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Season of Sorrow Part II
The Great Depression in Pope County

©Mildred McCormick 


With the stock market crash in 1929, when Black Thursday became part of our folklore, with closing banks, failing businesses, disappearance of jobs, Americans for the first time, as a nation, felt the crushing despair of defeat. Cities became unable to cope with their problems. For three years the situation became steadily worse. Talk of social revolution was rampant. History books record the National Hunger March, Dec. 1932, on Washington, DC, when thousands of unemployed workers pled for some solution to their dilemma. That same year 20,000 veterans marched on the capital city demanding immediate payment of bonuses due them in 1944. Many city governments faced mobs of evicted, homeless citizens at city hall. Lloydís of London began to write riot insurance in the US.

There was no rioting, on the local level, but what happened was in some ways more destructive. The traumatic change from comfort, unusual optimism, complacency, to universal unemployment, bread lines, homelessness, vagrancy, resulted in a general panic followed by paralysis. People lost confidence in government, God and self. The worst aspect of the depression was that there was no sign of recovery. There had been other recessions, but leaders always seemed to see a way out. This time the speeches had a hollow ring--almost no one believed them. In 1932 Frank A. Vanderlip, former president of National City Bank of New York, wrote an article in which he expressed his disillusionment with American financial institutions, a type of statement which was almost without precedent in American banking circles ("What About Banks?" Saturday Evening Post, 5 Nov. 1932, pp. 3-4).

Farm families were particularly vulnerable. Already at the mercy of Mother Nature, poor farming practices and low farm prices during the late 1920s, many farmers shared the decline from owner to operator to renter. Farm families were accustomed to little cash, but now thousands lost capital investments and were homeless. Bank failures meant loss of capital and the end of farm and business loans.

What all this meant on a personal level I experienced as a child in Pope County. My father, who came from a long line of small farmers, was not a farmer himself. He was a miner who happened to own a farm (mortgaged) in the northern part of the county. When his mine closed he, my mother, Grandmother Barger, sister Catherine and I found ourselves in the country. My somewhat dubious appraisal of the joys of rural living might be inferred from my first question. After looking around my new 3-room home, and immediately noticing the absence of electric ceiling lights, I asked, "What will we do when it gets dark?"

Our home in Harrisburg was small (it looked large to a pre-schooler) but it had electricity, water, concrete walks, and lots of neighbors my age. Movies and parks and ice-cream were minutes away from my door. My new home would be called a shell today--one that the owner might finish. Ours was never finished. It wasnít enlarged, either, even when the family grew and grew. I donít need a psychologist to explain my reasons for buying a 10-room house which I share only with a dog.

This new home which my parents had started to build, with the optimism prevalent at that time, had a cistern from which water was drawn up by hand, by means of a bucket tied to a rope. There was no money for even a hand pump. We bathed, infrequently, in the laundry tub. An outhouse stood in chilly (or hot, as the season dictated) isolation, an inconvenient distance from the house. We lived quite innocent of the benefits of telephone, radio, refrigeration, washing machine. When the car died on the road one day, we walked everywhere we went or stayed at home (for real emergencies the team was hitched to the wagon).

Of course these conditions had been prevalent in the area, but people had glimpsed a more comfortable life and had begun to work toward their goals. The Depression brought all progress to a halt and conditions swiftly regressed to a poorer level. We had tasted the apple and knew we were naked. The ones most aware were those who had left the area for good jobs, returned when they lost them, and had no established resources, however primitive, to cling to.

Medical and dental care were not part of my childhood, except for emergencies, and emergency to us meant uncontrollable bleeding, obviously broken bones, or near-coma. Babies were born at home. My mother delivered twin girls in 1932 with the help of a dear friend and neighbor, Mary Gibson. The doctor was called, but such were the communication and transportation difficulties, that he was not needed by the time he arrived. There were no clinics. Immunization against childhood diseases appeared about the time I finished eighth-grade in 1937. Typhoid, tuberculosis, scarlet fever raged almost uncontrolled--quarantine was all we had to resist them. Our newspaper reported in 1936 that 351 school children had died of tuberculosis in 1935 in Illinois. There was no money for medical research or clinics even in city areas.

