Stories from the Great Depression in Johnson County, Part 3

Dust, Drought, and Dreams Gone Dry is a national traveling exhibition and program about the causes and aftermath of the Dust Bowl.  The exhibit and programs will be held at the Central Resource Library, 9875 W. 87th Street, Overland Park, Kansas, 66212 from July 2-August 16.

America was in the midst of economic hardship in 1934 and Johnson County spinach growers were frustrated by their recent inability to sell their crops to local markets because of drought conditions.  The farmers’ fortunes changed when a traveling buyer from the Ernst Applebaum Company, a Chicago produce outfit, made a trip to Johnson County.  The man from Chicago, W.A. Loree, made Johnson County’s spinach growers an offer they couldn’t refuse.  Loree offered to buy the entire spinach crop from local farmers.  The farmers readily agreed and the arrangement with the Ernst Applebaum Company lasted for four or five years.

Headline in the Chicago Packer, November 24, 1934.

November 24, 1934 headline in the Chicago Packer, an agricultural periodical.

During one particularly profitable season, Johnson County farmer Dick VanLerberg remembers filling up an entire rail car with spinach every day to be shipped to Chicago.  Each forty-foot rail car needed 10,000 pounds of ice to preserve the spinach on the trip from Lenexa to Chicago.

Spinach farmers at the Van Kiersbilck farm at 75th and Quivira in 1933.

Spinach farmers at the Van Kiersbilck farm at 75th and Quivira in 1933.

While many Americans suffered through the Dust Bowl and Great Depression years, about 150 local spinach farmers were lucky enough to thrive for a few years because of good fortune and the quality of their crops.  Large-scale farming, federal regulations and expensive innovations in agriculture forced many local farmers out of business during the 1940s.

The Dust, Drought, and Dreams Gone Dry exhibition was organized by the American Library Association Public Programs Office, the Oklahoma State University Library and the Mount Holyoke College Library.  It was made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor.

Cosponsored by the Johnson County Library and the Johnson County Museum.

– Matt Gilligan, Johnson County Museum

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