Drawing upon a line from Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” daily life was hard for people in Lincoln County during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
But life was hard everywhere then, so those living in rural Nevada, especially the children, didn’t think too much about what they didn’t have, because nobody else had any either.
Between 1929 and 1933, the U.S. Gross National Product dropped by nearly 33 percent, meaning one-third of the goods and services produced before the Depression were no longer being produced by the middle of the decade.
By 1933, unemployment nationwide reached 25 percent. One out of every four people looking for work couldn’t find a job – and that’s only counting those who were still looking. And there was no welfare system then.
Also, in the 1930s, prices for both livestock and cash crops dropped to rock bottom. In 1925, corn had sold at $1.07 per bushel. By November and December 1932, corn was selling for only 13 cents. Some people in the Midwest, who didn’t have much firewood or coal, resorted to burning corn in the fireplace for heat.
Here in Lincoln County around 1931, Pahranagat Valley rancher Ern Higbee faced losing his ranch which covered about 200 acres. It stretched from the road that crosses the valley near the old Dahl home, and north to the next road crossing the valley leading over to present day Logan’s Hardware.
Ern’s son, the late Joe Higbee, said his dad “almost lost his whole ranch for lack of $500.” Foreclosures by banks were common But a show of kindness changed all that for the Higbees, and what followed was no less an equal show of kindness. “People didn’t have any money,” Joe said. “We couldn’t pay for nothin.’”
In those days, Jim Ryan in Caliente was an exception to the norm. He was a wealthy local cattle rancher, whose daughter Mamie (Mrs. Press Duffin) was a good friend of Joe’s parents, Ern and Mamie Higbee.
Joe recalled he was only a young boy at the time, but said he was aware of the possibility of his parents losing the ranch. One day he went with his dad to see Mamie Duffin. Ern told her he needed $500. “I don’t know when I can pay you,” Ern said. She replied, “Give me thirty minutes and I’ll give you the $500.” She had some money put away somewhere apparently, and when she returned, she gave it to him, and he stuck it in his pocket.” Joe said $500 to people during the Great Depression was equal to nearly $100,000 or more today.
After giving Ern the $500, Mrs. Duffin made one stipulation, “Don’t tell anyone.” And he never did.
The money helped the Higbee’s keep the ranch. The family survived, working hard at trying to eke out a living, like everybody else in Lincoln County and most of the rest of the country as well, and Joe said over the years his dad paid Mrs. Duffin back, “but it was just in little bits, one piece at a time, a little bit here, a little bit there.”
Because the Higbee ranch also included a sizeable dairy operation along with their other cows, the family did have a small source of income. Joe said, “We’d separate the cream from the milk and send it by mail to Caliente. From there it would go by rail, to Nelson Rick’s Creamery in Ogden, Utah. Then after a bit, we’d get a ‘cream check’ back in the mail, maybe get $2-$3 for a can of cream. That was the only money we had for years.”
As the years rolled through the 30’s, World War II, and beyond, and the local economy picked up, Joe said, “When Dad would maybe see Mamie Duffin on the street, he might take $5 or less, and quietly give it to her, just slip it in her hand as they’d shake hands and say hello. Then mother would go home and write it down, that they’d paid five or ten dollars, or whatever it was.”
It took many years, but over time Higbee said his parents did pay Mamie Duffin back all $500, for the act of generosity she had shown them during the dark days of the Depression and kept it among themselves. No one else knew.