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Bankrupt in the Richest Nation, Farmers Rampage in Plymouth County
“What was going on was mortgage closings just the same as going on today …”
Seventy-five years ago, corn was fetching less than 10 cents a bushel and pork was at three cents a pound. A migrant class of American workers was being created. These were the desperate times of the 1930s known as the Great Depression.
And just like today, mortgage foreclosures were taking land and homes away from citizens.In Iowa, angry mobs violently fought judicial decisions that foreclosed their farms. Just 55 days after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration, a group of farmers in northwest Iowa angrily shook the foundations of civilized law when they seized Plymouth County District Judge Charles Bradley from his courtroom, dragged him outside to the courthouse lawn and punched, kicked and slapped him.
The mob, part of the Farmer’s Holiday Association, had been organized the previous year to protest the dire financial situation that was ruining family farms throughout the nation. At their first meeting on May 3, 1932, some 3,000 farmers met to form the bloc.
The “holiday” officially called for a farmer’s strike of withholding produce for sale. They sang:
Let’s call a Farmers’ Holiday
A Holiday let’s hold
We’ll eat our wheat and ham and eggs
And let them eat their gold.
The association’s leader, Milo Reno, called the strike “the last stand of American agriculture in defense of their rights and their homes.” He claimed the United States had found itself in “the most amazing and confounding situation in the history of the world — people starving in a land with an abundance of food; naked, because of a surplus of clothing; people bankrupt in the richest nation in the world.”
Roads were blocked and fresh milk dumped into ditches during 1932′s infamous “Cow Wars” (also known as the “Milk Wars”) outside Sioux City and Council Bluffs.
In September of that year, the Farmer’s Holiday movement prescribed actions in Tipton to block veterinarians from diagnosing bovine tuberculosis and condemning animals.
With a foreclosure moratorium law in February 1933, the Iowa Legislature attempted to calm violence in rural Iowa by stopping banks from foreclosing on farms unable to cover their mortgages.
The constitutionality of that law was to be challenged in Judge Bradley’s court in Le Mars on that day, April 27, 1933. But before he could hear any arguments, he was charged by more than 100 men in his courtroom.
According to accounts from “A Judge and a Rope” (by George Mills, 1994), “A History of Iowa” (by Leland L. Sage, 1979) and the Chicago Tribune (in the days following the event), Bradley was dragged from the Plymouth County courthouse and refused repeated demands to ignore foreclosure edicts. He was surrounded by an angry and violent mob.
In that public square, he was struck in the face and fell to his knees. The crowd demanded that he agree to stop signing foreclosures, but he refused to disobey his office.
Roughly, the judge was hauled by the mob into the back of a truck and blindfolded. The crowd would be thinned by a change of locale, but unfortunately for the judge, the terror was multiplied.
Dumped a half-mile outside of town, he had a noose placed around his neck. The rope was tossed over an electric light pole, tightened and for an instant the judge was lifted off the ground by his neck.
Again he was asked not to sign foreclosures on farms and this time when he refused his pants were removed, smeared with grease and filled with dirt and gravel.
The 54-year-old judge was crowned with a greasy hubcap and told to get on his knees and pray. Aloud he prayed, “Oh, Lord, I pray thee, do justice to all men.”
Miraculously, this brave prayer seemed to break the will of the mob, and some of the masked men who held the rope got in a car and drove away.
While walking back to town, he was picked up by Rev. J.J. Depree who drove the judge the rest of the way back to town. Judge Charles Bradley escaped with only minor injuries and the need for a wash-up and a change of clothes.
Dr. Thomas Starzl, son of Le Mars Globe Post editor Roman Starzl, was only 7 years old at the time of the almost-lynching. His father was a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and wrote front-page accounts of the incident for the Trib.
In recalling the incident, Starzl told the Iowa Independent:
“The farmers were on a rampage because they couldn’t get properly paid for milk and for their meat from pigs they were raising, so they had gone on a rampage … They were pouring all their milk out and they had vigilantes on all the roads around Le Mars and any scabs trying to break through and sell the milk had to be roughed up.”
After the incident, Gov. Clyde Herring sent hundreds of troops to quell the farm strikes in Le Mars and Denison. Martial law was imposed in several counties until May 17, only five days after the enactment of the New Deal farm bill, the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA). Considered the first farm bill, the AAA paid farmers a subsidy to leave their fields empty.
“There was a huge National Guard encampment and the city was put under martial law. I remember that extremely distinctly because I had toy soldiers and there were these real soldiers running around with real guns. I was 7 years old.
What was going on was mortgage closings just the same as going on today and ruthless people were coming along buying up these farms for pennies.
This was a dangerous time in this country. It was a dangerous time in Le Mars because it was the center of a real revolt … It was a real uprising.”
Today, the crossroads where Judge Bradley was brutalized is now a housing addition named in his honor by the real estate developer.
Starzl is widely regarded as a pioneer in the field of organ transplantation. The University of Pittsburgh has named the Thomas Starzl Transplantation Institute in his honor and he remains one of the most cited physicians in the world. Now retired, he lives in Pittsburgh, Pa.