HICKORY CORNERS, Mich. – The images from the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s are haunting – long lines at soup kitchens, farms buried by dirt and gaunt faces peering out from dilapidated autos piled high with their only possessions.
But that is only part of the story.
While desperate families were migrating west in hopes of finding work and leaving the Depression and Dust Bowl behind, automotive designers were still creating luxury cars for the ultra-wealthy.
The Gilmore Car Museum, near Kalamazoo, Mich., takes you beyond filmmaker Ken Burns' recent PBS documentary, The Dust Bowl, with a new and revealing exhibit of the autos from the era.
An extraordinary Duesenberg custom-built for Hollywood's elite is displayed right next to an ancient Ford Model T covered with a family's only belongings.
"Historically, it's important that we show these automobiles in a setting that reflects the social and economic context of the time period," says Michael Spezia, executive director of the museum.
"These cars are more than just a 'pretty face,'" he added. "Our new exhibit juxtaposed the cars of the Dust Bowl with some of America's most extraordinary automobiles built during the Depression."
The Duesenberg, one of 11 luxury cars in the exhibit, was introduced at the New York Auto Salon in 1929 and set a new standard for design and power. Its price tag of nearly $20,000 was the equivalent of two typical middle-class homes and two-dozen Model A Fords.
In stunning contrast, the nearby 1927 Model T Ford cost $485 new. As an example of what numerous Americans experienced, it is well-worn and covered with sand. Bedding and furniture as well as pots and pans are tied to the fenders and running boards – all that the family could carry on their westward migration. It is displayed with a backdrop of the enormous dust cloud, which locals called the "Black Blizzard," enveloping the entire community of Rollo, Kan., in November 1935.
Several over-sized, iconic images from the time period – many taken by the Farm Security Administration in an effort to draw attention to the devastation of America's farms and those who worked the land – are hung throughout the display.
One photo shows a father and son, barefoot and carrying a bedroll, walking past a billboard that exclaims, "Next time, try the train."
The decade's apparent contradiction is also found in another image which is of a dapper looking fellow, complete with pinstriped suit and spats, posing next to his very expensive 1930 front-wheel drive L-29 Cord.
When the luxury models in this exhibit – from Rolls-Royce, Packard, Auburn, Lincoln, Cord, Cadillac and, of course Duesenberg – were introduced, unemployment was only at 3%. These cars, however, were still being built when unemployment reached a peak of over 25%.
The decade of the 1930s is remembered for the poverty of the Great Depression, the Dust storms that decimated the farms of the Midwest and the greatest American migration of the 20th Century that resulted.
Ironically, it was during this time that the auto industry built some of the most magnificent, sophisticated and expensive cars in history.
Much of the migration west was made possible by the automobiles of the 1920s and earlier, particularly the ubiquitous Model T Ford, which was rugged and reliable though inexpensive. These were the vehicles of choice for many "drought refugees" and became not only their means of travel but often their only place of shelter.
The hardships felt during this time didn't discriminate. Many of the automakers, including Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg, were unable to weather the decade-long Depression. Some of the once affluent sold their luxury cars for pennies on the dollar. Many hard working families lost everything and searched for work wherever they could find it. Throughout it all, the human spirit survived and the nation would go on to prosper in the decades to follow.
The Gilmore Car Museum is now open year-round and features many all-new exhibits including the 1953 General Motors Futurliner, American Muscle Cars and the return of the fabulous Hostetler Hudson Collection. Visit GilmoreCarMuseum.org for a glimpse of the museum's collection and to plan your visit.
Learn more in-depth details about the cars of the Depression and more in our Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1942.