FARGO-MOORHEAD — No doubt, it might have been hard for the typical Fargo-Moorhead resident in 1933 to feel the same sparkle they saw coming from the lights they hung on their Christmas tree. Things were bleak that year. The Great Depression had been lumbering on for more than three years, and families were stretched thin. To complicate matters, farmers in the region were suffering through a severe drought. The strong winds whipping up the dry soil inspired some to call the decade "The Dirty 30’s” or “The Dust Bowl Years". While The Great Depression lasted about 10 years, some historians say 1933 was the worst of it. Consider all that what was happening that year:

  • Unemployment peaked at 25.2% in 1933. One in four people was looking for work

  • Tens of thousands of people hit the road and railroad looking for jobs

  • So many people were withdrawing their money from banks, the federal government passed the Banking Act of 1933

  • After a bitter battle, Prohibition was repealed, but gangsters like Al Capone still ruled some big cities

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts
  • Overseas, Adolf Hitler became the chancellor of Germany and opened the first concentration camp

That’s some dark and heavy stuff. But it didn’t stop some of our ancestors from stepping up and helping. We scoured the Forum archives for December, 1933 and learned how people here made the most of their year by helping neighbors in need.

The Fargo Forum and WDAY-AM worked with local charities to hold a Christmas basket drive to help 575 families devastated by The Great Depression and poor farming conditions. Forum archives
The Fargo Forum and WDAY-AM worked with local charities to hold a Christmas basket drive to help 575 families devastated by The Great Depression and poor farming conditions. Forum archives

The Fargo Forum/WDAY Christmas Basket Fund

In the fall of 1933, The Forum (then known as The Fargo Forum) partnered with its sister radio station WDAY-AM, The Salvation Army, Catholic Welfare Bureau and the Fargo Union Mission to collect food and money to help area people hit hardest by The Great Depression. Before it was over, approximately $1,000 dollars had been raised ($19,600 in today’s money) to help build Christmas needs baskets.

Each day, The Forum listed contributors to the project, some donating just one dollar.

Area residents' names were listed in the paper each day for contributing to the basket fund drive. Many gave just one dollar, which was a lot of money during The Great Depression and amounts to about $20.00 today. Forum archives
Area residents' names were listed in the paper each day for contributing to the basket fund drive. Many gave just one dollar, which was a lot of money during The Great Depression and amounts to about $20.00 today. Forum archives

Food was donated from businesses and individuals to fill the Christmas baskets. Each basket contained enough food for several meals and included meat, fruits and vegetables, canned milk, cookies, coffee, lard and more. Small families were given a chicken for their Christmas dinner, while larger families were given a turkey. The A.H. Meyer Guernsey farm, four miles west of Fargo, donated 200 pounds of steaks and roasts to supplement the turkey dinners. Before it was over, 575 Fargo-Moorhead area families received baskets.

WDAY radio is known for launching Peggy Lee to stardom and also featured other acts like the Gal Pals. But in 1933, the station ran fundraising programs to raise money for food baskets. One act featured a police officer speaking Swedish. Forum archives
WDAY radio is known for launching Peggy Lee to stardom and also featured other acts like the Gal Pals. But in 1933, the station ran fundraising programs to raise money for food baskets. One act featured a police officer speaking Swedish. Forum archives

Operators are standing by

The Fargo Forum and WDAY radio raised hundreds of dollars for the basket program by broadcasting a series of programs featuring announcers asking for donations in between performances. According to The Fargo Forum, the acts included harmonica playing, dancing, singing and even a “Swedish dialect reading by A.E. Quam of the Fargo Police Department.” If that weren’t enough, “Eugene Fitzgerald, sports editor of The Fargo Forum, and J.W. Schannach, bowling and outdoor sports writer for The Fargo Forum, carried on a sports dialogue.” (The forerunners to Jeff Kolpack and Dom Izzo?)



The Great Depression didn't stop people from having Christmas parties. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt talks with Santa during a party in 1933. Wikimedia Commons
The Great Depression didn't stop people from having Christmas parties. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt talks with Santa during a party in 1933. Wikimedia Commons

Get out the accordion, we're having a party!

