In the 1920s, Nebraska and the nation as a whole had a lot of banks. At the beginning of the 20s, Nebraska had 1.3 million people and there was one bank for every 1,000 people. Every small town had a bank or two struggling to take in deposits and loan out money to farmers and businesses.
As the economic depression deepened in the early 30s, and as farmers had less and less money to spend in town, banks began to fail at alarming rates. During the 20s, there was an average of 70 banks failing each year nationally. After the crash during the first 10 months of 1930, 744 banks failed 10 times as many. In all, 9,000 banks failed during the decade of the 30s. It's estimated that 4,000 banks failed during the one year of 1933 alone. By 1933, depositors saw $140 billion disappear through bank failures.
Gresham, Nebraska, had two banks one too many for that small town. The bank in danger of failure merged with the other. Gresham resident Walter Schmitt (right) remembers the deadly consequences for the owner of the failed bank.
When a new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated in March 1933, banks in all 48 states had either closed or had placed restrictions on how much money depositors could withdraw. FDR's first act as President was to declare a national "bank holiday" closing the banks for a three-day cooling off period. The most memorable line from the President's speech was directed to the bank crisis "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
Some economists and historians have argued that the bank crisis caused the Great Depression. But others have looked at fundamental economic factors and regional histories and argued that banks failed as a result of the economic collapse.
Whether the fear of bank failures caused the Depression or the Depression caused banks to fail, the result was the same for people who had their life savings in the banks they lost their money. At the beginning of the 30s, there was no such thing as deposit insurance. If a bank failed, you lost the money you had in the bank. Carla Due's family experienced the fear that a bank failure would wipe out savings.
Birdie Farr's (left) father-in-law, Jack Farr, lost his savings in a Grand Island bank, but he was philosophical about it. Birdie says, "There wasn't nothing for him to do. He said, 'Standing there crying isn't going to help.'"
Louise Dougherty's (right) father owned a bank in Perkins County. When the Depression hit, he worked hard to keep the bank afloat. But the Depression went on too long, and eventually he was forced to go out of business.
Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.