Chapter 5

Communities In Crisis

Communities face challenges every day. Some challenges are so severe they are considered a crisis. Each community responds differently to crises. Some communities do not survive crises. Others seem to bounce back stronger than ever. Stearns County has endured many crises throughout its history. Each crisis has brought change to the community. These crises have played a part in developing the community’s character.


The Great Depression
1929 - 1939

The Great Depression was a worldwide event caused by imbalances in the economic system. The imbalances were created by an industrial boom that followed World War I.
Agricultural assistance voucher.
In the United States, an enormous amount of wealth was being enjoyed by a small number of people. At the same time, factories were pumping out large amounts of products. There were not enough consumers with money to buy all the goods being produced. Inventories of unsold goods began to pile up in the factories. Businesses could not afford to operate at this level and were forced to lay off workers and close plants. Now, with large numbers of unemployed workers, there were fewer people to buy goods. The Stock Market crashed and banks closed depriving many people of their hard earned money. Crop prices plummeted and farmers often found it more economical to burn their corn for fuel. In 1929 the price of wheat dropped from $1.25 a bushel to 26 cents. Hundreds of families went into debt and began to exist on stale bread, soup or whatever they could scrounge from local garbage cans. Soup lines and charity houses began to pop up to serve the poor in urban areas. People who could not afford to pay their mortgages or rents were evicted. They huddled together in makeshift communities using cardboard, sheet metal and scrap wood for housing. Others roamed the country begging for food.

It took over ten years for the country to recover from the economic disaster. New leaders, including Franklin D. Roosevelt as President were elected to deal with the economic problems. The government devised plans to get industry working to provide jobs for people. Federal and State assistance programs like the Emergency Relief Act and the Works Progress Administration were developed to help people survive. Farm price supports and soil conservation incentives were enacted to help farmers. The Federal Housing Administration created a program that refinanced mortgages rescuing people who were about to lose their houses. Many historians feel the event that ended the Depression and improved the economy was war that was brewing in Europe. Orders for equipment, supplies and machinery increased the demand for production and put people back to work.

Granite Mural in John. C. Clark School, Rockville, MN was created in 1936 as a releif project for artists.
When the Depression spread across the United States, it touched all communities with hardship. Each community reacted to the crisis differently. Some were more successful than others. Stearns County did not escape the Depression. By the mid-1930s, government programs were beginning to provide relief from poverty and unemployment. Stearns County’s communities also developed programs and creative solutions to help residents weather economic difficulties. The city of St. Cloud distributed canned milk, towels, comforters, pillow cases, brooms, dresses, and pajamas to the needy. It also developed a “scrip” dollar program. In this program, the
city hired unemployed residents paying them 35 cents an hour in fake or “scrip” money. Merchants in the community accepted and validated the money in exchange for goods or services. A five percent discount was given for each purchase on a scrip dollar. Scrip dollars allowed goods to be purchased from businesses while giving people work and relief from poverty.

Other communities pitched in to help their residents. Cold Spring area farmers created a market to sell produce from their gardens. The American Legion in Melrose gave turkey parties to feed the poor businesses, and families trimmed their budgets, shoes and clothes were worn until they fell apart, old objects were recycled, and employed people accepted lower wages in order to survive. “Neighbors helping neighbors” became a way of life in Stearns County during the Depression. It is how leaders and residents of Stearns County chose to respond to the crisis.

Many other programs were created to help citizens struggling for survival within communities. Use local resources as described in Unit I to discover what your community did during the Great Depression.



World War II


Military conflicts or wars bring about great change. Wars can change individuals, families, economies, national boundaries, international relationships, and styles of government. Wars can destroy cities, cause starvation, gain national resources or give people freedom from oppression. History tells us that wars have started over things as trivial as name-calling and as meaningful as the right to practice a religion.

Stearns County has been affected by several wars including the Civil War, World War I, the Spanish American War, World War II, the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War. Although the battles were staged in lands far away from the prairies and lakes of Stearns County, life in the community was touched by each of these conflicts. War creates a crisis for a community. Because each war had unique characteristics, Stearns County responded to the crisis of each war differently.

