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I’ve been spending some time lately perusing Solon Snapshots, a visual reflection of the small town where I spent 20 years of my life as the owner and operator of the local newspaper. The book is a well thought out balance of photos, newspaper clippings and personal recollections documenting life in a small town from 1850 to 1950.
Especially fascinating to me is the cover photo.
Actually, it is the cover and back cover photo as it reproduces a panoramic shot of what appears to be the town’s entire population. Inscribed into the photo is this information, “Solon May Day– May 2nd, 1930, J.L. Harris, Director.” With the help of a magnifying glass I count more than 300 people in the photo and not one appears to have their eyes closed. And while there are at least a hundred children not one appears to have a tongue stuck out, their fingers making devil’s horns over someone else’s head or any other untoward gesture.
I’ve taken many group photos myself and know first hand that it is difficult. Someone invariably wanders off and, if there are children involved, there’s at least one that goofs off. But there they are kneeling, sitting and standing in a field in an array that must be almost a football field wide. In the background no less than four separate May Poles can be seen as well the roofs of about 20 cars, one farm house and one American flag snapping in a stiff breeze.
I wonder how did they pull this off in an age before cell phones and the Internet? My guess is that something was published in the newspaper but a trip to the State Historical Society building to look at old copies on microfiche turns up another mystery: although there is a near unbroken record of every issue published from 1900 to present, the year 1930 is completely missing?
It’s not too hard to imagine that the Great Depression had something to do with both mysteries. Money is tight in publishing weeklies, and maybe the extreme belt tightening brought on by these miserable years caused the publisher of the time, C.H. Scott, to forgo the expensive of having the year’s papers archived.
It’s only a guess.
What isn’t a guess is how hard the Great Depression was on rural agricultural areas. From Iowa Pathways, a website provided by Iowa Public Television, we learn:
During World War I, farmers worked hard to produce record crops and livestock. When prices fell they tried to produce even more to pay their debts, taxes and living expenses. In the early 1930s prices dropped so low that many farmers went bankrupt and lost their farms. In some cases, the price of a bushel of corn fell to just eight or ten cents. Some farm families began burning corn rather than coal in their stoves because corn was cheaper. Sometimes the countryside smelled like popcorn from all the corn burning in the kitchen stoves.
Some farmers became angry and wanted the government to step in to keep farm families in their homes. In Le Mars, a mob of angry farmers burst into a court room and pulled the judge from the bench. They carried him out of the court room, drove him out of town and tried to make him promise that he would not take any more cases that would cost a farm family its farm. When he refused, they threatened to hang him. Fortunately the gang broke up and they left the judge in a dazed condition. The governor of Iowa called out the National Guard who rounded up some of the leaders of the mob and put them in jail.
A second inscription on the photo reveals that it was professionally taken by Baldridge Photo of Cedar Rapids. Surely, the photographer didn’t travel all the way to Solon with expensive equipment to take a photo for free.
Perhaps the citizenry, as they stood on the precipice of total ruination, wanted to document just one time that they were here?
That’s only a guess, too.