THE 1910s, '20s and '30s were not just filled with happy music, fun fashion and movie stars. Worldwide calamities such as war, poverty, drought and disease disrupted America's complacent belief that life was good and would continue the same way for many years to come.
WORLD WAR ONE
Though World War One started in 1914, the United States didn't enter the conflict until April 1917. When it finally joined, however, the nation jumped in with both feet – both soldiers and civilians alike. By the time an armistice was reached in November 1918, over four million American men had been called to service. While time seemed to stand still for the doughboys stuck in the trenches of France and Belgium, life went on in the cities and towns of America.
Whether one worked directly on the war effort or not, everyone was expected to contribute in some way. Volunteerism became one of the most important duties of American men and women. In Sheridan County, several organizations provided opportunities for volunteering. With a membership of over 4,300, the local Red Cross donated thousands of pounds of medical supplies and bandages. Other groups held knitting bees, conducted Liberty Bond raffles and sponsored food conservation workshops. Americans who stayed home were expected to make whatever sacrifices were needed to win the war. They cut back or did without many things: flour, sugar, meat, vegetables, wool, silk, oil and gasoline. They were also asked to finance the war effort. Some $21 billion – over half the cost of the war – was raised through fundraising efforts such as Liberty Loan drives.
World War One impacted American culture in a variety of ways, both superficial and profound. Our sense of style changed as fabric shortages continued and the need for simpler clothing became paramount; physical appearance was altered as shorter hairstyles and more makeup became acceptable for "good girls"; music focused on soldiers overseas and their families waiting back home; books and magazines were filled with war-related stories and articles.
During the war, most literature was upbeat and supportive. After the war however, there arose a “lost generation” of writers and artists whose wartime experiences led them to view the world with hopelessness and cynicism. Their faith in the world was shattered by the horrors of modern warfare and as a result, they saw little redeeming value in conforming to society's norms. Through their writings, authors Ernest Hemingway, Erich Maria Remarque and F. Scott Fitzgerald influenced an entire generation through such novels as A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Great Gatsby and The Beautiful and the Damned.
For more on World War One, visit our Keeping the Home Fires Burning exhibit.
In late 1918, having already ravaged the rest of the world, the “Spanish Influenza” came to America. Actually, it was making a return engagement. Thought to have originated in Fort Riley, Kansas, earlier in the year, this particularly virulent illness quickly traveled around the world, leaving the U.S. on American troop ships and returning the same way. When it returned to American shores in the fall, the flu began to impact the civilian population.
The flu had some nasty complications. The most common, pneumonia, actually caused most of the deaths attributed to the flu. Of the twenty million flu-related deaths worldwide, 500,000 were Americans and 43,000 were American servicemen. Nearly one-fourth of the U.S. population became ill and, because of the shortage of doctors and nurses, proper medical care was nearly impossible. There were no drugs, no vaccinations and no known cures.
In Sheridan County, the flu struck hardest in mid-October 1918. Within a matter of weeks, several dozen residents died, from miners to ministers to prominent businessmen. In all, over 200 men, women and children in the Sheridan area died of flu or pneumonia. Hardest hit were the mining camps and other rural communities. Ranches were also impacted and the Kendrick properties were no exception, as at least three OW Ranch cowboys perished. As on most issues, John B. Kendrick expressed his opinions on why this was so:
Every case that resulted fatally of which I had any knowledge in the West was due to indiscretion and generally speaking to the action of the patient inarbitrarily insisting upon doing unwise things when on the way to recovery. … This same experience has applied in every single case of which I have knowledge so it certainly does pay to be a little more patient in getting out and taking chances on a relapse.
On November 25, 1918, Manville Kendrick was in the army hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, suffering through a bout with influenza. Naturally, his father was quite distressed:
I am certainly in hopes the officer in charge will insist upon keeping you in the hospital until it is entirely safe for you to leave. I hesitate to criticize you for not taking better care of your health because I know how impossible it is for any of us to understand the danger until it is too late.
To slow down the spread of the disease, schools, churches, theaters and pool halls were ordered closed and all public auctions were suspended until the end of the epidemic. Because no one really knew what caused the flu, there was quite a lot of speculation as to what would prevent it. The Sheridan Post in October of 1918 reported the following:
Everybody is now praying for a storm -- preferably snow. While there is a difference of opinion on the part of physicians whether or not cold would kill the germs, it is conceded that a heavy snow fall or a big rain would clarify the air and prevent the germs being carried about with the dust of the streets.
