Season of Sorrow
The Great Depression in Pope County
People who were relatively comfortable assured themselves that "no one has starved." Anyone who had access to newspapers surely must have known that belief to be in error. Reputable publications like the New York Times--not the journalistic junk now sold over the supermarket counter--told the tale. In the days before public welfare programs, when private charities could no longer bear all the burden, there were pitiful stories of starving families, particularly among those who were too proud to beg.
The old, the handicapped, the abandoned suffered a most cruel existence. An ancient black man in Pope County, living without family or income, and too proud to ask for help, was finally persuaded to accept charity. When asked how he had been getting by, he answered that it was a "po’ get-by." He had lived for six weeks on corn pones made of meal and water. The person who gave me the story wept as she told it, although a half-century had gone by. In World War II doctors published reports of the many evidences of malnutrition revealed in physical examinations of men who grew up during the Depression.
Those fortunate in having garden spots were more able to provide for themselves. We regularly canned at least 1000 quarts of food during the summer. We had one year, though, when my mother was seriously ill and no preserving was done. We had proof of the garden’s necessity that year, but we were relieved of the chore of menu-planning. We joked about eating dried beans and potatoes one day, and potatoes and beans the next. We (those of us who were eating regularly) never lost the ability to joke about the situation. Uncle Lyman made light of the thin quality of the fare by asking guests to "come in and have a glass of gravy with us."
In those days we reverted to the barter system of the pioneers. My good friends, Hartley (a.k.a. Leonard, in Hardin County) and Frances "Fritzie" Moore Farmer, reminded me that my story would be incomplete without an explanation of this aspect of our struggle. We seldom saw cash money. Men cut wood, picked apples, trapped or hunted game and
traded the products for whatever they would bring. Hartley remembers one job for which he was paid in buttermilk and quilt scraps.
Women and children produced poultry, eggs, cream, butter, picked wild blackberries and traded them at the general store for a few things they were unable to provide for themselves. I remember we once caught some hens to trade for magazine subscriptions from a traveling salesman (we never received the magazines). Fritzie recalled our feed-sack dresses.
Movie and stage comedies sometimes make use of costumes of flour-sack underwear, with brand name emblazoned across the seat. Writers are not required to rely on fertile imagination--such garments actually were worn. Flour and milled grain were packed in coarse cotton bags which were used not only for underwear, but reappeared as sheets, dishtowels, curtains, wherever the family needed them.
The feed-sack dresses came along later when some clever milling company began printing the bags with attractive designs--and omitted the lettering. Some were printed with wide borders which were perfect for dirndl skirts or pillowcases. I made western-style shirts for my little brothers. The youngest liked his so much he refused to wear some nice "store-bought" birthday gifts.
Such public utilities as telephone lines (the few we had in those days) were maintained, for the most part, by volunteer labor. Men met on appointed days to "drag roads" with horse-drawn farm equipment. There were no road-graders. Maintaining water and power lines was not a problem--we didn’t have those, either.
No one with a lick of sense--literary, historical, or social--would dare compete with the most famous of all descriptions of American nomads. John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, first a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (in 1940), then a major motion picture in the same year, is the story of the "Okies" --farmers forced out of the dust-bowl of Oklahoma to become migrant fruit-pickers in California during the Depression. People did not leave Pope County en masse but we saw our share of wanderers.
Americans, especially the young, have always been eager to see what lies on the other side of the fence. The nation was founded by wanderers, and the pioneers of Illinois followed the tradition. Adventurers left Illinois, some from Pope County, to seek fortunes in California or Alaskan gold fields. The flower children of the Sixties were our latest manifestation of itchy feet and dissatisfaction at home.
The vagrants of the Thirties had no place in this pattern of mobility. For the most part the young were not on the move to seek adventure, to escape broken or unhappy homes, or personality conflicts. They were looking for work, not running from it. It was estimated at one time that 200,000 boys, ages 16 to 21, were tramps, begging for food when no work could be found. They caused almost no destructive problems, but city officials worried publicly about what might happen if they organized and revolted against society.
