The Bonus Army and the Baby Chicks

 

In 1924, Congress authorized payments of $1.25 per-day-of-service for all veterans of The Great War as a bonus for their service in Europe and on the high seas. Dad’s Navy service had been on the USS Plattsburg of the Armed Merchant Cruiser Service. The Plattsburg was built in 1888 for passenger service between Liverpool and New York, and had been attached to the U. S. Navy during the Spanish-American War in 1898 as well. Dad served from May 20, 1918 until September 2, 1919 as the Plattsburg made multiple Atlantic crossings, bringing troops back from Europe as The Great War wound down. His 433 days of Naval service had thus earned him a bonus of $541.25. 

In the Great Depression summer of 1932, thousands of these veterans, now desperate, began to arrive in Johnstown, Pennsylvania on foot, with their wives and children, all literally starving: they had just been driven out of Washington, DC at bayonet point where they had been dubbed “the Bonus Army.” None of the bonuses promised eight years earlier had been paid and in despair, they had gone to Washington and set up camp,  intending to stay until they got their checks.

The Federal government decided after some weeks that they were a serious threat, so the Army destroyed their tent city and pursued them out of town. Without their checks.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Great Depression was cutting deeply into livelihoods and lives across the nation.  The farmers who were veterans were waiting for their bonus checks, too, and while they were waiting they also endured rainless years and hordes of grasshoppers.

A pastor who served our country church during those years described waking up one morning and “one could not tell the color of bed covering or linoleums. All was covered with dust. After breakfast my wife and I went upstairs, she with a broom and dustcloth, and I with a shovel.  (later)…we went for lunch with the Ladies Aid. It was a beautiful day…then the wind came up again, and when we got home the house looked exactly as it did when we got up in the morning. So we went to work again.” Is it so hard to understand? ~ if they were to stay on their feet for another day they had to give voice to their faith and say, “Next year will be better.”

My brother wrote about conditions during that decade: “Economic conditions were worsening by 1927. In the early twenties crops were good, producing 25-35 bushels of wheat per acre, which sold for as high as $1.52 a bushel in 1925. In 1926 it was down a bit and continued on down to a low of 36 cents a bushel in 1936. During the early thirties only 6-12 bushels per acre of wheat as harvested, but the worst was yet to come. In 1936 and 1937 there was no harvest. There was very little rain and lots of wind, producing blinding dust storms. There was rust (a fungus) in 1937. There were also hordes of grasshoppers infesting the fields. They ate everything.”

In 1936, there was no crop at all. But they believed, so they said: Next Year Will Be Better.

Again, in 1937, there was no crop. There may have been tear tracks down a dust-covered face but the heart still said, Next Year Will Be Better.

I heard the family stories about the day The Great War Bonus Check finally arrived, but realized that I didn’t really know just how significant it would or would not have been in the context of their resources and their income at the time. So the other day I dug out the Farm Family Record Books my Dad kept for each year, neatly filled out in pencil for the most part, back to 1923.

A look at the records for pre-depression, pre-drought 1924; post-depression, post-drought 1941; and, supposedly-newly-prosperous 1951 does indeed provide context for the real value of a check for $541.25.

1924 receipts: $ 1,980.25
1924 expenses: 1,160.99 ( not including household)
Profit:  $   819.26 ( for household expenses)

1941 receipts: $ 3,889.50
1941 expenses: 3,569.52 (farm and household)
Profit: $   319.98

1951 receipts: $13,389.83
1951 expenses: 14,662.26
Loss:   $-1,272.43

It’s easy to see that an additional $541.25 in any of these years would have been a gamechanger, exponentially so during the mid-1930’s when the checks were finally cut and mailed.

So on some “today” in the mid-thirties the check is finally there. It’s right there in the mailbox, 3/4 mile from the house, but the grasshoppers get it before Dad does because the mailman didn’t close the box tightly before he drove away. There is enough of the check and envelope remaining to identify what it was, but not enough to deposit. I don’t know if it was ever replaced.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Over the years these folks had started laughing at themselves a bit for persisting in their confidence that Next Year Will Be Better, but they had learned the lesson well from their parents.  Next Year Will Be Better. When the stock market crashed in 1929, it was talked about quietly: Next Year Will Be Better. In ’32 and ’33, someone eventually said it: Next Year Will Be Better.

They might smile and laugh a little at themselves as they said it, but no one else should. They had lived through darkness and despair choosing to believe that Next Year Will Be Better.

On March 12, 1941 in the small town post office, seeds of nostalgia are germinating as they do every year about this time.

In spite of The War In Europe, and not knowing that the year would end with America under attack and their sons signing up to go to war again, everyone is looking for better times. Next Year Will Be Better. They believe it. They live it.  So my parents ordered 200 baby chicks on February 17, paying two dollars down with $12 due upon arrival.  Now the peeps of thousands of tiny 7-cent fluffballs fill the air in the post office. The musty sweet smell that rises from the stacked boxes is not one bit offensive. They number 100 or more in each 3′ X 3′ cardboard box, 4 inches deep with quarter-inch holes in the cover.

The chicks were brought from the Great Northern depot in the middle of the night, handled quickly from warm train car to warm truck to warm post office since winter still has a bit to go in these parts.

Out at the farm the brooder house is warmed up and waiting, the colored nectar in the big upside-down drinking whatchamacallits all ready for them and the pot-bellied stove is fired up~~ready to get the fuzzballs started on the six month journey to next winter’s dinner table.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

He often joked about how handy it was
that he didn’t have to go to work
because he always woke up
surrounded by it.

He was an outstanding businessman
and a well-read historian
with an 8th grade education
who made his living as a farmer.

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