World War II caused dramatic change in the lives of people all around the world, including Stearns County. World War II centered around German occupation in Europe and Japanese invasions in China and the South Pacific. The United States had tried to isolate itself from these world conflicts and remain neutral, but the aggressive actions of Germany and Japan were difficult for President Franklin D. Roosevelt to ignore. When American military bases were bombed at Pearl Harbor by Japanese planes, the American public’s attitude toward the war changed. The United States became completely involved in the conflict. Over 15 million men and women entered the armed services. Military strategies were formed and troops were dispersed to the European and Pacific battle fronts. Food, clothing, supplies, and weapons had to be produced for the American and the Allied forces. Taxes were raised to pay for the war. Raw materials were needed for weapons, tanks, battleships, and aircraft. Rations were placed on raw materials and consumer goods that could be used for the war. Manufacturing output nearly doubled and agricultural produce increased 22 percent. Women went to work in defense industries. The entire country joined in an effort to fight the war. If you couldn’t fight on the battlefields, you could help out on the home front. The war came to an end in 1945 when Germany and Japan surrendered following the suicide of German leader Adolf Hitler and the atomic bombing of Japan. A period of world reconstruction followed and a United Nations charter was established.

The American declaration of war began an era of great change for Stearns County residents. Patriotism, excitement, fear and grief became a part of everyday life. Over 291,000 men and women lost their lives in World War II. Of that number 120 were from Stearns County. These deaths caused a terrific sense of loss for the community. Men who were not needed at home, such as farmers, engineers or scientists, were sent to fight the war. With large numbers of men going to war, Stearns County businesses and industries needed replacement workers. For the first time, women were accepted into jobs outside nursing, teaching and secretarial. Women took on jobs as mechanics, electricians, managers and truck drivers. Large numbers of women were now in the work force doing jobs that had previously been reserved for men.

Stearns County’s businesses and industries did their part to help. Many converted their factories to make military or defense products. The DeZurik Company of Sartell made tank brackets, and the Hanauer Company of Avon contracted work from the Twin City Arsenal. St. Cloud’s Hilger Company made military vehicles, and the Char-Gale Company manufactured airplane fuselages.
War Ration Book.
Granite cutting would have to wait until after the war at the Cold Spring Granite Company. The operation was completely transformed into a steel mill and workers were trained as welders and machinists. The Cold Spring Granite Company now produced ship hulls, chains, anchors, tank parts and marine engines.

Residents played their part in fighting the war on the home front. Rationing and recycling became a part of everyday life. Sugar, coffee, gasoline, nylon, and rubber were sacrificed for the war effort. That meant there could be no new shoes or clothes and unnecessary car trips were canceled. Communities held scrap drives and collected iron, tires and tin. Each town in Stearns County formed a volunteer Civil Defense Corps. These individuals prepared the community for the possibility of bomb raids. They taught families to stockpile food and supplies, practiced blackout drills, and monitored the skies for aircraft. Being patriotic was important to the people of Stearns County. Being patriotic meant doing your part to help fight the war.

What are the most important changes brought about by World War II? Ask a World War II Veteran.
Would people make the same sacrifices today?
What evidence of World War II do you see in your community?
How do you think Stearns County’s German-Americans felt about fighting a war with Germany?
How do you think other Americans viewed German-Americans?


Natural Disasters

Natural disasters are often considered the most devastating kind of crises. Flash floods, forest fires, mud slides, monsoons, droughts, blizzards, volcanic eruptions, lightning, disease, pests, hurricanes and earthquakes can hit a community without warning and leave residents feeling helpless. Almost every week a natural disaster strikes somewhere in the world. These disasters are reminders of the power of nature. Communities have been challenged with natural disasters throughout history. Stearns County has had to face many natural disasters in the past and will have to face more in the future.



