As the pace of foreclosure auctions increased between 1930 and 1932, more and more farmers became desperate. Activists demanded that state legislators halt foreclosure sales. Angry farmers marched on the capitol buildings in several states, including Nebraska.
Some farmers in Madison County, Nebraska, took matters into their own hands. In 1931, about 150 farmers showed up at a foreclosure auction at the Von Bonn family farm. The bank was selling the land and equipment because the family coundn't repay a loan. The bank expected to make hundreds, if not thousands of dollars.
As those who were there remember it, the auctioneer began with a piece of equipment. The first bid was 5-cents. When someone else tried to raise that bid, he was requested not to do so forcibly. Item after item got only one or two bids. All were ridiculously low. The proceeds for that first "Penny Auction" were $5.35, which the bank was supposed to accept to pay off the loan.
The idea caught on. Harvey Pickrel remembers going to a Penny Auction where "some of the farmers wouldn't bid on anything at all because they were trying to help the man that was being sold out." At auctions across the Midwest, farmers showed up as a group and physically prevented any real bidders from placing bids. But the banks figured out ways to get around these illegal Penny Auctions.
Farm groups and activists turned their attention to the political arena demanding a stop to foreclosure sales. Eventually, several Midwestern states, including Nebraska, enacted moratoriums on farm foreclosures. Generally the moratoriums lasted a year. The theory was that the Depression couldn't last that much longer, and then farmers would have the income to make their payments. But the Depression continued, the moratoriums ran out and farmers continued to lose their farms.
Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.