Erosion of the Land and Erosion of the People: Illinois in the Great Depression

Erosion of the Land and Erosion of the People: Illinois in the Great Depression

Drawing upon Farm Security Administration photographs and archival film footage captured during the 1930s, this ISGS video production presents a new visual portrait of a time period in Illinois for which the oral history and physical landscape have largely disappeared.  

Watch the full video »

Lining up for food in Louisville, Kentucky in 1937.Lining up for food in Louisville, Kentucky in 1937.

Following the collapse of the U.S. economy in October 1929 with the stock market crash, marking the beginning of the Great Depression, no decade in the 20th century was more terrifying for Americans than the 1930s, summoning up such images as breadlines, rural poverty, homeless families, and migrant camps. Unemployment reached 30 percent in March 1933, the highest in U.S. history – that month an estimated 15½ million Americans were jobless out of a civilian labor force of approximately 51 million.

In response to federal government program incentives to expand agricultural lands in order to feed war-torn Europe following World War I (1914–1918),

Erosion in White County, Illinois – 1937Erosion in White County, Illinois – 1937

American farmers over-plowed, over-planted, and over-spent; the results were land erosion, plummeting prices for agricultural products, and high debts incurred by farmers. Now plunged into the decade of the Great Depression, farmers had no money to repay their loans, and a record 200,000 farm foreclosures in the U.S. occurred in 1933. 

The combination of severe drought and severe land erosion during the decade resulted in the Dust Bowl disaster. The worst in modern U.S. history, the drought encompassed more than 75 percent of the nation in 1934, severely impacting 27 states. Portions of Illinois were affected by the drought, and the state experienced its own natural disaster when in February 1937 the worst flood to date on record inundated southeastern
and southern Illinois along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers –

Overturned houses in Shawneetown, Illinois.Overturned houses in Shawneetown, Illinois.

floodwaters reached 65 feet deep in Shawneetown.

The Great Depression in the United States ended with the U.S. entry into World War II in December 1941. The story of Erosion of the Land and Erosion of the People is told through narration, previously unpublished interviews with Farm Security Administration photographers, music, and video segments focusing on Illinois.  Click on this ISGS YouTube channel link to learn more.

Additional information about this project and the photographers involved is available for download by visiting