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Understanding the Great Depression and its legacy for America

My personal understanding of the Great Depression began as a young child through stories told by my grandparents and other relatives.

They talked about barely surviving because of the lack of work and when work was found, very low wages. The alphabet soup of acronyms like WPA, CCC and CWA were well known to teenagers or adults during the Great Depression. The first time I heard of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), my grandmother joked that the real name was “We Piddle Around.”

She said men were paid a daily wage by the government to do a little work for a little money. I sensed her criticism was rooted in disappointment that the government had to step in and provide make-work because men couldn’t do their normal work and make a living.

Years later, I saw the movie, “The Grapes of Wrath,” that told the story of the Goad family being forced off their farm due to the combined effects of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. The Goads heard about a place with good wages for work and fertile ground where they could start life over. All they had to their name were a few possessions, their family, and a willingness to work.

Difficult times can often be endured because we know the pain will only last for so long. But what does a person do when there is no end in sight for the suffering?

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This was life during the Great Depression. From 1929-1942, this was a global and national calamity that brought years of suffering to all Americans. So, what exactly was this Great Depression?

The Beginning

The Great Depression began with the stock market crash on Oct. 24, 1929, just 7 ½ months after President Hebert Hoover took office. Hoover responded aggressively after the crash of 1929, but by 1932 the market had lost 89% of its value and the economy was in freefall.

By the time President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, unemployment had reached 25 percent. According to the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, those fortunate enough to remain employed saw their wages fall by 42.5% from 1929-1933. The Great Depression continued through the majority of Roosevelt’s four-term presidency from March 1933 through April 1945.

Aubrey Williams, executive director of the National Youth Administration described the economic conditions and their impacts in this way:

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“In the years of 1930, 1931 and 1932 when bank failures were averaging nine hundred per year, reaching the catastrophic number of fourteen hundred in 1932, youth were the direct victim of these failures that wiped out the savings of millions of families. When homes were being lost at a rate of 400,000 per year in 1932, youths not only had to bear their share of the suffering, but their losses were frequently the greater. When thousands of farm families in the year 1932 were having their farms sold out from under them, youths again suffered great loss.”

This letter to President Roosevelt tells a story of suffering experienced by many young people.
President Roosevelt:

Please sir, I’m writing you because I need help. I don’t have a place to sleep at except beside the lake under the rocks out in the park; sometimes my friend lets me sleep at the garage. I’m 18 years of age and want to work—I will do anything—I will go anywhere—I want to go to school but don’t have any raiment to wear.
I’m asking you to help me—I don’t want anyone to give me anything—just a job—I can’t find a job anywhere over the city because I don’t have sufficient clothes.
A lad from Illinois

The lack of work created other impacts as well.

Written in the mid-1930s, this writer describes the impact of a lack of purpose and economic opportunity on youth:

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“Let a boy or man stay idle for a long period of time and he begins to crave excitement and change. This often leads him to seek diversion and excitement through a life of crime. Those who are down and out and always broke are often led into crime through the hope of easy money.” – (CCC) Enrollee Charles Woods, Co. 437, Polkton, North Carolina.

The New Deal

Roosevelt created the New Deal program which included efforts to stabilize and control agricultural production, stabilize wages and prices, and create a vast public works programs for the unemployed.

In a March 21, 1933, speech to Congress he said, “I estimate 250,000 men can be given temporary employment by early summer if you give me authority to proceed in two weeks…”

On April 5, an executive order was issued that set in motion emergency conservation work through cooperative work by the department secretaries of War, Interior, Labor, and Agriculture. The Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, was born.

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In his State of the Union address on Jan. 4, 1935, Roosevelt told Congress the country should fundamentally change its approach to helping the unemployed, offering jobs instead of the direct relief which he called “fundamentally destructive to our moral fiber.”

“To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of sound policy. It is in violation of the traditions of America. Work must be found for able-bodied but destitute workers.”

Roosevelt expressed concern about how a works program could affect businesses but, in the end, decided this crisis was too dire to not push forward. For many people, the work they did gave them money to buy essential items, provided new job skills or added to the skills and experience they already had.

Work was the answer, but what kind of work? Roosevelt believed that our forests, croplands and waterways needed attention. The CCC would provide job skills training and income essential for survival. Here’s the way he described this: “Through the Civilian Conservation Corps, forestry is helping rebuild our youth as well as our forest resources; is helping to shape the destiny of both, and thus contributing materially to our national security. Forests like people must be constantly productive.”

What better way to improve these natural resources while providing work to millions of those unemployed?
To launch the CCC, Roosevelt wisely leveraged the leadership and logistics skills of military officers to run the CCC camps established throughout the nation.

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“Enrollees” were unmarried, young men 18-25 who were U.S. citizens and willing to be paid $30 each month of which $25 was sent by government check to their family instead of relief payments. Enrollees were provided food, clothing, housing and training during their period of service. Enrollees were not treated as or trained as military personnel. Military leaders ensured the camp environment was well managed and safe for enrollees.

On April 7, 1933, the first man was selected by the Department of Labor and enrolled by the War Department. The first CCC camp, Camp Roosevelt, was opened on April 17, 1933, in the George Washington National Forest near Luray, Virginia. Early camps utilized Army tents until more permanent facilities could be constructed by enrollees. By early July, 250,000 junior enrollees, 25,000 war veterans and 25,000 experienced woodsmen were spread over 1,468 forests around the nation. By 1935, the CCC grew to 500,000 men.

