Cover Story: How the Great War Grew Nebraska’s Economy
by Brianna Poppert
In the spring of 1917 the United States entered “the Great War” – World War One – and nearly 48,000 Nebraskans began their military service in the conflict. 1
While a number of these service members crossed an ocean to fight the war in Europe,the war was shifting global economic power to the Americas and towards sources of production outside the European continent.
Changes to the global economy during the war years were caused by the interruption to the allies’ European sources of goods used in food and production. Trade was barred between combatants and many men who formed the labor necessary for production and agriculture were serving on the front.
As David Reynolds noted in his book, “The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century,” the allied countries solved their subsequent shortages by turning outside Europe to replace their old sources of Russian wheat and German chemical products.
The United States had a great capacity for supplying such resources, and Nebraska was one of many states that benefited from an intense economic boom. Although agriculture was the largest component of Nebraska’s economy, the state experienced rapid growth in both agricultural and chemical production following the wartime decline in Europe.
Increased demand and new irrigation technologies encouraged farmers to produce more crops on more land. In wartime Nebraska alone, “2.9 million acres of new land were brought into agricultural production.”2
For a while, the expanded cultivation paid well too: crop prices increased sharply between the beginning of the war and 1920.3
While the existing agricultural industry in the state grew up, new opportunities for industrial resource production were born. Nebraska had the natural re-sources needed to offer itself
as a substitute source for German chemical exports of potash: a potassium rich salt used in fertilizer and in other goods.
Nebraska’s potash industry took off just before the beginning of the war. In anticipation of the disruption of trade, potash plants started appearing along the alkali lakes of western Nebraska.
This particular industry, while initially profitable, quickly collapsed in Nebraska following restored U.S. trade with Germany in 1921.4 By the fall of 1922, the demolition of the Hoffland plant
in Sheridan County, the largest potash production plant in the state, was already in progress.5
Nebraska agriculture also suffered a similar setback. When European production recovered after the war, the resultant surplus of goods depressed prices for years.
The economic optimism of the war boom that caused many Nebraskans to pour their profits into their livelihoods in the form of land and new technology left them over-extended as the country entered the Dust Bowl and Great Depression of the 1930s.
Although the economic prosperity Nebraskans experienced ended abruptly and painfully as a result of over production, some of the global economic changes caused by World War I were longer lived.
By the end of the war boom in 1929 the United States was the world’s largest exporter and second largest importer, marking a shift in the center of global economic activity away from European powers like Great Britain and Germany, according to Reynolds. The decline of the potash industry on the Great Plains left ghost towns like Antioch, Nebraska, behind, but
the agricultural industry, against many additional challenges throughout the 20th century, has remained a significant feature of the state’s economy.
Brianna Poppert, from Omaha, is a senior history-social science education major at Nebraska Wesleyan University.
Discover more of WWI’s IMPACT at the 2015 Governor’s Lecture
Hear David Reynolds speak on “World War One: Remembering America’s Forgotten War” at the 20th annual Governor’s Lecture
in the Humanities on October 1 at the Holland Performing Arts Center in Omaha. For details, visit HumanitiesNebraska.org.
New World War I Chautauqua planned for 2016
HN program officer Kristi Hayek Carley has been planning for a new Nebraska Chautauqua which will explore the impact of World War One on America.
Scholars will portray historic figures including Woodrow Wilson, Edith Wharton, William Jennings Bryan, W.E.B. Dubois, and Jane Addams. Daily workshops and a youth camp will make for a fun, informative week at each site.Humanities Nebraska is looking for two communities to host Chautauqua in 2016. If you would like to recommend your community, please call 402.474.2131 or check out the Chautauqua page.
1 Gabe C. Parks, “Nebraska Trivia,” (Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1998), n.p.
2 Donald R. Hickey, Susan A Wunder, and John R Wunder, “Nebraska Moments,” (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), pg. 165.
5 Richard E. Jensen, “Nebraska’s World War I Potash Industry,” Nebraska History 68 (1987), pg. 33.