Last week, I wrote a bit on Mason County during the Roaring ‘20s. This week, it only makes sense that I cover what came next.
On October 24th, 1929, the New York Stock Exchange began its brutal collapse, losing 11% that day before a brief recovery. On the 28th, it lost another 13%. Then, on the 29th, despite efforts by the Rockefeller and Morgan families, the stock exchange lost a further 12%. Known as Black Tuesday, this loss cemented the crash and formally began the Great Depression.
Over the next four years, the Depression continued to get worse. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, a NY Stock Exchange index, continued to drop until hitting a record low of 41.22 on July 8th, 1932. Over 11,000 banks failed. Unemployment increased by nearly 607%, hitting a high of over 13 million people unemployed. Over a million families lost their farms. In parts of West Virginia, nearly 90% of children were starving. And that’s only a small piece of the effects.
By 1932, people were fed up with President Hoover’s poorly planned combination of tariffs and taxes that were, depending on which economist you ask, either making the Depression worse or doing nothing at all. They definitely weren’t helping. Their response was to elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt by a landslide, giving him 42 of 48 states. Mason County, and West Virginia, voted for FDR.
Soon after his election, FDR implemented what he called the New Deal. The idea was what historians generally call the 3R’s: relief for the unemployed, recovery of the economy, and reform to prevent another Depression.
Under reform, the Glass-Steagal Act restricted the banking policies that had helped cause the Depression and established the FDIC to protect regular peoples’ bank accounts.
As for the relief and recovery, they were one and the same. Putting people back to work (relief) helps the economy (recovery). Roosevelt’s idea was that, at least until the Depression was over, the government could take the lead and create jobs of its own. So, part of the New Deal included programs like the Public Works Administration (PWA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), with a later bill establishing the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Together, those three programs employed over 12 million Americans, including quite a few here in Mason County.
The PWA was focused mostly on larger projects, like the Hoover Dam, so I’ll skip them for the time being. The WPA, however, did quite a bit of work around here. Their job was to build infrastructure. Roads, bridges, post offices, libraries, museums, zoos, city halls, and swimming pools all fell under the WPA’s authority. Around here, perhaps their most well-known project was the Pomeroy levee. There is also a WPA bridge that survives on Dr. Kyle McCausland’s farm. Sadly, these are the only two I know of that have been fully documented. I’m certain there are more projects that survive, but we need to find them before they’re lost.
The CCC was the other organization that did a lot of work in our area, focused mostly on conservation projects like state parks and forests, erosion and flood control, and wildlife management. With over 3 million young men employed, every state had dozens of CCC camps. Our closest camp in West Virginia was Camp Jackson near Ravenswood, but Ohio’s Camp Meigs, just a couple miles north of Pomeroy, was closer.
My own 3x-great-uncle, Clarence Dailey, was employed by the CCC during the Depression. I don’t know for certain, but since he lived in Hartford, we’ve always assumed he worked out of Camp Meigs. That’s him and a friend of his in the picture above, taken in 1935 at a CCC camp, possibly Camp Meigs.
These programs continued until World War Two, when the jobs supporting the war effort finally ended the Depression for most Americans and made the New Deal employment programs unnecessary. But if you know where to look, their story survives through their projects.
The next meeting of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society will be Saturday, Feb. 8 at 5 p.m. at the Mason County Library in Point Pleasant, barring bad weather.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.