The Depression of 1893 was one of the worst in American history with the unemployment rate exceeding ten percent for half a decade. The Depression of 1893 can be seen as a watershed event in American history. It was accompanied by violent strikes, the climax of the Populist and free silver political crusades, the creation of a new political balance, the continuing transformation of the country’s economy, major changes in national policy, and far-reaching social and intellectual developments. Between 1870 and 1890 the number of farms in the United States rose by nearly 80 percent, to 4.5 million. Farm property value grew by 75 percent, to $16.5 billion. The advancing checkerboard of tilled fields in the nation’s heartland represented a vast indebtedness. Nationwide about 29% of farmers were encumbered by mortgages. One contemporary observer estimated 2.3 million farm mortgages nationwide in 1890. But farmers in the plains were much more likely to be in debt. Kansas croplands were mortgaged to 45 percent of their true value. Under favorable conditions the millions of dollars of annual charges on farm mortgages could be borne, but a declining economy brought foreclosures, tax sales and adverse weather could tip the balance over the edge. Railroads opened new areas to agriculture, linking these to rapidly changing national and international markets. Mechanization, the development of improved crops, and the introduction of new techniques increased productivity and fueled a rapid expansion of farming operations. The output of staples skyrocketed. Yields of wheat, corn, and cotton doubled between 1870 and 1890 though the nation’s population rose by only two-thirds. Grain and fiber flooded the domestic market. The depression, which was signaled by a financial panic in 1893, has been blamed on the deflation dating back to the Civil War. The economy exhibited other weaknesses in early 1893. Then in the summer of 1893 agriculture was hit with drought, and the overproduction during the preceding half-dozen years had reversed the remarkable agricultural prosperity and expansion of the early 1880s in the wheat, corn, and cotton belts. The drought started in June 1893 with a blistering heat wave that got underway on June 21 1893 when the mercury topped out at 106 degrees in Dodge City, Kansas and the drought didn’t break for 3 years. The boom to bust cycle would repeat itself 4 decades later during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl in almost the same exact location.
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