Overview: The 1920s

“The Roaring Twenties”—that is how the decade of the 1920s is depicted in the popular culture. A scholarly study of the decade is entitled The Prosperity Decade. In North Dakota, the 1920s were neither roaring nor prosperous. The farm crisis that followed World War One dramatically pushed the state into a downward economic spiral. Prosperity and roar characterized urban-industrial America, not agricultural America. It was a great economic time for business, with every kind of electrical appliance and cars hitting the market. The Dow-Jones industrial average increased almost seven times. President Calvin Coolidge said it best, “The business of America is business.”

The Look of the Twenties. Courtesy of D. Jerome Tweton.

Farmers were just hanging on; many gave up; one in five North Dakotans left the farm. Senators from agricultural states pushed legislation through Congress that would have helped farmers, but President Coolidge vetoed any assistance for agriculture. Farmers were on their own. In North Dakota, efforts to organize farmers and cooperative marketing did little to alleviate the situation. The 1920s was not a decade of depression, but it was not a decade of prosperity, either.

It was, however, a time of less turbulent politics. The NPL had lost its radicalism and the IVA had come to accept the changes that the NPL had brought about. The two shared relatively peaceful political power.

The decline of isolation was the greatest change that came to the state. The arrival of radio transmitted opera, boxing matches, the World Series, news, and a variety of programs into homes on the prairie. Events as they happened brought North Dakotans closer to the world.

And, the state was not immune to what happened elsewhere. In 1918 influenza spread throughout the state from “elsewhere.” In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) invaded North Dakota and disrupted lives here as it had in states to the east. North Dakota was not isolated from national movements.

In the North Star Dakotan’s accounts of the 1920s and the KKK, quotations come from the newspapers of the time, especially the Grand Forks Herald.


In 1921 the strong agricultural market collapsed, sending wheat, the state’s primary crop, from $3 to 92 cents. During the war farmers went heavily in debt to buy land and expensive new equipment. About 70 percent of our farmers were in debt, owing $286 million to banks and insurance companies. In 1913 a farmer could have bought a suit of clothes by selling 21 bushels of wheat. By 1923 that same farmer had to sell 60 bushels for that same suit.

Fargo, growing to the west. Courtesy of North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies.

By 1924 farm prices began to revive somewhat. Throughout the Twenties wheat ran between $1.00 and $1.25 and other livestock and crop prices also rebounded a bit from the collapse of 1921-1923. The Twenties is best described as a decade of agricultural distressCnot total depression but hard times nonetheless. About 20 percent of the state’s farmers gave up; those who stayed on the land made a living, just barely. The decline in consumer goods’ prices took some of the sting out of the marginal times.

The state’s politicians could do little to ease the situation. The IVA and the NPL, now much less radical, vied for political power. They took turns running the state. In 1922 Governor Ragnvold Nestos, an IVAer, was reelected governor. His faction of the Republican Party also controlled the legislature. Two years later the NPL returned to power with Governor Arthur G. Sorlie. It retained control in 1926, but in 1928 George F. Shafer led the IVA back into control of the state.

Regardless of which group was in power, the main political issues were the state industries (the bank and the mill) and budget restraint. Some wanted to sell the industries, but the majority just wanted them to make some money, or at least break even. Neither the IVA nor the NPL was able to bring the mill into the black. Since the Federal government would not, and state government could not, help farmers in their economic dilemma, the farmers themselves took the initiative through self-help. The farm cooperative seemed to be the answer; cooperative marketing might bring about higher crop and livestock prices, and cooperative buying might bring down the prices that farmers had to pay for goods. The idea was not new but the time seemed right for its revival. “Farmers, organize!” became the cry.

The American Farm Bureau Federation began an all-out effort to enroll the state’s farmers, promising grain terminal facilities and lower goods prices through cooperative buying. Many cooperatives were organized for selling horses and turkeys and for buying insurance and binder twine. Opposition from the established Twin Cities’ grain companies, however, made terminal marketing impossible. By the late Twenties the Farm Bureau had failed in its North Dakota efforts.

Bismarck from the air. Courtesy of North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies.

