Fremont County, Iowa

"The Great Depression"
by Lona Lewis

View from the Attic ~ A Weekly Series
Fremont County Historical Society
Week of 23 March 2009

Our news today is filled with worries, about another great depression paralleling the one the USA had in the 1930s. But one large difference surfaces, there was no safety net during those hard economic times. Families had to find a way to survive. The Historical Society, in its collections, has items from the Depression that provide clues as to how people coped.

Fremont County, in 1930, had a population total of 15,533. Towns were filled with small businesses. Each community had all the services needed including more than one grocery store, auto dealerships, filling stations and movie houses. Most area schools had their largest graduating classes during the thirties. (Baby boomers from World War 1.) Although the residents, and businesses, did not know it, they were experiencing their heyday.

The towns depended on those living in the country to trade in their establishments. Regardless of the number of thriving small towns, and their residents, Fremont County, then like now, was a rural area. If one drove a section, there would be numerous small farms with a garden and chickens dotting the countryside.

As the Depression deepened, more than ever the gardens sustained families. Town residents also had gardens. Canning and root cellars, were mainstays to keeping food on the table. Barrels of salted pork, apples, potatoes and squash could be found in their cellars. Sauerkraut’s pungent smell mixed with all of the other aromas that assailed the nose when the cellar door was lifted. There was no end to the foods that could be preserved for winter use.

Every household had a pressure canner that was forever busy in the summer. Mabel Lewis of Riverton, lived though those Depression years as a young woman raising three children. Even into the 1990s her memories of that period were vivid. She most remembered that as spendable cash disappeared, everyone in the neighborhood worked together to provide necessary services. She would talk about how her husband, Dawson, cut everyone’s hair. Another neighbor fixed shoes.

Homegrown Sunday dinners of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans and cake were something to look forward to all week. Only the sugar, flour and a few other ingredients had to be purchased at the local store. Sunday evenings were times for popcorn and soup. Neighbors would join in the fun and many times a chicken was sent home with a family who was having an especially bad time.

It was obvious in talking to Mabel, that she remembered that time as a challenge, but one that still had its joys. The biggest pleasure being relying on family and friends for entertainment and working together that helped keep everyone close knit.

As does any economic downturn, those times left their mark. Census data shows that from the early 1900s through 1930, the population in Fremont County was stable. By 1940, it had lost 888 residents. Ten years later, in 1950, the population number had decreased by 3,210 to 12,323 from its high in 1930. In 2000, Fremont County had 8,010 residents.

No longer is the countryside dotted with small family farms. The number of grocery stores for the entire county is now three. The use of automobiles and changing economics, especially in farming, have affected population in the County but it began with the Great Depression.

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Page updated on November 1, 2020 by Karyn Techau