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Iowa and the Great Depression

Lesson Plan Item

General Information
Grade 9th Grade, 10th Grade Class U.S. History Length of Lesson 50 minutes
Lesson Title Iowa and the Great Depression
Unit Title The Great Depression
Unit Compelling Question Does a government provide assistance during a time of need?
Historical Context:

2018.059.005  The winter of 1936 was one that went down in Iowa's history books. During the winter of 1936 a series of blizzards struck Iowa. It caused towns to completely shut down. Trains were halted for days at stations, schools were closed, and people couldn't get into towns. Groups of citizens like the ones pictured in this photograph, took upon themselves to form groups to shovel snow off country roads in order to get to town.

2018.021.071 This photograph shows the north side of the Mount Ayr town square in the mid-1940s. The truck in the middle of the street is a Mount Ayr Mill & Feed delivery truck. Three different Coca-Cola signs can also be seen in the photo.   Started by Tennant and Anderson, the Mount Ayr Mill and Feed specialized in two types of milling. The first was table-use milling, which provided cornmeal, buckwheat flour and cracked wheat for breakfast foods that would later be sold at surrounding local grocery stores. The second type was to produce animal feed which was made with a hammer mill or feed mixer. These were collected into stamped or printed sacks for sale. Despite low sales during the Depression years, the company was able to stay open and continue their business. In 1937, Tennant and Anderson partnered with Nutrena Feed and continued to work six days a week with a total of only five employees.

2018.044.005  The Globe Manufacturing Company created on January 21, 1907 in Perry, Iowa. The President was J.C. Bryan. This company produced state of the art washing machines. The company itself was very popular and grew in high demand. Globe Manufacturing was in fact so large that it had to move to a larger building. The company also had storage buildings in major Midwestern cities. The plant caught fire on January 27, 1915, but was rebuilt. There were sixty workmen and twenty five salesmen, as well as office workers who worked in the plant. Minimum wage was 35 cents. The washing machine shown is a “Quicker Yet” Washing Machine designed by Mr. Kibby, director and active manager of Globe Manufacturing Company. This machine was very popular and very advanced for its time. Unfortunately, the plant had to close its doors in the 1930s due to a number of reasons, including the Great Depression and competition. (Hastie, 1970)



While things got much worse for many in the United States in the early 1930s, the years of the Great Depression, Iowa farmers and those who depended on them saw tough economic times through the 1920s.  During WWI, the government urged farmers to grow more crops and livestock.  It guaranteed high prices and encouraged farmers to invest in new machinery and equipment to boost their production.  Rural banks loaned farmers money, and the value of farmland boomed.  With the war’s end, the government announced suddenly that it would no longer guaranteed wartime prices, but farmers were already geared up to produce more.  Europe had been buying record amounts of U.S. agricultural goods, but as their own farms got under production again, sales to Europe dropped.  Farmers were producing more than the market needed, surpluses developed, crop prices plummeted and the land boom was over.  Many banks in Iowa went into bankruptcy during the early 1920s when farmers couldn’t repay their loans.  


In the 1920s, nearly half of all Americans lived on farms or in small towns.  When agriculture suffered, rural Americans could no longer buy the products produced in urban factories, and factories began to close, further cutting down on Americans’ purchasing power.  The stock market, which had seen record gains throughout the 1920s, took a sudden downturn in the fall of 1929, and a rapid downward economic slide created a dangerous situation.  Herbert Hoover was president, and many people blamed him for not doing more to bolster the economy.


There was a near-desperate situation in rural Iowa.  Record numbers of farms were sold on auction to pay taxes or debts, and farm families were losing their homes.  Some radical groups of farmers threatened violence to those responsible for enforcing the laws.  A judge in LeMars was pulled from the bench, taken into the country, and threatened with a lynching if he didn’t promise to stop farm sales.  Fortunately, the mob disbanded without doing him further violence.  Some farm groups tried to stop local farmers from taking their milk, butter, and eggs to market in order to raise prices, but the efforts had little impact.


In 1932, Iowans broke with their Republican tradition and voted for Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt for President.  Roosevelt appointed Iowan Henry A. Wallace to be Secretary of Agriculture.  Wallace drafted a bill that promised farmers a guaranteed price for their crops and livestock if they would limit their production.  It was the Agriculture Adjustment Act.  Since surpluses were depressing prices, the bill’s goal was to reduce the surplus and let the market restore higher prices.  While its impact on prices is under debate, the bill did pump much needed cash into rural economies and provided enough support to help farmers weather those very tough years.  The weather also contributed its own help in reducing crops.  Severe droughts with record heat severely cut Midwestern yields in the summers of 1934 and 1936.  While their incomes were low, farm families could still produce much of their own food in home gardens, livestock, and flocks of chickens.


