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

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Migration: The Theme of the Great Depression
By Judy Busk

Jay Spencer and his family.

People moved: to find jobs, sometimes to find food, and then they moved again, and sometimes again. Some returned home to live with relatives when the search for work ended with disappointment. Some moved because businesses went bankrupt, some moved because they couldn't pay their rent, some moved because they heard a rumor that it was better "there." The United States was a nation on the move, the automobile became the vehicle of migration. For some, remaining stationary was an option as they lived simply on their small farms, raising the food needed to sustain their families.

In his classic novel of the Great Depression, John Steinbeck described the highway leading to California:

"66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert's slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there.

"From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight."

"We moved to Globe, Arizona. My dad went to work down in the mines. We lived in six or seven different Arizona mining towns, wherever he could get a few months' work. It was bitter hard living."

Robert Goldston in his book The Great Depression: The United States in the Thirties, develops this migration image as well as he describes displaced workers:

"Many of them hit the road. Accompanied by families, in broken-down cars or, increasingly, alone, jobless workers roamed from town to town, city to city, state to state, seeking work that was unavailable. The transient knew in his bones that things were no better ahead than they had been behind, but somehow the movement itself seemed positive. It was something, however a hopeless thing, to do."

In the book Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? The Great Depression 1929-1933, the author, Milton Meltzer, adds additional pictures of this time period:

"A child worked a twelve hours day in the cotton fields...a 50-year-old man walked the winter streets looking for work ...countless youths rode boxcars across America. People in soup kitchens, in flophouses, Hoovervilles, unmoving job lines, heatless apartments, and everywhere else stood helplessly by as the Great Depression struck down their dreams, killed their hopes, and crippled their lives."

Carl Sandberg in his poem "The People, Yes" captures this sense of movement, this searching for direction in the following lines:

"In the darkness with a
great bundle of grief
the people march
In the night, and overhead
a shovel of stars for keeps,
the people march:
"Where to? What next?"

Many of these people were youthful. As Meltzer explains, "Many boys and girls who failed to find jobs near home or felt they were a burden to their parents simply took to the road. A sight new to the 1930s was the army of young transients. The Children's Bureau estimated that by late 1932 a quarter of a million under the age of twenty-one were roaming the country. They hopped freights, bummed their food, and lived along the tracks with the hardened hoboes in squatters' camps called jungles.

"Investigating the 'vast, homeless horde', Fortune magazine found that many had been to high school, some to college."

Some of the people interviewed about the depression as part of the Sevier County Oral History Project did move from place to place. Jay Spencer was one of these. He explains:

"I worked with a team of horses and a big scraper for six months on a road that goes from here to Fish Lake. Stayed in a tent in the dead of winter. Nearly froze to death, making enough money to go get my diesel training. I made it to a diesel engineer school in Los Angeles." He adds proudly, "And I taught them more than I learned. That's no kidding." (See Jay Spencer Interview)

William Elwood Wight recalls moving from Texas to Arizona:

"We moved to Globe, Arizona. My dad went to work down in the mines. We lived in six or seven different Arizona mining towns, wherever he could get a few months' work. It was bitter hard living.

"My father and mother fought a lot, and finally when I was eleven they split up, and we moved to Phoenix and that was the year the Depression hit, 1929, and Dad kind of disappeared. I don't know where he was for a couple of years; we really had to struggle putting food on the table for the next two or three years." (See William Elwood Wight Interview)

Some interviewees were fortunate to have the sustenance provided by life on small farms, even though money was scarce One remembers: "At one time, after I was married, I got paid a silver dollar for a day's work that I did. I was showing it to my wife Emma and dropped it on the porch. There was a crack in the porch and it went through underneath, so we tore the whole porch down to get to that dollar. That's how rough things got. Seemed everybody was poor."

Joe Gentry
Joe Gentry

Another interviewee, Joe Gentry, qualified the meaning of poverty, when he said, "Up until about 1935, it was pretty tough growing up. Like someone said, "We were broke, but we weren't poor! We had a farm, and chickens, and cows, so we never went hungry. Money was hard to get, though."

Joe moved to Provo, fortunate to attend college in these troubled times. "The Depression kind of made a tightwad out of me. When I went to BYU, I had to watch money so clang bad. I had it tough. But now when I look back, I'm glad I did have it tough; you appreciate things more. If you have things too easy, you don't appreciate them." (See Joe Gentry Interview)

Revo Young was also fortunate in that she had a teaching job and used the income to support her widowed mother and siblings. She recalls others who were not so lucky.

"Our neighbor talked to us, and he had a government loan on his home, and he thought that the government would never take his home, but they took their home, and they thought they'd still stay, and they put up a tent out in the middle of the street, hoping that the government or somebody would have pity on them, but they eventually had to move away and find work someplace.

"There were lots of people who moved away, and lots of people who lived in cities who came home to live because they were able to have gardens. So there were lots of people on the move." (See Revo Young Interview)

The Great Depression left a legacy of migration. For some this resulted in actual physical moves in the search for sustenance; for others the change was in their minds and emotions as they moved from a sense of security to the constant fear that their livelihood could disappear. This alteration in thought and feeling remains with them today as they save and spend wisely, "just in case."

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