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Season of Sorrow Part V
The Great Depression in Pope County

©Mildred B. McCormick


Part IV of "The Great Depression" in the August 1988 Springhouse ended with the history of the Country Home, the popular community center created by Thea Sando and Buck and Elva Irwin.

One of the projects which grew out of the round-table discussions of local needs, held at the Country Home, was the Pope County Co-Op. The organization began under the banner of "Sweet Potato Co-Op" and played a major role in Pope County Agriculture for nearly 40 years.

The Pope County Co-Op began in 1937 as an outgrowth of Pope County Development Association. Thea Sando, director of the local Illinois Emergency Relief Commission (IERC) provided many of the early ideas and much of the impetus behind the creation of this project, although it was not part of the IERC program. Th IERC staff and members of the community pooled their ideas, identifying the most urgent needs and suggesting ways to meet them. Out of this community effort came plans for a farmer’s cooperative which would combine resources and skills to raise and market crops, process foods, make and repair equipment, and pursue any other projects which would make the members more productive in farming operations.

The most ambitious of the plans was the decision to market sweet potatoes and sorghum, and to construct a storage building to accommodate the new business. The board of directors included Judge B.F. Anderson, Farm Advisor Glenn Smith, Banker O.R. Kerley, Dr. J.B. Crist (DDS), City Superintendent of Schools J.P. Willis, and farmers Phillip Schoettle, Lon Frieze, and Elmer Futrell. Although the local paper listed Sando as a member, she says she was never an official member but was "treated as a member." Farm Bureau and Farm Foundation served in an advisory capacity.

A warehouse was constructed three miles west of Golconda on Route 146, with $2000 provided by the Robert Wood Foundation of Sears, Roebuck Co. and volunteer labor of 20 men. Sears furnished funds for organization of the Sweet Potato Co-Op (which was the new name) and the opening ceremonies. The

building is still known to older residents as "The Sweet Potato House."

Members agreed to put out an acre or more of sweet potatoes or sorghum and to market the crops through the Co-Op. Prof. Sommers, University of Illinois Extension Service, advised farmers on cul-tivation of sweet potatoes. Other projects included turkey, strawberry and tomato production.

Farm Advisor Glenn Smith and the Extension Service were great sources of help for the new organization. They had for some time worked with farmers on pasture improvement, erosion control and improving soil fertility. 4-H clubs instructed youngsters in better methods of housekeeping, farming, raising livestock, gardening. Local limestone was promoted as a soil-builder for pastures. Various extension classes in mechanics, electricity, etc. were made available to local people.

Smith and Sando were recognized for their efforts on a Special Reports Division, USDA broadcast 14 March 1940 on the National Farm and Home Hour over the Blue Network of NBC. Milton Eisenhower was Land Use Coordinator at that time and was moderator of the program. Josephine Hemphill of Special Reports remarked: ""It stands to reason that only the people who live in a place know what to do to improve things," which was the thesis of Sando, Smith and the committee which promoted the Co-Op.

Although the dream of a major marketing center for sweet potatoes and sorghum failed to materialize, the purpose for which it was promoted lived on. Through the years the Pope County Farmer’s Co-Op, as it was eventually called, advertised its services: hatchery (custom hatching of poultry eggs, sale of feed, brooders, feeders), feed mill, corn storage (two 22,500-bushel bins with dryers were authorized by the board in 1966. Seventeen farmers booked space before the facility was built). Seed-cleaning was one of the first important services when farmers were adding fescue to their crops.

When feeder pig production became a profitable operation, farmers depended on the Co-Op for feed-mixing and supplies. This aspect of the operation was leased to Interstate Producers Livestock Association (IPLA) which operated it until the end of 1987.

The Farmer’s Co-Op is now part of history. Changes in markets, farming practices, and equipment occurred. Private storage facilities, portable mixers, a decline in farming operations all contributed to eventual closing of the organization. The last board was composed of Robert Scott, Rue Densch, J.W. Cletcher, Doyle Wagner, Lon Walter, Laurel Hicks. Former members remember I.N. Clemens, Hersel Schuchardt, Louis Strobel, Paul Trovillion Sr., Donald Threlkeld, Robert Scott and Rue Densch as directors who kept the Co-Op going through difficult periods.

