Hard Livin’
The many ways to lose a life or limb on a 1930s farm
By Neil Ferron

Migrant laborers with a threshing machine.

“I lost my hand right here on the ranch.”
— Candy

In the 1930s, migrant labor was one of the most dangerous occupations—only surpassed by mining and freight brakemen. Family farms were being replaced by large land companies who had little interest in protecting the health and lives of their laborers. As a result, a commercial farm like the one in Of Mice and Men was a dangerous and largely unregulated workplace, and there were many ways to lose life or limb.

The most prominent danger came from farm machinery. The 1930s was a time of agricultural mechanization. Labor that had previously been completed by horses or laboring men was becoming the job of machines. Tractors, grain drills, and combines provided greater efficiency but also new dangers.

Lose a hand in a threshing machine

The most notoriously dangerous machine was the threshing machine. Invented by Scottish mechanical engineer Andrew Meikle in the late 18th century, the machine used a series of teeth and rotating blades to separate the grain from the straw. The danger came from the “pinch points,” where the belt and gear drives came together. A hand caught in a pinch point was easily severed. Clothing caught in a pinch point could drag other body parts or the entire body into the machinery.

When threshing machines were first released, there was a backlash against them, in part due to safety concerns. In 1811, the Bury and Norwich Post wrote, “There has not been any recent inventions by which human calamity has been produced as by the new implement called the thrashing [sic] machine.” Some of these safety concerns were veiled attempts to keep laborers from losing their jobs to machines, but news clippings of the time confirm that there were an inordinate number of gruesome accidents caused by threshers.

The South Bend Register reported a young man’s death: “In less time than it takes to tell it, his head and upper portion of his body were reduced to a shapeless, unrecognizable mass...The sight is said, by those who witnessed it, to have been a most sickening one.”

Suffocate in a pit silo or manure shed

Pit silos and manure sheds presented another danger: deadly gasses. Pit silos were used to store silage (cut cornstalks and other organic waste), and they could be as large as 24 feet across and about 60 feet deep.

Delbert Apetz, a laborer and son of a German immigrant, remembers, "That silage formed a gas and usually you let the lantern down [to check for gas before entering the silo]. And if it went out, why you knew there was gas down there." A dangerous mixture of hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, and methane inside a pit silo or manure shed could suck the oxygen out of the lungs and suffocate an unlucky laborer.

Mule kicks, trampling, food poisoning

There were a host of other dangers for laborers on large farms. Blacksmiths were often victims of mule kicks (mules generally do not appreciate the process of being re-shoed). Horses presented the possibility of being trampled. There were several outbreaks of staph food poisoning in the 1930s. Staphylococci, which could cause severe diarrhea and vomiting, could turn up in milk, eggs, meats, and some baked goods.

No help for farm workers

Large-scale labor regulations were finally passed with the National Labor Relations Act (NRLA) of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938. The NRLA granted workers the right to unionize, and the FLSA set minimum standards for wages, overtime provisions, and child labor laws. Both acts, however, excluded farm workers. It wasn’t until 1966 that the FLSA was amended to cover agricultural laborers. Even then, other pieces of legislation excluded them from pension plans, unemployment insurance, and workers’ compensation.