In a building on Grinnell Street, donated for the cause by Sheridan attorney E. E. Lonabaugh, the Red Cross operated a 33-bed emergency hospital. Although it was fully occupied for most of the epidemic, the majority of those who contracted the disease suffered - and sometimes died - in the isolation of their own homes. Local newspapers were filled with names of the dead and dying for weeks in late 1918 and early 1919. Dozens died in the space of one seven-day period in October, with few being given any more mention than their name and place of death.
For more on the impact of the Spanish Influenza on the Sheridan community, read our article, Spanish Influenza.
THE GREAT DEPRESSION
Although not the first economic depression in America's history, the one that struck America in the first third of the Twentieth Century was certainly one of the worst. Caused by a complex combination of economic factors and complicated by an unnatural turn of the weather, the Depression was felt by every segment of American society.
The great Stock Market Crash of October 1929 is frequently blamed for the onset of the Depression. Actually, it was just a symptom of the greater economic uncertainty running rampant in the country. After the crash, no one knew what its consequences would be. Therefore, traders, businessmen and investors did nothing, waiting to see how the situation would shake out. This hesitation caused cutbacks in both manufacturing and purchasing, thus further destabilizing an already fragile economy. At least one scholar has referred to the Depression as a "collective insanity" consisting of an endless cycle of despair. Workers were idle because firms would not hire them; firms would not hire workers because they saw no market for goods; there was no market for goods because workers had no incomes to spend because the firms would not hire them.
Anger was understandably the result. Farmers, homeowners and businessmen were angry at the banks for foreclosing on their property; race riots - in which whites, blacks and Hispanics blamed each other for the lack of jobs - broke out in cities both large and small; veterans of World War One, concerned about their pensions, marched on Washington. In 1931, Tin Pan Alley songwriters Yip Harburg & Jay Gorney captured the anger of the moment in one of the most powerful songs of the Great Depression, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime:
They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob.
When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear, I was always there right on the job.
They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead.
Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?
Federal programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps were established to help workers through the tough times. Even so, there were not enough jobs for everyone. Soup kitchens and flop houses appeared in cities both large and small, and transient wanderers (also called tramps or hobos) hitched rides across the country on railroad cars, looking for work and better times. In Sheridan, the local jail was nicknamed the "Hobo Hotel" because it was frequently filled to capacity with tramps taken from the train yards.
At least 200,000 of these homeless wanderers were children. By the end of 1930, nearly three million children had left school – some because they couldn't afford to attend, others because their parents had taken to the migrant lifestyle and the children were left with no way to attend class. As a result of the declining enrollment, thousands of schools closed or operated on reduced hours.
THE DUST BOWL
The late 1920s and early '30s were very hard on farmers and ranchers as well. Not only did they face a global economic slow down of historic proportions, but they also faced one of the worst and longest droughts in America's history. People around the world had no money to buy the crops and livestock that farmers produced, and the drought made it almost impossible to plant and harvest the crops in the first place. As a result, many farmers lost their property.
If they didn't lose their property to the mortgage banks, they stood a good chance of losing it to Mother Nature. During the drought, a large swath of the West and Midwest became known as the "Dust Bowl." Huge dust storms were created when hot winds combined with dry, loose soil, much of it too dry to sustain crops. From Texas to North Dakota and Colorado to Iowa, these massive towers of dirt and darkness swept across the prairie, blotting out the sun and covering everything with a layer of grit.
The drought also affected ranchers in the northern plains. Even though they didn't have to worry so much about the dust storms – these appeared mostly in farm country where over-tilled soil was susceptible to being swept away – they did have to worry about the fact that no water meant no hay and grass. Rather than see them die of thirst or sell at a loss, many ranchers destroyed their animals. One government buyout program paid ranchers twelve dollars a head to kill the animals – sheep, horses, cattle and hogs – rather than put them on the glutted marketplace. Like many of his neighbors, rancher John Kendrick took advantage of this program, dumping the dead cattle in ravines near his Wyoming and Montana ranches.
A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
April 1999 - December 2001
State Historic Site
Detail from movie poster, 1916 (Private Collection)
Red Cross Poster (Private Collection)