The Not-So-Gay Nineties

The last decade of the last century is often referred to as “the Gay Nineties.” But for farmers

in Nebraska, the nineties were not so gay. Ample rainfall had produced bumper crops in the

1880s. Then as now, high yields meant low prices. An economic depression hit in 1890; that

same year it rained only 17 inches. By December, conditions were lightyears from gay. A

farmer from Frontier County wrote:

“We received the Christmas box all right and words cannot express our gratitude to all who

remembered us with such a timely present. In regard to our condition–I do not think we will

starve or freeze, though we may have to fare very poor sometimes.

“I have to haul fuel (green wood) twelve miles. I could get coal at Indianola at $4.60 a ton,

but I have not the money, and there seems no way to get it. I offered to mortgage my team

for $10 at the bank and they wouldn’t do it; so you see how hard it is to raise just a little

money. I believe that nine out of ten families will have to have help or nearly starve. Some

aid is being sent in. I got a sack of flour the other day, but can’t tell when or how the next

will come.

“The farmers held a meeting last week to see about what could be done. We appointed a

committee to go to Lincoln to lay our needs before the Governor and the Legislature, to see

what could be done for this drouth stricken people. And such a crowd! There must have been

800 men there, and I was surprised at the destitution too apparent to be doubted.

“There are plenty of provisions to be had if one has money, but we have not got it and have

no way of getting it. We have clothing to do. I need an overcoat the worst, but I can get

along some way.

“I must say a word about the poor cattle and horses. Mine have done pretty well so far, but

now the ground is covered with snow, and I don’t know but the poor things will die. There is

no hay or corn for them. There was no hay to put up, and so little corn stalks to cut up in

fodder that there is comparatively no feed in the country. Now I do not write this to trouble

you. You wanted to know. The truth is bad enough and cannot be over-pictured.”

Sad to say, the worst was yet to come for writer D.B. Coryell and his fellow farmers.

Continued low prices, drought, and financial panic leading to world-wide economic

depression in 1893 made the “gay” nineties decidedly grim for many Nebraskans.

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