Tornado devistation, 1886.
One of the most common natural disasters experienced in Minnesota during spring and summer is a tornado. The destruction left by a tornado in Stearns County’s early history changed the economic structure of the community. On April 14, 1886 a tornado ripped through Stearns County leaving death and ruin in it’s trail. St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids were the communities hit hardest by the storm that killed 58 and injured 140 people. The tornado jumped over the business district in St. Cloud, but it did not miss Sauk Rapids. Over 109 public and commercial buildings were destroyed or damaged in Sauk Rapids. While Sauk Rapids worked to rebuild the community, St. Cloud became the prominent business district. Sauk Rapids lost it’s stature as the dominant business community.

How have tornadoes or other weather related disasters affected your community?
What can a community do to protect itself from weather disasters?
What kind of warning system is in place for your community?
What can you do to protect your self?

Grasshopper Plague

Life on the prairies of the Midwest can mean disasters fit for horror movies. Such is the case of grasshopper invasions. The grasshopper invasions of 1857 and 1873 were two devastating natural disasters in Stearns County’s past. The first plague of grasshoppers began in the Rocky Mountains. By the time it reached Stearns County, the grasshopper swarms looked like huge dark clouds. Out of the clouds grasshoppers descended eating everything in their path. Crops, gardens, clothing, trees and shrubs were devoured by the insects. Fences, houses and barns were often damaged.
Grasshopper Chapel in Cold Spring, MN, 1997.
The grasshopper plague of 1857 lasted through the summer of 1858. Attempts were made to fight the grasshoppers. Homemade nets did not contain the grasshoppers and blankets placed over the fields were eaten by the grasshoppers. Farmers and their families lost two seasons of crops and had little money to buy more seed. Without garden produce or money from the harvest, there was very little to live on through the long winter. Poverty-stricken Stearns County farmers had to find alternative winter food sources. Residents bought frozen potatoes, cut holes in frozen lakes to fish, and caught wild game. Although tempted to move, most of these early settlers remained in Stearns County because they could not afford to leave. Fortunately, the plague did not return in 1859 and farmers began to recover from their losses.

The farmers of 1873 were not as lucky. This time farmers had to endure a grasshopper plague that lasted through five summers. The dark cloud of grasshoppers left fields looking as if they had been plowed. During the plagues farmers tried many things to protect their crops from the grasshoppers. They set fires around their fields hoping the smoke and fire would deter the grasshoppers and created tar filled shovels to scoop the grasshoppers out of the fields. Unfortunately, there was very little a farmer could do to fight the grasshopper and fields were lost. Some farmers returned to the east while others moved further west. Farmers that chose to stay often had to find work in far away towns and cities to make up for the money lost on their crop. They sent money to their wives and children who had stayed on the farm homestead to protect the claim. By 1877, after four summers of the scourge, Governor John S. Pillsbury introduced legislation to provide seed to farmers. Pillsbury also declared a day of prayer to end the plague. Farmers and town’s people joined together to pray for the end of the horror. The plague ended that summer. Grateful community members built chapels near Cold Spring and Luxemburg to commemorate the miraculous end of the plague.


Floods damage homes, businesses, and especially farms because the good topsoil is washed away by the flood waters.
Natural disasters are not only events of the past. The Stearns County flood of 1997 is a good example in current history. Crisscrossed by waterways like the Mississippi and Sauk Rivers, Stearns County offers residents great water recreation. Swimming, fishing, boating, water skiing, sailing and lazy days on quiet river banks are enjoyed by many. These same waterways also mean danger when winter snow and ice melts. A winter with heavy snowfall coupled with a sudden thaw can raise the river to hazardous flood stages. People and towns situated near the rivers are at risk of being washed away by powerful floods. Such was the case for Cold Spring and Waite Park in the spring of 1997. As the Sauk River rose to flood levels, it began to creep close to homes and businesses. Local residents joined together with the Minnesota National Guard and other volunteers to fill and place sandbags around buildings. The river crested at 8 1/2 feet beyond flood stage and rose 1 1/2 feet in 24 hours before it receded. Thanks to these efforts several homes were spared damage from the flood. The destruction could have been worse. This is another example of a community responding to a crisis.

Have you ever volunteered in a community crisis?
What other crisis have you or your family experienced? How did the community help you?
How can communities prepare for natural disasters?


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