A familiar sight during the 1930s--a WPA crew, this one excavating for and laying 8" tile for the Newton drainage project
During the Great Depression that lasted from the fall of 1929 to the early years of World War II, qualified mechanics, engineers, and teachers were traveling the nation along with common laborers in a desperate search for work. Any kind of work. They were a familiar sight in Cache Valley. They’d come knocking on doors asking for food in exchange for labor, and residents were mostly good enough – the poorer ones often the more generous – to make a sandwich or fill a bowl with hot stew, whether they had work to be done in exchange or not.
Meanwhile, from the stock market crash of October 1929 to the early months of 1933, another familiar sight were the headlines generated by government leaders, bankers, and economists announcing bracingly that “recovery was just around the corner.”
There were many who believed these experts were right, running up accounts with farm suppliers and corner grocery stores on the strength of an economic upturn they expected would materialize in just a few weeks or after the next growing season.
“There are indications that the severest phase of the depression is over,” said one headline a scant three months after the 1929 Crash. A premature announcement, true. But two years later, in1931, when optimism began to flag even among some economists, the White House was still saying it. “The economy is fundamentally sound,” President Hoover insisted again and again, adding the prediction of an upturn by a given date, and then another date, and then another.
By 1932, the nation’s economy was essentially dead; it just hadn’t slid into rigor mortis yet. Countless stories filled the newspapers and air waves of farm and home foreclosures, proliferating bread lines, soup kitchens. Thousands of desperate industrial workers were staging protest marches for jobs. Mothers were carrying placards demanding milk for their children. People had forgotten what a dollar bill looked like. Never mind, the Hoover White House, the Mellons, the Rockefellers and DuPonts – they all continued to announce that an upturn would magically appear if only people would shuck off their gloom and gain some confidence.
The results of a WPA project--USU's amphitheater on the west side of College Hill, removed in the 1990s.
The historian, John Kenneth Galbraith, described this type of pep talk as “recovery by incantation,” in which as many important people as possible repeated as firmly as they could that the economy itself was fundamentally sound, that the problem lay in those who found themselves still out of work, dispossessed, or experiencing foreclosures. Blame the victims – it started with the Great Depression.
The hapless President Herbert Hoover had inherited this mess from Calvin “I do not choose to run” Coolidge. Though humorless and wedded to hopelessly out-of-date economic theories, Hoover was a basically humane man, who nevertheless appeared to the public as callously indifferent to their suffering. Inevitably, he became the butt of jokes from one end of the country to the other.
I remember my own mother wearing
a “Hooverall” or “Hoover Apron,” a kind of wrap-around house dress that
was handed out by city relief agencies to families of the unemployed.
Soup kitchens were called “Hoover Cafes,” shanty towns for the homeless
were called “Hoovervilles.” “Business is improving,” says the
straight man. The comedian responds: “Is Hoover dead?”
But recovery by incantation was not confined to Wall Street and the White House. Salt Lake City’s Mayor Brown, for instance, announced in 1931 that the hard times Utahns were experiencing would soon pass and merge, as he put it, “into a period of unprecedented prosperity.”
As it turned out, Utah was one of the states hardest hit by the Great Depression and prosperity was nearly a decade away. In 1933 – at the very bottom of the Great Depression years – the unemployment rate in Utah overall was 35.8 percent, the fourth highest in the nation. Thirty-two of Utah’s 105 banks had failed, a third of the population was receiving all or part of their food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities from government relief funds, and farm foreclosures statewide had hit an unprecedented high.
Agriculture’s struggle to exist is reflected in Cache County’s delinquent tax rolls which grew from eight to ten times its 1919 number during the 1920s and 1930s. Especially hard hit were the dryland grain farmers. A bushel of wheat, for instance, that cost 68 cents to produce in a state-wide estimate during the 1933-34 season, was selling for 30 cents a bushel and dropping weekly.
“The dairies had it a bit better,” reported former Lewiston Councilman and Mayor, Howard Shuldberg. “They could always sell their milk, but grain – that went begging.” Howard’s father, for instance, stored his entire 1932 wheat crop in a Preston Co-op elevator for more favorable prices, using it as collateral for a loan to get him and his family through the winter. The guaranteed price accepted by the Co-op’s bank was nineteen cents a bushel, which at the time was considered to be as low as it could get.
His father then took a farm-related business trip to Washington, D.C. “During the short time he was away,” reported Howard, “the price of wheat fell like a stone to nineteen cents a bushel, and the bank ordered it sold.” The family’s small, stop-gap loan therefore became its income for the year, and this type of loss was seen again and again in grain-farming communities throughout the nation as prices per bushel fell to near zero.
“There just wasn’t any money circulating then,” recalled long-time Lewiston resident, Edis Taggart. “The people around here without land or livestock of their own went out to work for other people and took whatever they could get for it, whatever people had to pay them – a jug of milk, a basket of carrots or potatoes, some flour – and that’s the way they got by.” Cove’s Florence Allen agreed. “Store-bought bread was only a nickel a loaf, but we didn’t have any nickels, so we passed around (yeast) starts and made our own bread; or we made baking powder biscuits, or hot cakes.”
