Turnips to the rescue: The story of Oklahoma's toughest year


True tale of an unlikely hero; when turnips saved the day!

Turnips are not the most popular vegetable these days, but if you had to eat them or starve, you could do much worse than subsist on garden-variety turnips.

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One source lists a lot of health benefits for the lowly turnip:

If included regularly as part of the diet, turnips can relieve intestinal problems, promote weight loss, and boost hair and skin health. In addition, glucosinolates and isothiocyanates in turnips reduce the risk of cancer. Turnips can also promote cardiovascular, liver, and kidney health. These also exhibit anti-diabetic properties, improve memory, and help manage anemia and osteoporosis.

As nutritious as turnips are, I'm still not sure I could eat them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Yet, that is what our ancestors had to do one year. Let's go back a few years to 1890.

In January, 1890, Nellie Bly completed her round-the-world journey; in March, the first American football game in Ohio State University history was played in Delaware and on June 1, The United States Census Bureau began using Herman Hollerith's tabulating machine to record census returns using punched card input, a landmark in the history of computing hardware. (Hollerith's company eventually became IBM.)

But for those living in Oklahoma in1890, it was a tough time economically. People were struggling to grow crops and get food to eat.

It was so difficult that they called that year the 'Year of the Turnips.'

You see, the settlers had arrived too late in 1889 to plant crops.

And then, by the time June came around, there was a drought, which meant it was hard to grow anything. Many people gave up and left their land behind.

But then, the railroad companies came up with an idea to help the settlers.

Selling turnip seeds on credit for fall planting

They sold seeds to people on credit, which meant they could plant crops again. That fall, when it finally rained, people started planting turnips on almost every available piece of land.

Turnips were one of the few things that could grow that late in the season, so they ended up with tons and tons of them.

They used the turnips for food for themselves and their animals. It helped them survive during the tough times of 1890.

Grateful for turnips

But it wasn't easy to eat turnips all the time. People got tired of it pretty quickly, and it was definitely not a fun experience.

They were just grateful to have enough to eat and survive. My mother, who was a child during the 1920's depression, remembers feeling the same way about her mother's biscuits.

Since flour was fairly cheap, biscuits and gravy were often the only breakfast their big family could afford. Sometimes, she recalls, the flour had mealworms in it. Grandpa just laughed and called it extra protein.

So, talking about the 'Year of the Turnips' reminded those who lived through it just how difficult life was for the settlers during that time.

But it was also a reminder of how strong and resilient Okies were, and how they were able to overcome challenges and survive through teamwork and creativity.

****If you enjoy reading about early Oklahoma history, you might enjoy My Daddy Was The Last Sheriff of Delaware District," Recalls Cherokee Prairie Woman


Hi, I'm Judy! I love bringing a magnifying glass to where psychology and history cross. What makes people do what they do? Why did they make that choice? What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments and share this article on social media and with family and friends, if you'd like.

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Judy Derby has worked in the surrounding communities as a social worker and advocate. providing resources and information to help local families meet their basic needs. She's been writing about social issues and related topics for over 10 years.

Antlers, OK

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