesota in a Century of Change” author Clifford Edward Clark.
The falling commodity prices, foreclosures, and a drop in land value left thousands of farmers facing bankruptcy. In response, farmers organized the National Farmers Holiday Association, or “Holiday Movement,” in 1932, which supported mortgage moratoriums for farmers.
The organization claimed that economic conditions were beyond a farmer’s control, and foreclosures should be suspended until a refinancing program had been developed. It also urged the federal government to guarantee farmers earned at least the cost of production. If their demands were not met, the FHA threatened a farmers’ strike.
The national leader of the FHA was Milo Reno of Iowa, and the vice president was John Bosch of Kandiyohi County, who believed in Mahatma Gandhi’s example of passive resistance, according to Clark. However, FHA members began to use direct action, exceeding the limits set by the leaders and causing both physical injury and property damage.
Leaders and others were amazed when farmers mobbed courthouses, pushed sheriff’s deputies, and prevented foreclosure sales. At chattel mortgage sales of farm equipment, members of FHA would bid pennies for the equipment, and return it to the owner.
By the beginning of September of 1932, the movement had reached area communities. Farmers from Cokato, Annandale, Waverly, Maple Lake, and Hasty gathered in Buffalo to further study the “Holiday Movement,” reported the Sept. 1 1932 edition of the Howard Lake Herald.
The group of eight men endorsed the principle that farmers should not sell their products for less than the cost of production. Although the men were not all optimistic the movement would succeed, they voted to do what they could to support and further the movement for better prices for farm products by soliciting sentiment in each township.
A resolution was also passed, stating, “We go on record as opposing all violence in connection with this movement.”
The headline “Holiday sentiment crystallizing in the county” appeared in the Sept. 15, 1932 Howard Lake Herald. A meeting had taken place “under the auspices of the Farmers’ Union” at Waverly’s city hall, which was “filled to capacity with farmers eager to lend support to any movement that might assure a better outlook for agriculture.”
“The economic cyclone threatening to sweep away the homes and the life savings of many of our rural folk is giving impetus to movements of this kind,” the Herald reported. Sponsors of the Holiday Movement likened farmers withholding products to industrial producers slowing production. “This is not a strike, it is a movement to put the farmer on a business basis,” the Herald quoted speaker, Mr. Zenan, as saying.
The National FHA called for strikes to begin Sept. 20, 1932. The majority of the support for the FHA in Minnesota came from farmers in west-central and southern Minnesota, and strikes in those areas began Sept. 21, according to Clark. It claimed success at stopping produce shipments from reaching county seats.
Picketers were successful in stopping farm shipments along US Highway 10 near Anoka, preventing farmers from shipping their produce to the Twin Cities, according to “The Farmer Takes a Holiday” by Everett E. Luoma. However, the trucks the picketers were stopping were returning to Howard Lake, and shipping via the railroad.
Angry picketers and farm strikers converged in Howard Lake Oct. 12, 1932. The headline in the Howard Lake Herald read “Farm strikers cause excitement in Howard Lake, 500 here to stop livestock shipping by rail.” The stockyard in Howard Lake was located where The Country Store is currently located. Picketers arrived before daybreak, set up a tent and started a bonfire near the stockyard to keep warm, and positioned their trucks near the loading chutes.
At 8:30 a.m., there were about 50 picketers on hand when the first veal calf to be shipped for the day arrived under the care of Howard Lake Mayor A. G. Kemper and Al Yager. With the assistance of several deputies and Sheriff Paul Kritzeck, the calf was successfully unloaded.
However, Orrin Fisher, who arrived shortly after to ship three veal calves, was welcomed to the shipyard with nail-studded belts laid across the road. While none of the tires on the light Ford truck Fisher was driving were punctured, picketers jumped on the truck and grabbed the steering wheel, trying to get the vehicle turned in the other direction.
The picketers only succeeded in turning the vehicle in a complete circle, after which Fisher accelerated and made it to the loading chute, with picketers hanging on all sides of his truck. Deputies and spectators (more than likely area residents, since many of the picketers were not local) assisted Fisher in unloading the calves.
Reinforcements were called for by the strikers, and shortly, truckloads of men were converging on Howard Lake. The Howard Lake Herald reported an estimated 500 picketers, while other accounts of the number of strikers ranged from 250 to 800.
“A council of war was held on the east side of the stockyards, and it was decided to storm the sheds where the animals were quartered,” reported the Herald. Using heavy gates as battering rams, strikers broke a small hole in the side of a shed, upon which a fight broke out between the deputies and picketers.
Truckloads of stock attempted to get through Howard Lake, or unload at the stockyard, with varying results throughout the day. Some were able to unload their cargo or get through town after enduring a lot of harassment, and others failed in their attempts.
At one point, when many of the picketers were away from the stockyards, the shipping association decided to load stock onto the railroad cattle car. Picketers surrounded the car and pushed it down the track, preventing the animals from being loaded. “While this was going on, a trainload of 52 cars whizzed thru (sic) town on its way to the markets,” reported the Howard Lake Herald.
Finally, A. E. Dahlberg, manager of the Howard Lake Shipping Association, informed the FHA picket leaders that the stock in the yard could not be returned to farms because of sanitary regulations. “The picketers allowed the stock to be shipped on condition that no more would be shipped from this place until a general settlement was reached with the Farmers Holiday Association,” the Herald reported.
Throughout the day, several people were injured, including sheriff’s deputy Henry Vogel, who was kicked in the eye and required two stitches. A woman picketer claimed she was hit by Fisher’s truck early in the morning, and rode on the fender before falling off and receiving more scrapes and bruises.
Truck driver Archie King of Grove City was driving a load of cattle through the picket lines when he was hit on the back of the head, and was reported in serious condition by the Howard Lake Herald.
The following February, Governor Floyd B. Olson issued an executive order halting mortgage foreclosures in Minnesota, declaring he was acting to prevent further violence throughout the state. The US Senate also supported the FHA, and approved legislation providing temporary relief to debtors. The Farm Credit Administration was created in 1933, with the Agricultural Adjustment Act and Farm Credit Act under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration.
“The FHA activists deserve credit for the mortgage moratorium and influencing New Deal price and credit policies,” wrote Clark.