**This was originally published in a similar form in The Stokes News in 2009. When the publishers changed websites a few years back, all links to archived articles were tragically lost. I am attempting to republish some of my best stories from my time as editor of that paper. Part I of this story can be accessed on another of my blog posts at this link:
It has been nearly 80 years since the 1929 stock market crash that helped send this country reeling toward the pit of the Great Depression. Since then, we’ve heard talk of recessions and economic downturns, but the “D” word has been avoided. I’ve often wondered what would necessitate the use of it.
Some economists say a depression is a decline in the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of more than 10 percent. For example, from 1929-1933, the GDP fell almost 33 percent. There was a bit of a recovery in the mid-‘30’s before another decline—this time only 18.2 percent—in the late ‘30’s. Since then, there has been nothing even close to that. Remember the big recession from 1973-75? The GDP only fell 4.9 percent during that period. Quite a difference from the Great Depression, huh?
The bad news is that the GDP fell 3.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008 alone, after having already fallen lesser amounts in the earlier part of 2008. Many economists predict a further decline in the first half of 2009. It seems we are creeping closer to that dreaded “D” word.
Talking to Stokes County residents who lived through the Great Depression has been eye-opening for me. Most of them agree that the biggest difference between that generation and the present one is the fact that the majority of them knew how to be self-sufficient. As a whole, we have lost that capability.
I’ve heard old-timers talk about being forced to shoot songbirds for food. Rabbits and squirrels were diet staples. Bob Carroll, age 101, told me about eating “possum,” which he stills remembers as a rather distasteful, unpleasant experience. Truth is, if I were left alone without my male relatives who know how to hunt and fish, I would probably starve. I guess I could trap an opossum if need be–they sure show up on my porch often enough to try to eat my cat food–but shooting a bird might be a fiasco for me.
I’ve grown my own garden before, buying my seeds at local stores. What would I do if those seeds were not available? I so desire to learn how to save my own seeds. The predominance of hybrid seeds scares me. We have been lulled into a trap that convinces us to buy new seeds each year, since hybrid seeds don’t reproduce themselves.
Carroll told me of men in the ‘30’s who would hustle all day to sell apples for a nickel, just to put food on their families’ tables. Do we still have that same work ethic—we who have become inured to sitting at desks or working at lucrative factory jobs? Men of Carroll’s generation were willing to walk barefoot from King to Charlotte to be first in line for a rumored job.
That nickel they sold an apple for would buy enough beans to keep them alive for a day. Would that work for Americans who are used to eating sumptuous meals at restaurants nearly daily, or who, even if eating at home, have grown accustomed to marinated chicken breasts, broiled steaks or at least frozen pizza?
Carroll says Depression-era families went back to the farms—“not to make a living but to live.” Where are we going back to? The family farm is, as a rule, a thing of the past. My daddy has my grandpa’s farm. Since I live next door, I suppose Daddy would let me help him grow enough food for my large family, if need be. But most people don’t have land to go back to.
Unemployment for us has come to mean checks from the government to help us along, as we put in a couple of applications per week. The unemployed father of seven in the Great Depression era had no such checks. If you were unemployed, you had to scramble to eat. This made for a tougher people, in my opinion.
“I’m very pessimistic about the future,” Carroll commented on the state of the nation, adding that the high prices of commodities and growing unemployment worry him. He says that the difference between now and then is that a dollar went farther in the ‘30’s.
Carroll still remembers the hope that came when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt brought in the “New Deal” in 1932. He credits FDR’s ideas with being the key to the economic turnaround. Crop control measures allotted only so much tobacco, cotton and peanuts to growers. The WPA (Works Progress Administration) brought community work; Carroll cites the example of WPA workers adding to the courthouse in Danbury. He remembers the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) building the bathhouse at Hanging Rock State Park.
Today’s situation is somewhat similar in the sense that we have a new President with new ideas—reminiscent of FDR and his New Deal. “Obama’s touched on it,” Carroll speaks optimistically of the new President’s plans. He believes that already our Commander-in-Chief has made progress by limiting the sumptuous incomes of some: “He’s kinda on the right track. I’m extremely interested in the political situation in this country.”
As to the common perception that people tend to fall back on religion when times get hard, Carroll believes that is true “to some extent but not so much as you might think.” He philosophizes: “I’ve thought so much about it. When you are hungry, would you rather someone say they’ll pray for you or give you a bowl of beans?”
Going even further back in memory, Carroll remembers how Americans united during World War I. Although there weren’t the widespread rations as in World War II, still the country rallied to conserve. The government suggested that people observe three types of days each week—wheatless, meatless and sweetless.
By law, if a family wanted to buy 100 pounds of flour, they had to buy 100 pounds of cornmeal—an equal ratio of both, for conservation purposes. Carroll admits, “I never have liked cornbread much since I had to eat it so much back then,” yet he still did his part to support his country’s efforts to get back on the right track.
If we are entering similar days again, we may be called upon to do our part, whatever that may be. I hope you’ll join me, even if it means sacrifice. Just as great events bind us in unity, so do hard times often knit us together.
I read an email this week that said, “Due to recent budget cuts and the rising cost of electricity, gas and oil, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off.” Although it was meant to be humorous, it was based on what many perceive to be true. Don’t fall for it; there IS light at the end of the tunnel. Keep your head up until you get there, and I’ll try to do the same. Give me your hand, and let’s walk it out together.
**Robert “Bob” Carroll, passed from this life on Tuesday afternoon, Mar. 6, 2012, just a little over a month after he celebrated his 104th birthday. The cause of death is listed as complications of pneumonia.