“Mother had to close her store,” recalled Eva Orchard Layne, speaking of the little grocery by their house on Main Street in Lewiston. “She’d extended so much credit, she just couldn’t stay in business any more.” Eva’s father, Bert Orchard, was the town barber, holding forth in the building now owned and operated by Vaughn Blair. “My father did all right,” Eva said. And Eva herself had a job clerking in Van Orden’s drug store across the street from her house. “It didn’t pay much,” she said, “but it was a job and I was lucky to have it.”
There were many in Cache Valley who were not so lucky. By 1932, the valley had 1,500 unemployed wage earners. To help alleviate suffering, the valley’s citizens responded with a church and civic cooperative effort, accumulating food, clothing, and other necessities to be distributed to those in want through church storehouses and community distribution centers. Vacant lots became garden plots for the destitute, and hot lunches were made available to school children. The Red Cross also became active in distributing necessities after the drought of 1931.
When the valley’s economic situation continued to worsen, the Logan Chamber of Commerce created an employment program funded by a two percent tax on the wages of business and municipal employees, and the county augmented the funding of this program by taxing admission charges to local entertainment. These efforts managed to put approximately 200 men to work building sidewalks, curbs and gutters, school playgrounds, and roads throughout the county. In addition, President Hoover’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) made loans to banks who were, in turn, expected to make money available to various livestock growers.
“In reality,” writes Ross Peterson, in his book, A History of Cache Valley, “... conservative Utah bankers refused to extend much credit and expand debt.” Additionally, he adds, local action and community taxes simply could not handle the valley’s extreme economic problems. Clearly, drastic measures were called for, and many in the nation expected nothing less from the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the presidency.
In his first hundred days in office, President Roosevelt initiated and Congress approved an unprecedented number of relief bills, injecting much needed currency into the nation’s economy. Among the many projects affecting Cache County was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), in which young men were put to work improving federal land.
The Cache National Forest had three such camps, with the men receiving a dollar a day plus board and room. Their work included the building of forest camps, trails, and roads, plus reforestation and flood-control. These camps were duplicated throughout the nation and were one of the most popular and most enduring of the work programs coming out of Washington.
Utah State University received special funding to assist in supporting cultural activities, and a temporary New Deal agency, the Civil Works Administration (CWA), employed nearly 1,200 Cache citizens during the winter of 1933-34.
Among the many Cache County projects funded by federal emergency dollars during this period were USU’s George Nelson Fieldhouse, the amphitheater on Old Main Hill, the construction of Hyrum Dam, and an increase in size and capacity of Newton Dam. Two other programs influencing the valley were the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) which allowed farmers to borrow money directly from the federal government to pay bank mortgages and the Domestic Allotment Plan which created artificial scarcity and thus higher prices by reducing crop and animal production.
By far the most influential of the federal agencies, however, was the Works Progress Administration (WPA) which, between 1935 and 1939, spent nearly two million dollars on improvements and buildings in Cache County. Among these projects were additions to the South Cache High School and construction of the Family Life Building on the USU campus.
There were many people, especially among bankers and industrialists, who strongly disapproved of Roosevelt’s deficit spending to revive the nation’s economy and branded the New Deal a gateway to communism. On the other hand, there were many within the Roosevelt administration itself who didn’t feel the president was spending enough. The economy was stalled and unemployment still high during the latter part of the 1930s, they argued, only because of the President’s business-oriented conservatism and his timid use of federal funds to jolt the country into prosperity.
The necessary military buildup of 1940-41 changed all that when the Roosevelt administration was forced to inject huge quantities of money into the economy to enlarge the Allied war machine. As McElvaine points out in his book, The Great Depression, the earlier deficit spending approach that Roosevelt’s New Deal had used timidly during the years 1933-39 was shown to work wonders when used boldly. “Rather than representing a reversal of the New Deal prescription,” he writes, “the military spending of 1940 and subsequent years represented a much larger dose of the same medicine.”
For many today, the Great Depression is something that happened long before they were born, perhaps before their parents were born, something found only in history books. But historians find it difficult to include in their accounts the utter hopelessness of the ordinary, everyday people who suffered through this devastating period in the nation’s life, especially those living in the cities or those who had lost their land and were without the possibility of even a garden plot to help feed themselves. These people – farmers, laborers, machinists, miners, small businessmen, and factory workers, people who had always paid their bills on time and never expected to be beholden to anyone – suddenly found themselves destitute, caught in a situation they didn’t understand and could do nothing to alter, yet about which they felt deeply ashamed. Some of them never got over it and some, like my parents, died from it. Those of us who were too young to be greatly affected, but remember our parents’ anguish quite clearly, simply hope it will never happen again.
The State's Utah Symphony grew from an orchestra funded by the WPA Federal Music Project in 1935, with Reginald Beale as principal second violinist and conductor. Here, the group is shown posing before a 1940 concert. Under the Federal Music Project, thirty new orchestra were credted in as many cities across the nation, along with scores of smaller orchestras, bands, ensembles, and choral groups. A Wellsville violinst, William Douglas, was reported to be a member of the Utah orchestra 1940 group.