The most grandiose of cooperative plans was the North Dakota Wheat Growers’ Association, which was organized in 1922. It hoped to organize all spring wheat growers into a market monopoly that could set its own price. Grain buyers, if they wanted North Dakota spring wheat, would have to pay the Association’s price. It planned to pay farmers 70 percent of the market price and then sell the wheat at the best market times. Profits would be divided among pooling farmers. In spite of a well-organized campaign and a good idea, by 1930 the Wheat Growers’ Association was dead. It could never convince more than a third of the farmers to join the pool.

It was the Farmers Union that brought success to the North Dakota cooperative movement. Organized in Texas in 1902, it came to North Dakota in 1927. Membership offered significant advantages. Farmers could ship their grain to the Farmers Union Terminal Association and their livestock to the Farmers Union Livestock Commission, both in St. Paul. Farmers would receive the best possible prices. Members could buy coal, lumber, twine, and gasoline from local coops and insurance from the Farmers Union Company.

Led by energetic Charles C. Talbott of Dickey County, the Farmers Union soon had 20,000 North Dakota members. By 1930 Farmers Union locals had been organized in 46 of the state’s counties.

The cooperative movements, whether successful or not, indicated that North Dakota farmers were in search of help, looking for a solution to their economic problems. The cooperative was not the solution, but it did give farmers a break at the marketplace.

Bismarck’s Main Street dominated by the Patterson Hotel where many political deals were made. Courtesy of North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies.

The downturn in agriculture, of course, had adverse effects on the state’s institutions as legislators grappled with budgets reduced by the inability of people to pay their taxes. Growth without much more financial support characterized education from the first grade through graduate study. About one-fourth of the state’s population was enrolled in public schools. About half of those students went to the 4,335 one-room rural schools where salaries were very low and equipment and book budgets were very, very low. High schools grew rapidly as more and more employers required a graduation certificate. During the Twenties high-school registrations doubled and by 1930 one-fourth of graduates went on to college.

North Dakota ranked second among the states in percentage of income spent on public education. The problem was there was not much income to spend. Low teacher salaries and inadequate money to strengthen schools were conditions that reflected the plight of agriculture.

The number of students in higher education doubled during the decade from 3,000 to 6,000. Valley City, Minot, Dickinson, and Mayville moved from two-year trade-teaching schools to four-year degree-offering colleges. The University and the Agricultural College expanded their course offerings and degree programs. Appropriations from the legislature fell far behind what was needed to support this expansion.

Not everything was gloom during the Twenties. The coming of radio considerably brightened life and brought the nation and the world into North Dakota. KDKA in Pittsburgh inaugurated commercial radio in 1920. On May 22, 1922, WDAY in Fargo began broadcasting with a fifty-watt transmitter. The signal did not go very far but WDAY was on the air. At the time there were fewer than 50 stations in the United States and none in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

By 1930 six stations were broadcasting in North Dakota: WDAY in Fargo and KFYR in Bismarck were the strongest with 1,000 watts. The other four with just 100 watts each were KDLR, Devils Lake; KGCU, Mandan; KLPM, Minot; and KFJM, Grand Forks. North Dakotans within range of a station were treated to events like the World Series, boxing matches, election returns, musical shows, news, and local talent. The new medium did a great deal to lessen a sense of isolation.

Grand Forks has deluxe “swimming hole.” Courtesy of D. Jerome Tweton.

The automobile, too, helped end isolation and connect the state to the larger world. By 1930 there was one car for every four people in the state. During the Twenties the state constructed miles and miles of new roads and improved old ones. By 1930 over 8,000 miles of roads facilitated car travel throughout the state. None of the roads were paved and a downpour could cause serious hazards. Nonetheless, North Dakotans took to the open road as never before. A trip from Fargo to Bismarck could be made in seven hours or so - if the weather was nice.

Dancing the night away at the Patterson Hotel in Bismarck. Courtesy of North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies.

Although life on the reservations remained much the same as it had for decades, change was in the air. Congressional committees began to investigate matters of education, health, and land. Little came out of the hearings, but they paved the way for change that would come in the 1930s. In 1924 Congress granted full citizenship to those Indians who did not already have it. North Dakota Indians were both citizens of the United States and persons with tribal relations.

The stock market crash in 1929 ended the Twenties on a somber note. The decade had been difficult, but nothing like what would lie ahead in the Thirties.

By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change