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Potatoes Save the Day

The Great Depression of the 1930s did not feel so “great” to those suffering from unemployment, bank failures, or drought. The Depression was in full “3-D” – it was ‘Dire,’ ‘Disastrous,’ and “Dreadful.’  How did North Dakotans endure those Depression years from 1929 through 1940?

Here is one of those stories.

In the autumn of 1931, a terrible drought had wiped out crops and pastures in northwestern North Dakota and northeastern Montana. Farmers and ranchers there had become destitute. Over 6,000 families were in trouble, and 30,000 people needed help.  The Red Cross led a major effort to get food, funds, and clothing to the drought-stricken region.

On this date in 1931, a newspaper story in the Bismarck Tribune reported on the relief effort. North Dakota’s Red Cross director, R.A. Shepard, worked with Governor George F. Shafer, to arrange aid for the families. He announced that potatoes would be the centerpiece.

Accordingly, the Red River Valley Potato Growers Association appealed to its members to send potatoes for hungry people out West. And the farmers were very willing to help. It was harvest season, and the potato-growers were having their own troubles because prices for potatoes had fallen so low that it did not even pay to pick the potatoes because it cost more to hire the workers than the potatoes were worth.

Rather than have the potatoes rot in the ground, growers donated their crop to the relief effort.  To dig the potatoes, school administrators agreed to release children for two days, so that the youngsters could help with the harvest.

The job got done. Young people picked hundreds of tons of potatoes, the farmers hauled the harvest to railway stations, and the four railroads operating in North Dakota shipped the carloads free-of-charge to the drought area.

Eventually, more than 150 carloads of potatoes arrived in northwestern North Dakota and northeastern Montana in what was called a marvelous “self-help program.”

And so, the school children who picked the potatoes learned that hard work could help feed hungry families – a heart-warming story of Red River Valley potatoes helping save the day in 1931.

Dakota Datebook by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSUM.


“To Provide Drouth Area With ‘Spuds,’” Bismarck Tribune, September 21, 1931, p. 1.

“Potatoes are Being Gathered for Relief,” Bismarck Tribune, September 28, 1931, p.1.

“Valley Children to Harvest Spuds for Drouth Area,” Bismarck Tribune, October 6, 1931, p. 3.

“Machinery is Tuned for Red Cross Roll Call in Two States,” Bismarck Tribune, October 8, 1931, p. 1.

“Grand Forks Ships Spuds to Dry Area,” Bismarck Tribune, October 19, 1931, p. 2.

“Drouth Committee Receives Reports,” Bismarck Tribune, October 20, 1931, p. 2.

“The Job is Being Done,” Bismarck Tribune, October 26, 1931, p. 4.

“Urges More Effort in Red Cross Drive,” Bismarck Tribune, November 2, 1931, p. 3.

“Red Cross Leader Reports on Drouth,” Bismarck Tribune, November 13, 1931, p. 1.

“Potato Pickers are Minus Jobs,” St. Cloud Times, September 26, 1931, p. 3.

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