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Season of Sorrow, Part I
The Way We Were
The Great Depression in Pope County

©Mildred McCormick

 

In a short series of articles I hope to show what Black Thursday meant to a small rural county. The facts will be researched and documented, but the spirit will be provided by my own recollections.

When the Market crashed 24 October 1929, I was one month beyond my fifth birthday party. My family had no fortune to lose, but life, as we knew it, took a frightening turn, and I was not too young to feel the shock.

Overnight I lost my VIP family status, or at least the fringe benefits I had enjoyed disappeared. I was the first grandchild in my motherís large family, and next to my baby sister Catherine, was the youngest my grandmother Barger had to spoil. I knew nothing of stock market speculations, buying on margin, real estate bubbles and economic collapse. I suspect my parents understood little more than I the decline of our nationís good fortune. What I did feel most keenly was the loss of the steady stream of gifts provided by all those young uncles and aunts in my motherís family. The attention didnít decline but I had to learn to love the giver without the gifts. Worst of all I was transplanted from city life and conveniences to a hill farm and deprivation. My story, therefore, will be less an analysis of causes, and assessment of blame, than an account of the victim. I will endeavor to picture in words and photographs, the early prosperous days of the county, the grim reality of poverty, and, finally, the slow climb back to better times, though we have yet to achieve our former status of confidence in our future. In 1988, though, things are looking up for Pope County.

 

Much has been written of the earliest beginnings of Pope County in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Most of us are aware of the history of Luskís Ferry and Sarahsville and the pioneers who laid the foundation for the county and its fiercely loyal citizens.

The population grew steadily from a census count of 3316 in 1830 to its peak of 13,585 in 1900. The period from 1880 to about 1925 reflects Pope Countyís period of greatest prosperity. It was during those years that we were productive, prosperous and seemed to have places to go.

The county was dotted with beautiful Victorian homes constructed during this period. They were accompanied by new brick or frame business buildings: banks, stores, warehouses. Handsome new churches and schools appeared in almost every community. Probably not many counties could boast of two complete villages which sprang into being, like Athena from the head of Zeus, complete and functional.

Homberg came into existence in 1903 as a gift of J.F. Homberg, an immigrant from Germany, who deeded land to Illinois Central Railroad for a depot and a portion of the track. A town was laid out with streets named for his children.

In 1925 A.L. Robbs began to build the town of Robbs. By 1929 he had stores, shops, houses, garage, lumberyard, stockyard. In 1930 he provided a modern brick school--elementary and 3-year high school.

Brownfield is an old town, once called Columbus, but early in the 20th century it was revitalized. It boasted garage, feed mill, two blacksmiths, barber, general stores, groceries, 2 churches, hotel, 2 banks, 2-year high school, and, of course, a post office.

Eddyville offered similar services, also had a 2-year high school and bank. Dixon Springs, with its 7 mineral springs, was a thriving resort which offered a hotel with chef, dance pavillion, outdooor activities, a pool. Special boat and train excursions brought guests from all over the US. Two physicians were in attendance. The popular mineral water was shipped nation-wide by train.

There were some two dozen lively little communities in Pope County in those days. Each had a postoffice, churches, school. Most of them had a doctor--many also spread out through the communities. Prosperous farms lined the roads. This was before Shawnee Forest Service owned a third of the acreage.

Pope County was, of course, not a unique island of prosperity. The nation was prosperous. There were aspects of the good fortune, however, that were not common to the nation as a whole. Our county has an agricultural background. We have never had more than sporadic attempts at mining and manufacturing. The usual grain crops and hay, livestock and poultry, timber, fruits and vegetables have all flourished here. Horses and mules were once as important as cattle and hogs. Great crops of potatoes created several small fortunes at the turn of the century, and into the early 1900s.

Golconda had, from the first, been an important shipping center, as were Shetlerville (Parkinsonís Landing) and Hamletsburg. In the fall long lines of wagons awaited their turns to unload at large brick warehouses on Front (Water) Street in Golconda. Potatoes, corn, wheat were stored and later sent downriver by flatboat and steamship to New Orleans and points between. Barrels of salted pork, lumber and other farm products floated in a constant shipping line. We got our supplies and luxuries by the same boats.

Since there were few roads (and even fewer which were navigable in bad weather) in either southern Illinois or western Kentucky, Golconda, with its easy access by ferry, was the shopping center for a large area. Golconda, in 1917, advertised in the Herald-Enterprise: 5 groceries (at a time when every community had its own general store), 3 menís stores, 2 jewelry, 1 hardware, 3 department, 2 dentists, 2 funeral services, 2 millinery, 2 banks, several restaurants, hotels, gift shops, harness shops, real estate offices, steamships, Portland Cement, Golconda Business School, theater, ice business. Others, including doctors, did not advertise.

This is the background against which the drama of the depression unfolded in Pope County. My next installment will explore the reactions of a proud, independent group of people, descended from the pioneers who successfully battled all those hostile forces so well documented in history, and were now faced with an enemy so indeterminate, yet so pervasive, that no weapons seemed to exist.

Mildred B. McCormick is a member of the Barger family which has lived in Pope County since 1818. She graduated from Pope County schools, earned the BA degree from University of Illinois, Urbana, and the MA from SIU-C.

She has been a teacher of English at LaSalle-Peru, IL, and Pope County high schools, and taught part time from 1973-1986 at Southeastern Illinois College. She writes a weekly column for the Herald-Enterprise, Golconda, and is a regular contributor to Springhouse.

 

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