Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Winter 1998


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 18, No. 1, Winter 1998, pp. 23-37.


Copyright 1998 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


During the decade of the 1930s the nation plunged from prosperity and great expectations into a sharp decline that adversely affected a greater percentage of people than any economic crisis before or since. During the Great Depression 25 percent of the nation's work force became unemployed. No state was unaffected, and both cities and farms suffered, although each section of the economy displayed a different set of problems. For most urban dwellers the extent and depth of the crisis was measured by employment. Studs Terkel found the clearest, most succinct definition of the Depression when a once unemployed laborer said: "The Depression ended in 1936, the day I got a job."1 For farmers in western Kansas the Depression began in 1933 with thirty dust days and ended in 1939 when the rains came. The "hard times" were a staggering ordeal, both emotionally and economically, for millions of people, but some found the 1930s to be a time of opportunity while the Depression rolled over others without leaving a mark. Just how drastic the change could be and how disparate the impact of the Great Depression could be is illustrated in diaries kept by two Kansas women between 1935 and 1939.

At the onset of the Depression, the two women seemed similar. They had received comparable, if not identical, educations in similar rural settings-small country towns. Both came from the British Protestant tradition, although one was Presbyterian and the other Methodist. They were of the same white, middle-class generation. Their "values base" and prior status were much the same, but the details of their lives were to determine how they reacted to the troubled times.

Lucy Mabel Holmes was born to John and Frances M. Holmes in Baldwin, a small, rural town in down-state Illinois, on 10 June 1878. John Holmes was a construction contractor and carpenter. In 1890 the family moved to Topeka and Mabel (who used her middle name) lived there for the rest of her life. In 1935, when she began writing in her diary, she was fifty-seven years old, unmarried, and living with her sister, Elma, two years her senior, who was also unmarried. Elma had taught in Lafayette Elementary School when she first came to Topeka but was teaching at Randolph School in 1935. Mabel had served as secretary of the American Railway Express Company and as a stenographer for the Alliance Cooperative Investment Company before moving to a similar position at the Kansas State Horticultural Department. Her work schedule was quite flexible, and she frequently mentioned that she spent only the morning or afternoon at the office and took off time for long and short vacations.2

Elsie May Long wS\s born 31 October 1892, in Holton, Kansas, the second daughter of Alfonso Houston and Mary Jane Long. She attended public school in Holton. In 1909 or 1910, the family moved to a Ford County farm where her father worked for Charley E. Haywood as an informal foreman or manager. Elsie attended the Fowler Friends Academy for one year, then taught in a one-room country school for two years. On her twenty-second birthday (31 October 1914) she married Clarence O. Haywood, the son of her father's employer. They began their married life on a wheat farm twelve miles north of Fowler, Kansas, and about twenty-five miles southwest of Dodge City. Two sons were born to the couple, Harold in 1915 and Bobby in 1921.