Springhouse Magazine Online - An Adventure Shaped Like a Magazine



Season of Sorrow Part IV
The Great Depression in Pope County

©Mildred B. McCormick


The Great Depression lasted about twelve years. It did not fully end in the nation as a whole until WW II and defense spending halted it in 1941. But in 1932 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt achieved his dramatic, overwhelming victory over the party of Herbert Hoover, measures were taken which created a partial economic recovery.

Roosevelt’s New Deal Administration initiated a long list of relief and recovery programs which, except for Social Security, were usually known only by acronyms: farmers had AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Act), SCS (Soil Conservation Service), FSA (Farm Security Administration), FCA (Farm Credit Administration), REA (Rural Electrification Administration), and so on. Relief programs included: WPA (Works Progress Administration), which focused on local programs; PWA (Public Works Administration), which built bridges, dams, roads.

For the young, CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and NYA (National Youth Administration) were created. Pope County’s gravel roads, many lakes and ponds, and thousands of acres of forests were the products of CCC. Golconda’s City Hall was one of the many gifts of NYA. These stories will be told in the soon-to-be published Pope County History, Volume II.

The agency which provided the most immediate emergency first-aid to us was IERC (Illinois Emergency Relief Commission). This office later became Illinois Public Aid Commission. I am fortunate to have the assistance of Thea Sando, former Pope County administrator, and Virginia Wade Wilson, the second person to hold the position of office secretary (1933). They have been most helpful in sharing their memories, documents, whatever I required.

Charles Abbott was the first director (1932) and Virginia’s sister, Mary Wade Maynor, was his secretary. Their office was in the back room of the old First National building (now unoccupied). One of the desks was once owned by former Illinois Secretary of State James A. Rose. It burned in the 1987 destruction of Pope County Historical Society Museum.

As the IERC program expanded, so did the office, and they moved into the front of the bank building. Thea Sando assumed the director’s job; caseworkers were Mary C. Trimble, Elva Irwin and Essie B. Willis. Virginia became accounting supervisor and Mary Frances Rottmann was hired as secretary. There was a warehouse supervisor--Harry Maynor, for a brief time, then Tom Clark.

This was the time we first heard the term "surplus commodities"--flour, grapefruit (an exotic food at that time, to us), smoked and canned meat. Other items were added later. Caseworkers approved or designated amounts to be issued to individuals. These foods supplemented "food orders" which were like checks and were redeemable at specified stores in the county: C.R. Weeks, Bay City; J.V. Weeks, Homberg; Ross Taylor, Raum; and others in various communities. The same merchants distributed surplus commodities. At one time Maurice Kluge made deliveries to merchants.

The office moved several times, and Virginia moved on to do statistical work for Pope, Johnson and Massac counties, with Bonnie Jo Phelps (Sullivan) as her secretary. As Mrs. Harry Wilson, Virginia left the IERC in 1941.

The above summary suggests that we had a solution, with everything under control, and long queues waiting at the relief office for welcome help. Such was hardly the case. In my first installment, "The Way We Were," I said we were a proud, independent people. Those qualities were just as noticeable in 1932 as in 1900--and they’re still here in 1988. We do tend, however, to hear drumbeats that others ignore.

The county was as much border-state as was Kentucky in 1862. It had been solidly-conservative-Republican since the label had had meaning. Roosevelt did not carry Pope County in 1932. The only Democrat to win a majority was Congressman Claude V. Parsons. Traditionally we had resented government intervention, Cook County (anything), Democrats, female bosses--and suddenly we had them all. We were suspicious of new theories and humiliated by charity.

When Thea Sando stepped into the IERC office as its new director, she was fresh from her first job in the Chicago stockyard district (with IERC), an area which consisted of four blocks of foreign-born families. Her own parents, both dead by the time she was eleven, were Norwegian (her father, eight aunts, and her mother’s parents came from Norway). She grew up in Iowa and South Dakota. She was young, female, unmarried. She didn’t exactly come in like a breath of spring--she was more like a Norwegian whirlwind, ready to scatter (quite innocently) some Pope County prejudices.

