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

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Main Street, Richfield, Utah

In December, 1997, students from the Honors English Class at Richfield High School, in Richfield, Utah, interviewed members of their community about their experiences during the Great Depression. These interviews were part of the larger Sevier County Oral History Project, directed by Richfield High School English teacher Judy Busk, and funded by the Utah State Historical Society.

The twenty-four Sevier County residents interviewed for this project were children or young adults during the 1930s, but their memories of the Great Depression are still vivid. While they recount hard times, they also recall the pleasures of small town and rural life in central Utah.

Many of those interviewed came from farming families. Farmers were especially hard-hit by the Depression. Between 1929 and 1933 Utah's gross farm income fell nearly 60 percent. Farm prices were so low yearly revenues often barely paid for operating costs. "Utah Poultry would buy the eggs from us, but when the depression hit so hard, then they had no money to buy the eggs," remembers Elva Davis. "Sometimes they'd give us fifteen cents and sometimes we would have to almost give 'em to 'em." Those lucky enough to have avoided mortgages or other debts were still cash poor. "It was awful hard times," Marvell Hunt recollects,

and it was hard to get a hold of enough to buy a sack of flour and we made our own breads, cooked our vegetables, bottled our fruits, raised our gardens. We did most of our own cooking and pastry, pies, whatever. Did it all ourselves; we hardly ever bought anything.

In the close-knit Mormon villages of Sevier County, struggling neighbors seldom went unnoticed. "In that day and age you were just supposed to help your neighbor. If he was having problems, you were supposed to be over there helping, take their horses and machinery and go and help them put in their crops or whatever needed to be done they did," Ruth Hansen remembers. "I know several times that we had friends that were really bare, and Leo would take a sack of oats or a sack of something and stand it down on the doorstep so it would help them out," reports Hazel Peterson. The local church also provided relief, raising money and distributing food and supplies to those in need, a practice institutionalized in 1936, when the Mormon Church established the Church Welfare Plan.

By 1933, with Utah's unemployment rate at 35.8 percent, the fourth highest in the nation, it was clear that mutual aid alone could not offset the effects of the Great Depression. President Roosevelt had received widespread support from Utahns, 70 percent of whom had voted for him in 1932. Utah ranked ninth among the forty-eight states in terms of per capita federal spending during those years. Between 1935 and 1942, 12,000 Utahns a year, on average, were employed by the Works Progress Administration. [1]  Marie Ogden's father was a WPA worker, as was Lorna Jensen's first husband. Jean Rowley remembers the impact the WPA had on the community:

Roosevelt put crews of men out to build roads. That was a life saver when they started building those roads up into the mountains and forming camps. The best thing that could have happened. Then we got back on our feet little by little.
Interviewees are recognized
Clara Jensen, Ruth Hansen, Lorna Jensen, Jay Spencer, and Joe Gentry.

In addition to the WPA, Sevier County residents received help from other New Deal programs. After graduating from high school, Lynn Waters joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. Joe Gentry's National Youth Administration job enabled him to attend college at Brigham Young University.

Despite many hardships, those interviewed look back to the 1930s fondly. Young people entertained themselves with picnics, church socials, favorite radio programs, and the rare trip to the local movie theater. Luzon Peterson remembers ice skating on the Richfield Canal. "We would walk up there in the winter, and we would skate up to what we called the central square, where the old school-house was, and during the holidays we would build bon-fires and have little get togethers that way." Verla Breinholt's friends would dance on her porch to the music of the family's Victorola. The hard times of the depression later became favorite family stories. Tom Abbott still laughs when recalling a incident involving his father:

I can remember the bank went closed and he had borrowed money to buy some cows, and the bank went closed and a bank from California took over that bank; and that man come to the house, and I can remember him telling dad he wanted the money. Dad says well he didn't have the money. Says, "I don't have any money." The man says, "Well we loaned you money and we want the money." Dad says, "You loaned me money and I bought the cows with the money," and he says, "Your money is in those cows." And the bank man says, "We didn't loan you cows; we loaned you money." Dad says, "That's right, and that money bought the cows," so he says, "You go up to the bank, you build you a corral behind that bank and tomorrow I'll bring the cows up there; you can have them," says, "You get your corral ready and I'll bring them." And (chuckles) the man says, "Well, we better talk about this."

Much of America's history remains unrecorded, residing in the stories and memories of its people. The Sevier County Oral History project is just one effort underway to recover and share this history (see My History is America's History for more projects and ideas). In "bringing the past alive," these oral histories also instruct today's youth in the values of frugality, hard work, mutual aid, and humor in the face of adversity that allowed Sevier County residents to endure and persevere during the Great Depression.

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In addition to the twenty-four oral histories, which can be found in the Interviews section, this website includes an Essay section with historical essays by Richfield High School student Lisa Nielsen and teacher and project director Judy Busk, reflections from the students involved in this project, and advice from interviewees. The Photos section lists those photographs that were collected in the course of the project. More information on Utah during the Great Depression can be found on the Resources page, which contains a short bibliography and links to related websites. To find out more about this project, visit the Project Information page.

Project Director
New Deal Network

  1. John S. McCormick, The Great Depression (Utah History Encyclopedia).

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Always Lend a Helping Hand