North Carolina Work Projects Administration Library Project showing rear of bookmobile in Cumberland County with group of people reading. Public domain image from N.C. Department of Cultural Resources

The CCC in the Sandhills

Scotland County actively lobbied to get one of six CCC Camps planned for the Sandhills Region. CCC Company 1221 in Laurinburg would work on forest protection projects. Camps were also located in Raeford, Rockingham, Jackson Springs and Southern Pines. Sixty-six CCC camps were eventually built in North Carolina, covering 47 counties and employing over 14,000 men.

According to the Laurinburg Exchange, the first tents were pitched as temporary housing in October 1934. The camp would later add more permanent structures and ultimately house 200 young men.

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Five acres of land was leased south of Hillside Street and east of L&B railroad tracks, near the cemetery. Despite the dire economic circumstances of the local area and nation, neighboring Middleton Heights residents voiced objections to having 200 men living so close to a residential area.

Nelson Gibson, a CCC enrollee and son of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Gibson of Laurinburg, wrote an editorial pointing out the economic impact of materials purchased locally to build and support the camp plus ongoing supplies.

The camp was constructed despite protests with assurances from the camp’s military commander that order would be maintained.

In Laurinburg, a Civil Works Administration project provided jobs working to control flooding from Lethe Creek. This flooding was so bad that in 1928 and 1929, flooding came from Highway 401 to downtown Laurinburg.

Wages for work programs like these were controlled and regionally adjusted. Here are some examples of prevailing wages in the 1934:

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  • unskilled labor – 45 cents an hour;
  • brick layers – $1.10
  • apprentice brick layer – 75 cents
  • finish carpenters – $1.10
  • rough carpenters – 75 cents
  • plumbers – $1.10
  • plumber apprentice – 60 cents
  • machinist $1.10
  • truck driver over 1 ½ tons – 40 cents
  • foremen – $1.10

The CCC during its tenure provided jobs for almost two million people: 1,287,000 youth; 25,000 reserve officers; 135,000 war veterans; 170,000 supervisory personnel; 55,000 project superintendents and foremen; 4,000 education advisers; 55,000 mechanics to repair equipment and carpenters to construct the camps; plus administrative personnel.

Nationally, the CCC did a herculean amount of work over a four-year period that benefited the nation. Here are some of the statistics:

  • 3 million man-days fighting forest fires
  • 50,000 miles of telephone lines were strung
  • 50,000 miles of firebreaks cut through the forest
  • 75,000 miles of truck trails and minor road constructed for fire protection
  • insect and disease control for 13.5 million acres of forest
  • 2.5 million acres of timber improved
  • 1 billion seedlings grown in nurseries by CCC labor
  • timber surveys completed for 28 million acres
  • 2.5 million check dams constructed
  • seeding and sodding, tree planting, gully treatment and water diversion done on 3.5 million acres

Forty thousand illiterate CCC enrollees also learned to read and write in classes taught at the camps.
In describing the cost of CCC program, Richard Brown of the National Youth Administration presented it this way: “In the Great War (World War I), we spent 18.5 billion dollars to destroy life. Was it extravagant to spend 6.5 billion dollars over a four-year period (to) conserve not only human life but human personalities?”

WPA wood carving displayed in the Hamlet Post Office. Photo by Charlie Melvin

Works Progress Administration Projects and Impacts

Public work programs like WPA also added immense value to both our nation and its citizens. WPA projects were submitted by towns or counties who would provide the materials required to complete the work and federal funds would pay the workers. Locally, WPA artists displayed works in the Richmond Federal Building in Rockingham and U.S. Post Office in Hamlet, and built the front nine holes and club house of Twin Valley golf course in Wadesboro.

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From 1935 through 1939, WPA construction workers: improved 572,000 miles of rural roads; repaired 85,000 public buildings and 45,000 bridges; built 78,000 new bridges and viaducts and 2,500 new hospitals; laid 67,000 miles of city streets and 24,000 miles of sidewalk; created 5,898 new parks and athletic fields and repaired an additional 11,849; constructed 256 new airports and renovated an additional 385; and erected 5,584 new school buildings and repaired an additional 31,629.

WPA community-service projects made just as dramatic a contribution. For example, workers in this sector: sewed 300 million garments to clothe the destitute; cooked 575 million hot school lunches; repaired 80 million library books; operated 1,460 nursery schools; taught 1.5 million adults to read, write, and do basic math; provided naturalization services for immigrants and day care for working mothers; wrote and published 48 WPA travel guides to the states; and performed thousands of free concerts, dance recitals and plays.

The Great Depression Ends

World War II would signal the end of the Great Depression as manufacturing and building a mighty defense capability created jobs and a durable economy. The WPA finally received an “honorable discharge” by Roosevelt in 1943, having completed its service to our nation.

Suffering can be more easily tolerated when the duration and degree of suffering is known. It is hard to imagine life as a young adult in 1929 to endure the years of turmoil that would follow through World War II.
Maybe this is why the men and women who fought World War II have been called “the Greatest Generation” — not only the greatest for their service in war but also the years of hard work and perseverance needed to endure the challenges of the 1930s.

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Ed O’Neal is a retired military officer who lives in Laurinburg with his wife Jacque and their German Shepherd Shatzi. In his spare time, Ed is active in veterans affairs and writes a blog, “Unstuck,” on Facebook. You can e-mail comments to Ltcedoneal@hotmail.com.

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