My father, his cousin John Towns, Ernest Randolph and others went to the Kansas wheat harvests, as transients, in the early 1900s. Their journey, however, was a lark for them. Their fathers had Pope County farms where they were probably needed. In the 1930s my young Uncle Dan hopped a freight train, looking for work. He saw so many sights of poverty, some worse than what he had left, that he soon returned. He told of the compassion and courtesy he received from most farmers. Most of them would let him sleep in a barn, asking only that he deposit cigarettes and matches with the host before entering the building.
I can remember seeing an occasional tramp even in our isolated neighborhood. Once I recall seeing a group of tattered canvas-covered wagons camped on Old Grandpier schoolyard. As my mother walked past with my sister and me, and the new baby, she hid her purse in the baby’s clothing--never saying a word to us. I have since reflected that she must have
been performing a reflex action, held over from the days when she had money to lose.
As Charles Dickens once observed, despair seldom comes with the first severe shock of misfortune. Of all the depressing manifestations of economic collapse, the closing of the bank was probably the blow that struck hardest at the middle class. Between 1930-1932 more than 5,000 banks closed their doors. The picture was grim even as profiled in impersonal statistics. What it meant to the depositor inspired terror. No matter the size of the bank balance, no checks could be written for purchases, however necessary, and no bills could be paid. No deposit insurance existed so it was not a matter of surviving until the government sorted things out and opened the doors.
When Grandmother McCormick died in 1930 a group of close friends came to sit with the family. The lines of sorrow etched on the faces of the visitors did not come from grief for the deceased nor sympathy for the family, even though Grandmother was a well-respected member of the community. But she was an old lady, had suffered intensely, and death was a blessed release. The stunned looks of the guests came from the news they had just heard--one of the banks would not open the following day.
One businessman wondered how he would open his doors--he had deposited the day’s receipts and had no cash to make change. Most of those assembled were frugal people who couldn’t yet grasp the fact that they were ruined--their savings were gone. Even my husband, who was only 12 years old, lost his modest savings. True to his thrifty Scots heritage, he had carefully deposited his earnings (which came primarily from selling salvaged bottles to local bootleggers) in a passbook account. He claimed never to have forgiven the teller who took his final deposit in the last hour the bank was in business.
The banks had reflected the prosperous financial conditions of the county, and they just as surely mirrored economic collapse. Pope County State Bank closed in October, 1930, and First National followed suit 2 November 1931. Union State Bank of Brownfield closed the same day Pope County State ceased operation. In January 1931 Earl B. Jackson, Marion, IL, was appointed receiver for both banks by State Auditor Oscar Nelson.
When First National of Golconda closed, directors of State Bank of Eddyville closed their bank to prevent a run on deposits. They called in examiners to prepare a financial statement. They reopened the bank in February 1932, after a 90-day suspension, with no loss to depositors. J.L. Ragan, of the Eddyville Bank, was for a time the lone cashier in Pope County.
T.S. Eliot told us the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper--but he said that in 1925, in good times, and referred to spiritual bankruptcy; however, his lines in "The Hollow Men" describe perfectly the way our financial world died in this county. There were no tall headlines in the local paper to chronicle the drama. On the contrary--it was not mentioned. I was forced to piece the account together from scattered sources: my recollection of family stories, legal notices, and stories of the reopening of First National of Golconda, 1 June 1932. The most valuable help I received was from Rue Densch, former resident of Brownfield, and Cressie Ragan, the last cashier of State Bank of Eddyville which voluntarily liquidated in 1935.
Among the many unsung heroes of the Depression I must place the country storekeeper high on the list. I am sure his small-town colleague deserves a place beside him, but my personal knowledge is of such compassionate souls as John H. Buchanan of Lusk and Ross Taylor of Raum. These men, of
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.
Return to Springhouse Magazine On Line Front Page