Chapter 3. Western Kansas in the 1930s

1934 was a fateful year. I got my first post-school-year job, was admitted to the Kansas Bar, got married, survived the dust storms and got marooned in a winter blizzard.

As you know, Roosevelt took office in 1933 in the height of the Great Depression, and I graduated from law school and went forth into the cruel world at the same time. I was the beneficiary of one of Roosevelt's New Deal programs. Among other things, he proposed and Congress established the Works Progress Administration and in Kansas, the agency administering it was the Kansas Emergency Relief Committee. Each county had a local office putting out relief jobs, and I was sent out to the Wakeeney office as a Certifying Officer. My job was to keep books and prepare and certify the payroll. It was really welfare jobs for white collar people.

The participants under the program worked at various jobs on roads, parks and other public projects. They were paid so much per hour and were paid an additional amount if they furnished a team of horses. Very little money was paid out as welfare (or relief as it was then called) to people who did not work for it.

I remember reading the big headlines in the paper announcing that Congress had appropriated the unheard-of sum of four billion four hundred million dollars for the various New Deal programs. They spend that much nowadays for one submarine.

I was sent to Wakeeney from the Topeka office in January. I recall that the winter was mild with very little snow or rain. I thought this was going to be great -- regular resort weather -- but little did I realize what was coming up. There was no rain in spring or early summer. Then it got hot, and the wind started blowing up a storm of dust -- the worst dust storms Kansas, Oklahoma and most of the mid-west had ever seen. The depression had knocked out the city laborers; now the farmers were dealt a knock-out blow. There was no irrigation at that time and the crops were literally blown out of the ground.

At that time nearly one-half of the people in most of the western Kansas counties were on some kind of a welfare program. The farmers could raise no feed for their cattle, and they had no money to buy feed even if any had been available, so they had to ship their cattle to market. Several farmers tried feeding the cattle thistles soaked with a little molasses. As could be expected, this didn't work very well. The cattle sent to market were so thin they were sold as "canners," in other words a very poor grade of beef, and they brought very little money on the market. Actually, they were sold under some sort of a government price support program, and it was a part of my job to count the cattle being shipped by the farmers in my county.

I had graduated from the K.U. Law School at the end of summer school in 1933. The next time a Bar Examination was given was in January 1934, but I had just started my job in Wakeeney so didn't plan to take the exam then. It was given again in June 1934, so I got on a train at Wakeeney with a "cram" book, which I studied on the way to Topeka. I took the Bar Exam the next day and fortunately, I passed. I was lucky to get by, since I had been out of school almost a year and hadn't much time to study for it.

Some lawyers probably would say it was easier then, and it probably was. In fact it was much easier to get into law school then, but about half the class flunked out the first year. They let most everyone enter, since there was no great number of applicants, but they made it very tough the first year.

My friend Kenneth Munro had the same kind of a job as mine, and he was sent to Hill City, 20 miles or so from Wakeeney. At one time Kenny wanted to take a trip somewhere and he wanted me to cover for him. He wanted me to go to Hill City and certify their payroll. That is how I was inexorably drawn by fate to a certain young lady named Lodema Jane Young, who was working temporarily at that office. She was supposed to prepare the payroll for my certification and was to make several carbon copies of it -- photocopy machines were unheard of then. I must have made some kind of an impression on her as she got the carbon in upside down and ruined the whole thing. I had to drive back to Wakeeney to get more payroll forms then back to Hill City. It was so late by the time we finished the job that I thought I might as well take her to dinner.

Well, one thing led to another, and in two weeks we were married. The funny thing is, we didn't have to get married. Everybody assumed we did, but we didn't have our first child for four years.

After we were married I received a magnificent raise in salary -- from $32.50 to $35.00 per week. I had been living at the Statz Hotel with a bathroom down the hall, but with my new bride, we moved to a room with a private bath. Within a few weeks we got an apartment.

We were married October 20, 1934, then in December of that year I was transferred to the Hays, Kansas, office. That was when we got stranded in a blizzard. We had put all of our worldly goods into our 1932 Chevrolet coupe and started to Hays, about 40 miles from Wakeeney. It had just started snowing when we left, but by the time we got about fifteen miles away, the snow was very heavy, and the wind was strong so there were huge drifts on the highway. We, along with several other cars, got stranded. We couldn't move through the drifts and anyway the road ahead was blocked by other stranded cars. After some time a truck with a snow plow came along and took everyone to Ellis, about five miles away. They put us up on the top floor of an old hotel which had no heat, and the temperature was about zero in the room. We were already about half frozen, and needless to say we never did get warmed up that night.

The next morning we got a wrecker to pull our car out of the snow bank, and we went on our way to Hays where we rented a little house on a farm just outside of town.

We were in Hays only a year or less. During this time we had the worst of the dust storms. We would wet towels and put them around the edges of the windows attempting to keep the dust from filtering into the house. I remember one day it was no lighter all morning than it had been at midnight. The dust was so thick the light from the sun was completely obliterated. That year many Kansas and Oklahoma farmers piled what few possessions they had in their old cars and headed for California, hoping to find any kind of work they could. This was the basis for Steinbeck's novel, "The Grapes of Wrath."

About the middle of 1935 we moved again -- this time to Topeka. The head office told me they could use me in a legal capacity. About all I did there was look over notes and mortgages signed by farmers who had received emergency loans to attempt to stay in business. These loans, of course, were funded by federal money appropriated as part of the "New Deal" program.

Lodema got a secretarial job with another New Deal office, the Public Works Administration. We both worked in Topeka for several months until they discovered Lodema was a Republican; then they told her she would have to quit because both of us could not work at government jobs. We fooled them, though. I quit and she kept her job. We moved to Lawrence and I set up a law office and she continued to commute to Topeka.

Previous Chapter     Next Chapter     Contents

Books     KanColl