Life in rural America has always been hazardous. It’s safer today, but in the 1930s a man could expect to live to be 58 and a woman to 62.
Without electricity, families had to work harder to keep clean. The machines they operated were dangerous. People died from diseases rarely seen today. Antibiotics, childhood immunizations, and high-tech procedures to treat injuries had not been invented. Hospitals and doctors were miles away down gravel roads. Babies were usually born at home. Flammable kerosene lamps were both dangerous and dim. Poor sanitation from outhouses and lack of bathing facilities added to the spread of disease. Without refrigeration, many country people suffered from food-borne illnesses. Farm families worked around gas or steam-powered machines with sharp blades, open belts, dangerous augers, and unpredictable animals. Farming accidents were common.
Even the weather caused sickness. In 1930s, many people on the Great Plains suffered from “dust pneumonia” where grit in the lungs simulated the symptoms of the killer disease. The problem was so wide-spread that singer Woody Guthrie wrote a song called “Dust Pneumonia Blues.”
Albert Friesen has vivid memories about an accident with a steam-powered threshing machine. The boiler blew up, and “one guy lost his leg. I remember that yet,” Albert says. Ruth Nettleton says when her brother fell and gashed his lip, her father boiled silk thread and sewed it up.
Mildred Opitz talks about giving birth to her daughter at home because they didn’t have money to go to the hospital. During the birth of her son, she had complications and barely survived.
Many childhood diseases that were common in the 1930s are now considered preventable. Birdie Farr had rickets (usually caused by a vitamin deficiency) as a child. Elroy Hoffman’s sister had scarlet fever, and his whole family had to be quarantined. And when Elroy was 16, he almost died from a burst appendix. Helen Bolton had to spend extra time working in the fields because her husband was weakened by jaundice.
Herman Goertzen’s father fled Russia and came to the United States, but the two-year journey left him with weakened lungs. Herman had to quit high school because his father needed his help on the farm.
Clifford Peterson tells the painful story of how his older brother was killed in an accident with a team of runaway horses when men were working in the field cutting and putting up hay.
The Apetz brothers say the 1930s pit silos were known for their deadly gas build up. Pit silos were about 24 feet around and about 60 feet deep. Farmers stored silage (such as cut up cornstalks) in the brick pit silos. “That silage formed a gas and usually you let the lantern down [to check for gas before entering the silo]. And if it went out, why you knew there was gas down there.” The gas sucked the oxygen out of the lungs and the person suffocated. Accidents and disease claimed many lives in the 1930s.
Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.