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A Boy's Lament

A farm boy in Burleigh County known as “Happy Mac” was not happy in July 1936. He had been doing his part for the family during hard times, herding their beef and milk cows wherever they might find forage. It was sparse. He writes,

While herding dogies out on the prairie
These few lines came to my mind
While we were putting green goggles on them
So they would eat whatever they could find

We turned them out on the prairie
Where the sun burned everything brown
We turned them out on the prairie
They are lying out there on the ground

By which Happy Mike means, the cattle he has been caring for are all lying dead on the ground. What happened to them?

Happy Mike was gazing on the effects of the federal government’s Emergency Cattle Purchase Program. Initiated in 1934, this program aimed to provide relief to livestock raisers and also reduce beef herds, thereby relieving surpluses.

Farmers and ranchers, Happy Mike’s family among them, had trouble feeding their cattle during the drought and hard times. So the government sent appraisers out to make offers on the emaciated beasts. Some were taken as canners to issue beef to the poor. Many, however, were just condemned, shot, and shoved into bulldozed trenches.

In an original ballad, 13-year-old Mike recounted what happened in 1936. An appraiser came out, with an inspector who purchased the family’s cattle. Riflemen methodically shot them, and laborers prepared to bury them. Happy Mike says,

As I stand upon this mound of dirt
You could almost hear me bawl
When they shot our only milk cow
We will have no more milk this fall

They have shot her out on the prairie
Where the sun burned everything brown
They shot her out on the prairie
For I found her out there on the ground

Historians take little note of the pathos, even anger, generated by such situations. Instead they emphasize the necessity of the cattle purchase program and the financial relief it provided. I can tell you, though, the experience was traumatic.

An articulate crank from West Texas named J. Evetts Haley—later a well-known historian, author of a landmark biography of the cattleman Charles Goodnight—Haley published a jeremiad against the cattle purchase program. He titled his essay “Cow Business and Monkey Business.” Haley denounced the purchase and liquidation of more than seven million cattle as “deplorable and inexcusable.” We should note, however, that Evetts Haley simply hated Franklin Roosevelt.

Agricultural extension personnel were dragooned into administering the program, and directing the cattle killings, against their will. I have seen many photos from the mid-1930s depicting North Dakota extension workers presiding over such slaughters. The captions they composed for the photographs made their displeasure evident.

I have seen no other documentation, however, that makes me feel so forlorn as does the ballad of Happy Mike and the tears he shed for his cows.

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