View more books by Robert W. Audretsch: Saving the Park & Saving the Boys, We Still Walk In Their Footprint

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ISBN: 9781457505294
140 pages
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Excerpt from the Book
CHAPTER 1: Out of the Gloom

My father was a cable tool driller in the oil fields, but during the Great Depression there were no jobs. … my whole family did any kind of work we could find. We were … in despair. … we often went hungry for three or four days at a time. … many nights during that period, I would listen as my younger siblings cried themselves to sleep because of the hunger in their bellies.1

Roy Lemons, former CCC enrollee, Company 819, Grand Canyon

IN CITIES ALL ACROSS AMERICA, people could feel the gloom. “Yes, we could smell the depression in the air,” said one writer.2 By March 1933, the U.S. stock market had lost more than 80% of its value. Less than half of U.S. wage earners were working full time. Unemployment reached over 25%. National income was down 54%. Over 40% of the nation’s mortgages were in default.3 In Chicago and other large cities, destitute families foraged through garbage dumps.4 Suicides increased. Marriages declined. The nation’s birth rate declined to the lowest rate in history.5 Industry was in turmoil. Auto production was down 80%. Steel production was down 88%.6 New housing starts were down 88%.7

Gloom filled the countryside too. Farm foreclosures exceeded 20,000 per month. Farm income had dropped almost 60%.8 Farmers were in open rebellion. They stopped shipments of farm produce, hoping to increase prices. Mobs of farmers attempted to halt the sale of foreclosed farms. In one Iowa community, farmers nearly lynched a sheriff for attempting to auction a foreclosed farm.9 The governor promptly put six counties under martial law and called in the National Guard.10 On the High Plains stretching from eastern Colorado, through Texas and Oklahoma to the Dakotas, decades of indiscriminate plowing of the prairie was followed by drought resulting in the Dust Bowl. From 1933 through 1939, dust storms swept topsoil as far east as Washington, D.C. Tens of thousands of farmers abandoned their farms, resulting in one of the largest internal migrations in U.S. history. Many of them looked for work as far away as California.11

Hopelessness had first started in the stock market, but it rapidly spread to other critical parts of the economy. From 1930 to 1932, 4,377 banks failed, with $2.7 billion in assets.12 On March 3, 1933, banks were shut down in thirty-eight states. The remaining ten states had stringent restrictions on withdrawals. 13 Even government was not immune from the downward spiral. By the end of 1933, three states and over 1,300 cities, counties and school districts had defaulted on their obligations. In effect they were bankrupt.14 Until 1933 welfare was considered a sign of one’s own personal failure. One did not ask for relief, as little as it was. But with private charities overloaded15 and local governments on the verge of failure, where was one to go for food and shelter?

Some said that the way out of this downward spiral was only through finding a strong leader and giving him dictatorial powers.16 Often they pointed to Russia, Italy and Germany as examples where a “strong man” offered hope. Radical movements, both on the right and the left, offered sweeping changes as the way out of the economic morass. By March 1933, the Great Depression had impacted every industrial nation on earth. Some began to realize that they were facing the greatest national crisis since the Civil War.

Hope and the CCC

Then, on the morning after the election in November, 1932, we were all working in a cotton field in north central Texas when the owner of the farm came driving through the field in a Model T touring car … with the throttle wide open. The car was bouncing and throwing up dust, and the driver was standing up in the car, calling out: “Roosevelt’s been elected! Roosevelt’s been elected!”—over and over. We just stood there watching him go by. I was only 13 years old, but I’ll never forget that moment. There were tears in our eyes because it meant that at last there was hope.17

Roy Lemons, former CCC enrollee, Company 819, Grand Canyon

End Notes

1 Engbeck, By the People, for the People, 1.
2 Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 18.
3 Kyvig, Daily Life, 218.
4 Cohen, Nothing to Fear, 1.
5 Kyvig, Ibid., 228.
6 Cohen, Ibid., 14.
7 Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to
1970. (Washington: USGPO, 1975), Part 2, 640.
Decline in annual housing starts from 1928 to 1933.
8 Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 141.
9 Leuchetenburg, Ibid., 30.
10 Schlesinger, Coming of the New Deal, 1958), 43.
11 Egan, Worst Hard Time.
12 Cohen, Ibid., 48.
13 Kyvig, Ibid., 220.
14 Kyvig, Ibid., 224.
15 Cohen, Ibid., 249.
16 Leuchentenburg, Ibid., 30.
17 Engbeck, Ibid., 1.