Ed Hirstein was manager from 1939 until 1971. Lynette Hirstein was bookkeeper. Rue Densch and J.W. Cletcher managed the operation for two or three years. Don Hooks had the position when the office closed in 1975. The buildings are now undergoing extensive renovation. Joyner Bros. Sawmills, Carrier Mills, are currently engaged in major timber operations on the site. The Country Home, now the summer home of Mr. and Mrs. J. D. Dickey, Fairfield, IL, is still serving the community as an occasional bed-and-breakfast facility.

The Sweet Potato/Pope County Farmers Co-Op was the big project but it was not the only product of the Sando plan. During this period smaller community groups worked at such diverse things as workshops for men, canning and sewing for women. There were even garden and 4-H clubs, in cooperation with Farm Extension Service, for children. There were satellite projects associated with larger undertakings, such as a sorghum cookbook and original bottle designs for the molasses, created by local women (two who come to mind who worked on these plans with Sando are Irene Wardrop and the late Essie Willis. Unfortunately neither of these items was produced.)

The workshops, a WPA project, proved that people could make home items and farm equipment using their own logs and with hand tools. In 1935 Mr. Holcomb came from Berea College in Kentucky to train men in carpentry, furniture refinishing and blacksmith work, as well as other jobs necessary for rural living in the 1930s.

He set up his workshops in blacksmith shops--Raum and Hamletsburg were two of the more successful ventures. As instructors he used carpenters, cabinet makers and blacksmiths who were on relief. The classes met three days each week to build furniture, farm equipment and to make repairs to both. Relief clients furnished their own materials and worked on their own furniture and tools. If a man wanted a new double-harrow he might cut a tree from his farm, bolt the required lumber into the form of a harrow. The country storekeeper stocked 3/4 inch steel which could be cut into harrow teeth. The client did the work--cost of harrow about $2.00.

If the relief client needed a bed, he cut round poles of cedar, took them into the shop and made his new bed at no cash expense. Mr. Holcomb filed a report in 1935 which said statistics proved that the shops not only were paying for themselves in dollars and cents, but an extra 50% value could be added in actual training provided to clients. An 80-year-old man at Raum built 5 beds; 4 were built at Hamletsburg. The report listed 39 projects completed at Raum, and 23 at Hamletsburg (period covered by this report was not specified).

Among the projects listed, other than those mentioned, and repairs, were (at Raum): constructed cotton gin, card table, kitchen table, folding cot, rocking bolster for wagon, storage cupboard for tools. At Hamletsburg: willow chairs and settee, net anchors, quilting frames, converted log wagon to road wagon, 3 looms, 3 new plows. Numerous repairs to wagons, plows, buggies, and other equipment were listed.

The cost of hand tools in each shop was $70. This cost and Halcomb’s salary were paid by WPA (Robie Layman was local supervisor of WPA). One disabled high school student, Willard Farmer, received a rehabilitation scholarship to Berea College and returned to Pope County to open a shop for building and repairing furniture and other wood items.

Many people visited the shops and later did crafts and projects of their own. Thea Sando reported a growth in shared work among neighbors and families in house repair, hand-made cedar shingles for roofs, building of porches, steps. Later projects were aided by a sawmill using idle local mills which sawed lumber "on the halves." Families who had no trees of their own could trade work for lumber. The WPA toilet, the butt of many a joke, but the importance of which could be appreciated by those to whom bathrooms and indoor toilets existed only in fantasyland, was provided by this project.

A manual training class for boys, ages 10 to 20, was set up at Golconda. The building was made possible by the local Rotary Club. In one of Sando’s reports she gave the class enrollment, at that time, as 32. Their classes ran from 5:30-8:00 p.m., three days per week, and instructed them in practical work and theory for furniture finishing, electric wiring, caring for tools. Public schools later adapted this concept to their own use.

Buel Wise, now a State Farm Insurance agent, recalls his first job with Dixon Springs University of Illinois Experiment Station, made possible by

training he received in auto mechanics from Ford dealer Roy Smith and mechanic Marion Palmer. There were other jobs and local businesses which grew out of sheet metal classes, electricity (taught by Walker Moore), and other craftsman skills. Education was always uppermost in the minds of those responsible for the recovery efforts.

Part VI will continue the story of Pope County’s cooperative efforts to pull itself out of the Depression. The canning factories, sewing rooms, free mattress program, and youth activities will be discussed, and the story of the Pageant of 1935 will show how this event provided fun, recreation, and an organization of county talents which could be used for more serious purposes.

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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