Private citizens held their own fundraisers to contribute to the basket project. The Fargo Forum said, “Mrs. H.O. Ruud, 310 Eighth St. So., was hostess to 14 guests'' for an old fashioned Christmas dinner party. Partygoers sang carols accompanied by piano, accordion and harmonica. She raised $2.50 for the fund drive. (By the way, Mrs. H.O. Ruud certainly had a first name, of course, but newspapers referred to women by “Mrs.-their-husband’s-name” until the 1970’s).



Joe E. Brown and Evelyn Knapp starred in the movie "Fireman Save My Child" which kids in Fargo-Moorhead could see free of charge at the State theater in downtown Fargo if they brought a donated food item. Photo/First National Films
Joe E. Brown and Evelyn Knapp starred in the movie "Fireman Save My Child" which kids in Fargo-Moorhead could see free of charge at the State theater in downtown Fargo if they brought a donated food item. Photo/First National Films

Sharp-tongued reporter encourages kids to help

Children who wanted to help out were told to take a canned or packaged food item for the basket drive to the State Theater in downtown Fargo. The item gave them admittance to a Saturday matinee of “Fireman, Save My Child,” starring Joe E. Brown, whom the Forum reporter described as “he of the preposterous jaws". That’s cold.



Amid the news headlines in The Fargo Forum touting the Christmas Basket Fund, you can find stories about the seedier goings on in the world, including gangsters getting killed by police in Chicago during a bank robbery. Forum archives
Amid the news headlines in The Fargo Forum touting the Christmas Basket Fund, you can find stories about the seedier goings on in the world, including gangsters getting killed by police in Chicago during a bank robbery. Forum archives

Meanwhile in Chicago

As Christmas neared, The Fargo Forum front page touted the fact that the Christmas basket fund was nearing $1,000 dollars, but you can also see that the “Public Enemy Era” was very real. News of gangsters and G-men got a lot of newspaper ink in those days, including this story of three bank robbers shot and killed in Chicago right around Christmas.

Statues of men standing in a bread line during The Great Depression are featured at the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C. One in four people in 1933 was unemployed and half the nation's banks failed. Residents in Fargo-Moorhead spent part of Christmas 1933 making sure no one went hungry. Photo/National Park Service
Statues of men standing in a bread line during The Great Depression are featured at the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C. One in four people in 1933 was unemployed and half the nation's banks failed. Residents in Fargo-Moorhead spent part of Christmas 1933 making sure no one went hungry. Photo/National Park Service

'Consider actual need'

Organizers of the basket drive emphasized that they wanted to help anyone who needed it, so standards weren’t overly strict. One article noted, “Merely because the man of the family has recently found a job has not barred families from receiving Christmas baskets.”



In addition to the food basket drive, local Rotarians and Kiwanians gave toys to children. Forum archives
In addition to the food basket drive, local Rotarians and Kiwanians gave toys to children. Forum archives

More than food

As much as the food baskets reassured the food-insecure families in the region, it probably wasn’t a huge thrill for children longing for toys and gifts. Several local service clubs including the Kiwanis and the Rotary Club, stepped up to help with that. They asked “housewives” to look around their home for toys in need of repair. Men in the clubs would repair and restore the toys and give them to children who might not otherwise get a gift under the tree. Eighty families, living in pretty tough surroundings, were given toys.

The Fargo Forum reporter wrote, “Homes where as many as six children live with their parents in a single room and snow-heaped “cook cars” also housing large families were discovered by Moorhead Rotarians and Kiwanians as they distributed made-over Christmas toys to the needy. Many of the children being so gleeful they tried to hug the club men.”

This story from Christmas day shows that people were hopeful that things were starting to look up for them for 1934. Forum archives
This story from Christmas day shows that people were hopeful that things were starting to look up for them for 1934. Forum archives

Hope for the new year

While 1933 was a difficult year, the tone of the newspaper stories right after Christmas expressed optimism that the worst was over. The story from Christmas day touted a good holiday trade season and new jobs on the horizon. “For scores of Fargo-Moorhead men, it was a Christmas day with a job to go to Tuesday, a cause for rejoicing some had not had in a long many months.”

While things might have been improving slightly by the dawn of 1934, most historical accounts say The Great Depression would last another five years. But the generosity of spirit in Fargo-Moorhead that Christmas of 1933 was certainly a welcome and hopeful respite.

Other stories from Tracy Briggs:

The simple thing WWII women did everyday to get under Hitler's skin

100 years ago today, white women got the right to vote

The post-war, pandemic Christmas of 1918 featured a Christmas tree shortage and handkerchiefs galore