I know now that our schools suffered greatly during this period. There were no funds for even the necessities. Teachers were paid with scrip (a kind of IOU) which was cashed at large discounts of the already embarrassingly low salaries. Applicants at one time were interviewed by boards who sometimes hired on the basis of the lowest salary the individual teacher would accept. In the many country schools the one who won the bid was also janitor and fire-builder. We hadnít heard about school libraries, lunches, nurses, physical education, bands, busses, yearbooks or studentsí rights. We took whatever was handed out--good, bad or indifferent.

In spite of this bleak description I never felt cheated in my education. The quality of teaching was, except for a few regrettable exceptions, superb. We were thoroughly drilled in the basics and the teacher did what she (all of mine were women) could to add what is now called enrichment. We called it opening exercises: Morals & Manners, art study and singing. I was the despair of each teacher in the latter activity but most of what I know of art history is simply an extension of the little cards of famous art reproductions provided by Eva J. Wasson.

Many children attended school with little regularity, a real problem for teachers and superintendents. In this respect, I was not typical. Education was important in our house. We were never allowed to believe we had an alternative. If we got out of bed we went to school. My parents never forced us--it was as routine as eating or sleeping. Neither were we pressured about grades--my mother was more subtle. She made a little embroidered petticoat for me each time I achieved a perfect score on a major spelling test. These were made of remnants of old bed sheets but to a child who never had a new coat until she earned it herself, they were elegant. Of course it was bribery--but it worked. And we always had books and newspapers and magazines at our house (most of them borrowed). We wore shoes with insoles of cardboard to cover the holes, but we read. Such were the tactics of the concerned parent of the Depression.

High school was a big hurdle for the country child and, for the first time, we were conscious of the stigma of poverty. Town people were poor, too, but as Orwell observed, some are more equal than others. I was one of the few from our neighborhood who continued beyond eighth grade. I can think of only three or four families in our community whose children went to high school before busses began regular county-wide schedules about 1940. Those who did enroll as freshmen usually boarded in town Golconda or Harrisburg.

For the first time we met more affluent peers. The feelings of the country mice were often bruised, sometimes by snubs that were only imagined. Our response, typically, was either a determination to excel at all costs, a studied indifference to the smart-alecs or complete retreat. When the Golconda High School class of 1938 graduated, 22 of the 73 starting freshmen of 1934 had dropped out, most of them from financial and transportation difficulties, however, not social embarrassment.

The privations of the college-bound during the Depression must seem even more incredible to todayís grant-and-loan-subsidized student. Education remains a struggle for the middle-income student and his parents. But the experiences of the 1930s ranged from poignant to bizarre with an occasional unexpected leavening of hilarity. My husband, in classes at University of Illinois, Champaign, in 1935, held three jobs--one for lodging, one for food, one for classroom expenses. Spending money for fun hadnít been invented yet. He had a county scholarship for tuition, one of a few available. My case, like so many others, was one of the other choices. I postponed college until I was nearly 40. The third choice was to give up the idea entirely.

An article by Gilbert Love in 10 June 1933, School and Society, reprinted in The Great Depression, David A. Shannon, Prentice-Hall, 1960, tells some of the ingenious practices devised by students of 1932-33, in their attempts to make or save a dollar. The daughter of a miner at Carthage College, in Illinois, paid her tuition in coal. At the University of Pittsburgh boys were living in unused and unheated garages. Love describes those who probably had to learn the difference between a casserole and a washtub, who were surviving on $1.60 per week for food by cooking in their rooms. At Oklahoma A & M four boys loaded an ancient flivver with poultry, 200 quarts of home-canned food and a dozen cured hams. A fifth boy led a Jersey cow. They lived at the edge of town and set up their miniature farm.

I am not aware of quite such extreme practices by Pope County hopefuls, but many resorted to drastic pursuits to pay their bills, and most of them took food from home. My husband often talked about the delicious home-processed beef provided by the mother of his roommate, Roy Wayne Schoettle, who later became a well-known physician in Texas. The food those students carried to college was not snacks and delicacies to relieve the monotonous dorm fare. These were care-packages to fight real hunger.

The next segment of "The Great Depression in Pope County" will discuss the problems of living without income in the day before public welfare, the growth of nation-wide vagrancy, and bank failures.

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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