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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

An Iowa Christmas During the Depression

Updated: May 10

This Christmas Eve, it's worth remembering the hardships our forebears endured in past Christmases to better appreciate our blessings today. Wishing you all a joy-filled Christmas Eve.

In the fall of 1936, during the Great Depression, the photographer, Russell Lee was hired for the federally sponsored Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographic documentation project of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. He joined a team of the nation’s premier photographers, including Dorothea LangeArthur Rothstein and Walker Evans. During the winter of 1936, Lee traveled across the Midwest to document the impact of the Great Depression on farm families.

During one of his stops in rural Iowa, he met a tenant farmer named Earl Pauley who rented a 185-acre farm near Smithfield, Iowa, in Woodbury County in the western part of the state. Earl Pauley invited Lee to visit their home on Christmas Day. Here, Lee captured some of his most famous pictures of the face of poverty during the Depression.

The Pauley family Christmas dinner consisted of boiled potatoes and cabbage.

A special treat just for Christmas: apple pie. Father helps the kids peel apples for Momma’s apple pie. Christmas 1936.

Earl Pauley built this dugout shanty into the side of a hill after the first family home burned down.

Two of the little Pauley girls look out the window. The Pauley home was

constructed with leftover wood and cardboard for insulation.

Mrs. Pauley with her two little girls. She made their dresses out of patterned flour sacks.

The Pauley baby was the fourth child in a farm family that could barely feed their existing children.

Frank Moody, his wife and seven children lived in this dugout they built on their 80-acre tenant farm, also in Woodbury County, near Miller township, Christmas 1936.

Mrs. Frank Moody with three of her seven children on their eighty acre farm Woodbury County, Iowa, Christmas 1936.

Skeleton of horse on the William Butler farm near Anthon, Iowa, in Woodbury County, that died of starvation and poor feed. December 1936.

Makeshift livestock shelter on the Charles Banta farm in Woodbury County, Iowa. Note the terrible soil erosion. December 1936.

Man reading to fellow inmates at the homeless men’s bureau in Sioux City, Iowa, Woodbury County, Christmas 1936.

Outhouse on the William McDermott farm in Woodbury County. December 1936.

Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Ostermeyer were original homesteaders in Woodbury County. Andrew, age 81 and his wife, 76, lost their farm to a loan company during the Depression. December 1936.


"An Iowa Christmas During the Depression" was first posted on Facebook December 24, 2019 / 115,485 views / 2,743 likes / 1,823 shares

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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