From 1930 to 1931, when the entire country and the state was already experiencing trials at every turn, the statewide food situation in Arkansas grew from bad to worse to desperate. The drought affected many states, eight in the South worst of all, and Arkansas worse than any of them by at least 15 percent. The citizens of Arkansas had already faced the Great Flood of 1927 and several deadly tornadoes, and the drought meant loss of crops, loss of income, famine, and in some cases, death.
During the summer, some counties went seventy days or more without any rainfall at all. The normal annual rainfall for the United States is approximately 34 inches, and Arkansas’ average is usually well above that, at 40 to 50 inches. Most Arkansans, at least 80 percent, relied upon cash crops for their income and an even higher percentage relied upon their gardens to provide most of their food throughout the year. If any precious money was spent on food, it was spent on such things as sacks of flour. When drought conditions worsened, farmers who grew cash crops lost everything. Where they might have grown 6 bales of cotton before, they were now struggling to amass 2. Prices dropped as well, worsening their misfortunes. Drought conditions didn’t just hurt cash crops. Families were unable to grow enough food to provide their household enough sustenance throughout the coming year. Families at this time were large, and while they had likely always struggled to make it through, a failing garden due to lack of rain was not something that could be easily augmented elsewhere. Families hunted more than they had previously, fished where possible, because water sources such as creeks and ponds were drying up, and heavily relied upon turnips and greens, two crops that survived the lack of rainfall. The summer of 1930 was especially hard-hit. The average temperatures for summer months tended towards the 90s, but this year, 105 to 110 degrees was common, with 113 the highest recorded in August. The extreme heat index coupled with a widespread lack of safe drinking water led to outbreaks of typhoid fever. Also common at this time was malaria, pellagra (which I will discuss next week), dysentery, and illnesses such as smallpox.
It’s a pretty bleak prospect, certainly, and initially, the government wasn’t much help. Herbert Hoover, who was president at this time, followed the same ideologies of former President Grover Cleveland, who was quoted as saying, “…that though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people.” Hoover staunchly looked down upon handouts and instead felt that farmers and families should help themselves.
The American Red Cross did help, but the initial programs brought little to no relief to everyday farmers and families. The Red Cross felt that plantation owners would distribute the seeds and other relief items amongst their sharecroppers and tenant farmers, but the owners rarely did. When Red Cross camps were set up, they were segregated and discriminatory and many were turned away because they weren’t “good enough.” In some instances, those African-American sharecropping farmers who were given aid had to perform demoralizing, menial tasks beforehand. Eventually, the situation reached the director of the Arkansas Red Cross, and he helped issue food rations across the state. There were still struggles in the system, but by the end of 1931, most of the state was receiving rations, clothes, and other relief.