Farm foreclosures once triggered fights in Walworth County
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Farm sales--and foreclosures--weren't uncommon during the early 1930s, like this photo of a sale in Iowa. Foreclosures hit farmers, including those in Walworth County, hard after the Great Depression. Library of Congress photo.
In a rural county like Walworth, farms are often family possessions, worth fighting for.
Eighty years ago this month, U.S. farmers—then making up a quarter of the population—were in dire straits with poor crop yields and a 50 percent drop in commodity prices.
Many did then what some homeowners felt forced to do during this most recent economic downturn: put off mortgage payments and property taxes in order to feed their families and their livestock.
The result was a rise in foreclosures. A story in Bloomberg.com, chronicling the Great Depression week by week, noted that with 40 percent of the nation’s farms holding mortgages in December of 1932, the foreclosure problem was widespread.
Across the country, farmers were asking the federal government for a “mortgage holiday” to suspend foreclosures and help them refinance their farms, much as the government aided railroads and other manufacturers.
When Congress delayed, farmers took action themselves. At first they protested. The Bloomberg story noted in December of 1932, Wisconsin farmers gathered unsuccessfully to block a farm sale. A bank ended up buying the 40-acre property, but protestors said they’d prevent the family from being evicted from their farm.
According to an account in the Elkhorn Independent, in December of 1932, sheriff’s deputies tried to evict Max Cichon, his wife and their two children from their foreclosed farm in Sugar Creek, which had been auctioned off at a sale months earlier.
Cichon stood ground against 19 deputies who used machine guns, rifles, shotguns and even tear gas bombs, according to a story in “The Nation” and accounts in the Elkhorn Independent.
Cichon, who had been elected justice of the peace by his neighbors, ended up in jail, and his family was cared for in the county hospital.
By January of 1933, tensions grew, and the Bloomberg story noted that police with machine guns fired 300 rounds when a crowd gathered to block an eviction in Elkhorn.
The Elkhorn Independent didn’t record the shooting, but an editorial in the newspaper that month warned against mob violence at foreclosure sales, saying “forcible prevention of sales should be used only as a last resort, and then in cases where rank injustice has been done by a mortgage holder.” The editorial agreed, however, that in many cases farmers needed help.