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Always Lend a Helping Hand, Sevier Country Remembers the Great Depression

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By Lisa Nielsen

Coca Cola was an option for Clara Jensen when she had a nickel.

America had seen economic difficulty before the 1930's. Various financial "panics" had taken place during the nineteenth century. But the Great Depression would prove to be unequaled in its amplitude and consequences. It struck at the fiber of every social, ethnic, and economic class or group in the nation and in the world.

A threat of an economic depression had loomed on the horizon even during the prosperous twenties. President Calvin Coolidge said, "The business of America is business." But during the Depression, many of America's key businesses were weakened, especially the agricultural business. Coal mining, railroads, and textiles also languished.

Banks began failing, and on October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed. Eventually, the market had to fall. A common misconception is that the crash was the cause of the Depression. However, it was simply an inevitable climax to the events of the "roaring twenties." Most everyone was positive that the crisis would be over in a year or two. Based on the fact that America had experienced previous economic scares, this was not a completely foolish assumption. In the 1930's, this obviously did not happen. Banks, which had failed at an average of six hundred a year throughout the twenties, continued to fail. Technology did away with many jobs and supply continued to exceed demand, so unemployment and business failure were on the rise. People were constantly in debt. Europe suffered immensely because they were still recovering from World War I.

Lorna Jensen's first husband died of a brain tumor. Left with a child, she went away to cosmetology school to support herself.

President Herbert Hoover was often blamed for the economic crisis. He was a man "well entrenched" in business. He focused much of his attention on investment, loans, the stock market, etc. The Wall Street crash took place during his first year in office. Industrial stocks lost 80 percent of their value. Eleven thousand U.S. banks failed between 1929-32, and two billion in deposits were lost. The Gross National Product declined at a yearly rate of 10 percent, and farm prices fell by 53 percent at that time [1]. President Hoover was convinced that government intervention was not the answer to America's difficulties. He made little or no effort toward reconstruction, and lost the 1932 election to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

President Roosevelt (known as "FDR") was an "aristocratic farmer, businessman and lawyer" with many years of experience in business and political processes. He promised Americans a "New Deal." He boldly declared, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He was positive that America's "happy days" were just around the corner. One of Roosevelt's attempts to save the nation was known as the National Recovery Administration. Sevier County's support of the NRA was evident editions of The Richfield Reaper printed during this time. The "Blue Eagle" symbol appeared in upper right-hand corner of every front page during the Depression era. Wage, labor, and price controls were placed on businesses, and the blue eagle told readers that the Reaper was complying with the legislation.

FDR's New Deal certainly did not end the Depression. The Depression was literally a depressing time and it was easy for Americans to give up hope. But the New Deal did help things seem a little easier. It gave people something to do while the economy recovered. The New Deal featured various programs to end unemployment and boost morale. The Civilian Conservation Corps was placed in charge of planting forests and draining swamps. The Farm Credit Administration and Homeowner's Loan Corporation dealt with the mortgaging of farms and homes, and the Works Progress Administration employed laborers such as musicians and writers. The Public Works Administration built many highways and public buildings.

"Utah was among the hardest hit by the Great Depression of the 1930's. In 1933 Utah's unemployment rate was 35.8 percent, the fourth highest in the nation, and for the whole decade it averaged 26 percent". [2] Thirty-two out of 105 Utah banks had failed as of 1933, and 32 percent of Utahns acquired a portion of their essentials from the government.

One reason that the magnitude of the Depression in Utah was so great was due to the fact that a majority of Utahns were farmers. "Tax sales, brought about when a property owner was unable to meet his or her taxes, was the dread of the farmer during the Great Depression... fourteen Sevier County farms were sold due to unpaid taxes in 1929." With this unfortunate circumstance came the tragedy: the farmer's house sat on the land that was taken away from him, and so he lost his home as well as his farm. The house was usually warm and comfortable with water rights, electricity, city water, and a good location. [3]

Conditions became worse for the farmer when a severe drought plagued Utah in 1934. Never before had so little rain fallen during an entire growing season as in that year. The preceding years had been dry as well. Utah Lake contained only one-third of its normal volume of water, and Bear Lake was fourteen feet below normal. Unusually high temperatures made the drought even more serious. "The drought came at the worst possible time— a natural disaster on top of a human-caused disaster. Utahns might well have complained, 'It never rains but it pours.' But somehow the metaphor seemed inappropriate." [4]

Cherril Ogden shares lyrics from a depression era popular song: "Give me a date and a Ford V8 with a rumble seat built for two—and let me wahoo, wahoo, wahoo."

Most Utahns, like their fellow Americans, believed that it would be over shortly. It soon became apparent that this was not the case. The streets of Salt Lake City and other cities were often lined with people waiting for a bowl of broth or a piece of bread at charity soup kitchens that had been christened "Hoover Cafes"— named for the person that many of them held responsible for their troubles. Young boys, fathers, and old men all roamed about searching for jobs, peddling goods, or begging for a pair of shoes to shine.

Just as the rest of the country, Utah's marriage rate dropped, along with the birth rate, while the divorce rate rose. More women began working. School districts, however, were extremely selective about which teachers taught in their schools. A married teacher would not be hired. If a woman became married during the school term, she was asked to resign. This was because there was a feeling that "women ought not to compete with men" for jobs at a time when jobs were so few.

New Deal programs in the state of Utah were comprehensive. In Utah, the free school lunch program was established, free nutrition classes were taught, and adult education and child recreation programs were offered. The construction of public buildings, highways, and roads began. Evidence of the New Deal in our own community still stands on RHS property. It is the old Richfield Junior High School building, constructed by the WPA in 1939-40. Most citizens of Richfield are familiar with the "CC Road" west of Richfield as well, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Another important contribution to Depression-era Utah was the LDS Church's Welfare Plan, designed in 1936. Although it did not bring the relief that the government programs did, it significantly helped by providing some jobs and necessities such as food. The LDS Welfare system is probably one of the few Depression-era programs still in existence today.

The Depression was a "hard time." Those who experienced it reflect upon it and come to this simple conclusion. However, they were able to grow and learn from it. This is true with any trial that may enter a person's life. It is important to take life experiences and learn from them all that they would teach us.

  1. "Depression of the 1930's." Grolier Computer Encyclopedia. New York: 1993.
  2. "Great Depression, The." The Utah History Encyclopedia. Salt Lake City: U of U Press, 1994.
  3. "Troubled Times: Sevier County, 1930-49." A History of Sevier County, by M. Guy Bishop. Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society and Sevier County Commission, 1997.
  4. "Utah's Great Drought of 1934," by Leonard J. Arrington. Utah Historical Quarterly, Summer 1986, vol. 54, no. 3, p. 248-49.

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Always Lend a Helping Hand