She did more than scatter prejudices--she put the cat most decidedly among the pigeons. The woman wore men s clothing and boots! She held her own with the men in public meetings! If she had tripped daintily over those Pope County gullies in pastel dresses, she would have caused less comment but would probably have accomplished little. She tells a story of her interview when she was hired for the position. The hiring officer asked her if she could milk a cow (no doubt proud of his facetious remark). She says the fact that she was experienced in that and most other farm chores was what broke the ice for her in Pope County. Nobody sneered at the little gal from Chicago after one of the local farmers found her helping to milk cows on the Hal Trovillion farm. The fact that anyone would have expected her to dress in feminine attire, and act the coy female, seems incredible to us in the modern world, but in the early 1930s women might, and did, do farm labor, but the more conservative farmer expected his wife and daughter to wear skirts.

The local newspaper was conspicuously silent on FDR’s programs, except in the joke columns. I failed to find a scrap of editorial support. Matter-of-fact reports of meetings (probably submitted by committee secretaries) were there, with no comment. It was even difficult to persuade many of the truly needy to take advantage of the programs. Mr. Clemens at Dixon Springs was finally forced to tell those customers who were deeply in debt at his store that if they didn’t accept help, he would be forced to declare bankruptcy himself.

Pride is usually praiseworthy, but Samuel Johnson observed, as far back as 1741, that mere unassisted merit advances slowly, if--what is not very common--it advances at all." Thea Sando had from the first days of her social work insisted that nothing worthwhile could be accomplished unless the people themselves provided the creativity, the energy and the labor to sustain the economy of the area. But they did need assistance in the form of leadership. There were plenty of able people in the community--all they needed was someone to organize their talents.

Thea had grown up in the tradition of cooperative farming and the barter system, brought from Scandinavia, and used successfully in Iowa. She urged the establishment of such practices in Pope County on a more systematic plan than the help-thy-neighbor policy already familiar to most of us. She and her staff saw the urgent need and pooled their ideas, suggesting ways to help people help themselves. They were finally successful in initiating such a program, but it was developed independently and was not a part of the IERC program.

One of the first needs identified by the group was that of a community center, a place where people could meet to discuss local matters, exhibit products and crafts, and enjoy recreation. Thea Sando and W.C. "Buck" Irwin joined forces to create The Country Home which reflected Thea’s dream and Buck’s architectural skills. The building still stands on Route 146, three miles west of Golconda, now owned by Mr. and Mrs. David Dickey, Fairfield, IL, who use it as a vacation retreat.

Irwin designed and built the house in 1936-37, almost single-handedly (the first house he had constructed). He was an unemployed salesman at the time. He used 500 eight- and four-foot cypress logs from the Renshaw area. Rafters are of pine.

Some of the window and door frames were built from poplar lumber salvaged from an old schoolhouse in Metropolis. The huge fireplace of native stone was also constructed by Buck (his first). The man who came to build the fireplace couldn’t seem to interpret Buck’s wishes, so he hired on as Buck’s assistant. Brother-in-law Fred D. Baker (former Pope County sheriff) mixed the mud.

The two-story building served as residence for Thea, and Buck and Elva Irwin, and their daughter Helen, with doors opening onto an indoor balcony. The large central floor space was ideal for the community center which it became. There were bookcases and nooks all around to display various items.

Buck and Elva managed the restaurant, and people from Pope and neighboring counties stood in line on Sundays for their famous chicken dinners. Buck recalls his raids on chicken pens as the crowds grew--he would simply wring a few more necks. Home Bureau units, Eastern Star, Legion Auxiliary, church groups often prepared dinners for large assemblies. Wedding receptions, anniversaries, parties to honor visiting VIPs and relatives were customary events. Hardin, Johnson, Saline and Massac counties discovered the perfect place for entertaining.

In 1940 a tornado lifted the roof of The Country Home, depositing it across the highway in a field. It was sold to the American Legion who rebuilt it and used it for their activities for several years. They also continued to make it available for community functions. For many years The Country Home was the place where ideas were discussed, plans made, and people worked together to try to pull the county out of its long period of depression.


Installment V of "The Great Depression" will continue the story with a discussion of co-operative activities in Pope County: work, education and recreation.


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.


[Back to index of featured articles]





Return to Springhouse Magazine On Line Front Page