History Note

History Note

Great Depression put a strain on the state’s institutions

The Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 to 1939, is considered to be the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world. By 1933, when the Great Depression reached its lowest point, 15 million Americans were unemployed. Nearly half the country’s banks had failed. People lost everything. 

One sad yet largely forgotten impact of the Great Depression was its dire impact on people with disabilities and their families. Up until the late 1920s, people with disabilities either lived at home, were placed in state institutions or lived at county homes or “poor farms.” 

The Great Depression left many families unable to care for loved ones with disabilities. That put more strain on the state. 

In January 1932, newspapers reported that there were 1,350 people with developmental disabilities waiting to enter Minnesota institutions. Facilities were at or beyond capacity. 

In addition 125 children with disabilities were waiting for admission to the Gillette State Hospital in St. Paul. Other places had similar wait lists. 

By 1932 Minnesota had state institutions for people with an array of disabilities and chronic illnesses, overseen by the State Board of Control. The board, which was established in the early 20th century, had a vast and sweeping set of duties including oversight of public assistance programs, state institutions for people with disabilities,  orphanages and correctional facilities. 

Much of the work of overseeing state institutions fell to the state board and its longtime leader, Minneapolis resident C.J. Swendsen. In January 1932 he and the board presented a detailed report to Gov. Floyd B. Olson. Swendsen urged that several institutional construction projects around the state keep on track so that adequate housing could be provided quickly. 

Minnesota’s 18 state institutions had almost 15,300 residents at the time. 

“All efforts are being made to rush completion of the large building program of the state board of control to enable the state to care for additional inmates and to alleviate present crowded conditions in several institutions,’ an article from the Winona Republican Herald stated. 

The large number of people waiting for could be traced to the “hard times” of the Great Depression, Swendsen told reporters. Families were unable to care for their children and adult family members with disabilities. Fewer people could adopt orphaned children. More children were given up for adoption. It was a huge dilemma for the state.  

Although Minnesota’s modern disability community would not approve of the institutional conditions of the 1930s, Swendsen brought a unique level of care and commitment to his role. He argued for better housing and better conditions. He served on the state control board for 22 years, appointed and then reappointed by four different governors. He would eventually work with five governors. 

It would take a few years to provide the capacity needed to house more people. Alas, Swendsen wouldn’t see the work completed. He died in October 1933 at age 72 and was widely mourned.  

The History Note is a monthly column produced in cooperation with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Past History Notes and other disability history may be found at  www.mnddc.org