Urban families also suffered and usually lacked the food sources of the farm.  Iowa factories in manufacturing towns like Waterloo, Dubuque, Davenport, Cedar Rapids, and Des Moines shut down throwing employees out of work.  At the time, going on welfare was seen as a disgrace, even when one had no responsibility for the for the loss of work.  It took a psychological blow on self-esteem when a worker had to apply for government assistance and many resisted as long as they could.  It seemed to be an admission of failure. 


The Depression had a lasting impact on those who lived through it.  Sometimes children were unaware of how it strained their parents’ resources.  The children recall that they “didn’t know we were poor because everyone was poor.”  But adults knew.  Jobs were hard to get.  Young men who couldn’t find jobs sometimes took to riding railroad cars from town to town in search of a means of support.  The government offered several work programs.  The WPA (Works Progress Administration) hired men (and some women) to do public service jobs.  The Civilian Conservation Corps recruited teenage boys to build parks, restore eroded lands, plant trees and other outdoor projects.


The 1930s saw hard times for many American families.  When WWII began, suddenly there was a demand for guns, tanks, uniforms, and everything else necessary to fight a war, the men and women to staff the army, and the food to feed them.  Young men who couldn’t find work before were drafted into military service.  Women picked up jobs on the home front with active encouragement by the Federal government.


The Great Depression was only the lowest point in the two decades between WWI and WWII.  It made a lasting impression on those who lived through it.


~ Dr. Tom Morain, Graceland University
Lesson Supporting Question How did Iowans react to the emergence of the Great Depression?
Lesson Overview

Following the stock market crash of 1929, the American economy was in a large recession. This lesson brings the economic struggle of the nation home to Iowa. Students will look at how the depression has affected our state and connect it to how it affected the nation as a whole. Students will be able to understand the roles of Iowans and how they reacted to the Great Depression. 

Primary Sources Used
Resources Needed
Lesson Target
  • Students will be able to understand the roles Iowans played in the Great Depression
  • Students will be able to analyze the effects of the Great Depression on rural and urban Iowa.
Lesson Themes Cities, Rural Life, Towns, Weather, Communal Groups, Disaster and Crisis
Lesson Procedure


Procedure Time Differentiation plan / Additional Information
1 As students are walking in the door, "The Depression, the Family Farm and the New Deal" from PBS will be playing on the projector. This will allow students to get acquainted with the topic covered.    
2 As the bell rings, the class will participate in a short review of the previous lesson (causes of the Great Depression, see PowerPoint). This provides for a natural progression between the beginning of the Great Depression to how it affects Iowans. Transition: "Now that we've reviewed why there even was a depression, let's dive into how it affected us here in Iowa."    

Students will engage in a think-pair-share to determine how they think Iowa struggled during the Great Depression. The goal is for students to collaborate and to develop their own ideas on why the GD hit home.

-Students will share their answers as a class and I will write them on the whiteboard so they can refer throughout class to their original thoughts as they learn.

-It is important for students to know there are not right or wrong answers as they will be taught the content later in the class.


I will be introducing the content via PowerPoint presentation. Students can either take notes on their own or have the presentation shared with them. Each slide will cover one major event regarding Iowa and the Great Depression and how the government assisted those in need.

-Farmer's revolts

-Depression in the City



Transition: Now that I've told you about the reactions of Iowans, lets see them in action.



Students will partner up and analyze the following image. The image contains a group of citizens during the Blizzard of 1936. Students will determine:

- What is happening in the image

- What the image shares about the struggles of the Great Depression

-What in the image can be related to today

After students finish, come together as a class and share/discuss your answers. If a student struggles, ask them about their process in finding the answer. If they cannot find the answer, allow them to phone a friend.

6 After analyzing the image, students will be assigned a two paragraph essay comparing and contrasting the effects of the Great Depression on rural and urban areas. Students will be expected to use material from this, as well as previous lessons to produce their answer. Students can either use the space provided to type their answer or print the prompt and handwrite it. This essay will be due at the beginning of class the following day.    
Formative Assessment
(How will you use the formative assessments to monitor and inform instruction?)
  • At the beginning of the lesson, students will be asked to recall the information taught from previous lessons. This will allow the instructor to correct and misconceptions before beginning the new material. Students will do a think-pair-share with their peers. Students will analyze an image. At the end of the lesson, students will write a two-paragraph essay on who was worse off during/following the great depression. This will be an opinion piece and they will be expected to use their class notes and prior knowledge from the unit in order to determine their answer.
Summative Assessment
(How does the lesson connect to planned summative assessment(s)?)
  • This information learned during this lesson will contribute to the final unit exam. The essay question will consist of "How did Iowans react to the Great Depression?" The material learned will allow them to create an educated response as well as determine how the effects were felt in both rural and urban areas.
Author Information
Author Scott Poe Reviewer Chad Christopher, History Education, University of Northern Iowa Created 06/12/2019 Last Edited 02/17/2020
Lesson Plan Development Notes: Teaching Methods, University of Northern Iowa, Spring 2019

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