I have spent much of the past two weeks looking at the Plains since the turn of the century, and have noted that temporary and permanent mobility is a defining social and economic feature of the region. The most useful source in discovering these broad trends in mobility has been R. Douglas Hurt’s The Big Empty: The Great Plains in the Twentieth Century, while many of the other sources I read have provided details on particular themes or eras of mobility in the Great Plains and western Nebraska in particular.
The turn of the century saw a significant influx of Mexican and Mexican American migrant laborers on the Plains, numbers that intensified after 1910 and the unrest of the Mexican Revolution. Single men and later families traveled to the Plains seasonally to take part in agricultural harvests, railroad work crews, the oil industry, and meatpacking plants. Eventually work in the railroad and meatpacking industries often became year-round, and these Mexicans moved to Nebraska and other Plains states permanently, instead of spending their winters in the cities or south in Texas and Mexico where they were recruited. In the Scottsbluff area, many migrant workers came to labor in the sugar beet fields. Those who ended up staying lived in colonias, settlements of Mexican laborers organized by Great Western Sugar Company.
High commodity prices during World War I led to many farmers expanding their production, only to have the market collapse after the end of the war. This set the stage for hard times from the 1920s through the 1930s. Some areas of the Plains were plagued by drought and poor harvests in the 1920s, which intensified with the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. The exodus from the American farm during the Depression had actually already started in the 1920s. Many Nebraskans found better conditions in the Pacific Northwest, where the economy had not been hit as hard. Others moved from farms and rural towns to cities in search of work. The demographic shift of the 1920s and 1930s was permanent; people who migrated to other areas in search of improved economic conditions did not move back to the countryside.
World War II again brought high commodity prices and flush years for the farmers who stayed on the land. The war also brought many new war defense industries to the Great Plains. Although California was the “hot spot” for defense contracts during the war, many Plains states benefitted. Nebraska boasted a number of munitions and ordnance plants, aircraft assembly plants, and military bases. Again a population shift occurred. Defense industries offered much higher wages than most other jobs, so many people left the countryside for the towns and cities where these industries were located. Some stayed within the Plains for these jobs, while many others moved to the Far West states. Cities experienced booming populations and strained city services and infrastructure, while small rural communities hemorrhaged population. Farmers in particular struggled, unable to obtain enough laborers year round and at harvest to process the high production levels called for by the federal government. Many farmhands left for the military or for higher paying defense jobs. Once again, Mexicans filled the void. The federal government authorized the Bracero Program starting in 1942 to provide much-needed temporary labor assistance to agricultural industries across the nation, and Nebraska’s sugar beet fields benefitted from this help. After the war, many defense industries closed down their plants and factories in the Great Plains. Nebraska lost the majority of its defense spending, resulting in the loss of many jobs. Some people chose to move outside the region after the war, but others stayed in the cities where they had found work during the war.
Migration and mobility in Nebraska and the Great Plains changed after the turn of the century. In the late 1800s, people had come to the region for land and farms. By the 1920s, a large exodus from the farm had begun that would wax and wane over the decades. While agricultural laborers often experienced high mobility due to seasonal employment and limited opportunities for advancement, white Nebraskans increasingly moved in search of non-agricultural employment. Cities and towns grew as people sought higher paying jobs and a more comfortable standard of living. The first half of the twentieth century thus saw more demographic population shifts and mobility in the Great Plains than in previous decades.