The Great Depression
Westport in the Great Depression
Most of us know about the Great Depression of the 1930s either because we lived through it, listened to stories from parents or older relatives, or heard all the references to it when we went through the recent “Great Recession” of 2008, which had some of the same causes and unfortunate effects.
The Historical Society recently held a panel discussion on the Depression to learn from Westport residents who remembered – either first hand or from stories – how people survived that terrible decade. This program was moderated by Westport novelist Dawn Tripp, and featured the observations of Cukie Macomber, Arnold Tripp, and Dick Wordell, with additional comments from the audience.
On the national level, the Great Depression was one of the cyclical downturns the American economy has endured, only much more prolonged and devastating than previous ones. It was marked by very high unemployment and a famous stock market crash. The 1929 crash did not cause the Depression, but intensified problems that had existed throughout the 1920s – a decade of energy, expansion, and excess (often referred to as the Roaring Twenties). The economy was already heading for a recession in the late 1920s; the crash turned it into a severe depression.
While the Twenties was a boom decade for some, farmers suffered, and the income inequality between the wealthy and the poor deepened. A frenzy of speculation seemed to overtake the nation. The economist John Kenneth Galbraith noted “the lunacy which has always seized people with the notion that they can become very rich.” People risked not only their own savings, but borrowed to play the market. President Herbert Hoover (not a radical by any means) recognized the same behavior: “The problem with capitalism is capitalists; they’re too damn greedy.” With so many people speculating in stocks, the market overheated and crashed in October 1929. Since people had no money to buy products, industrial production contracted, which caused unemployment to increase, deepening the spiral of economic disorder.
Just before the crash, national unemployment stood at 1.8 million. By 1931 it was 8.7 million, and in 1933, the worst year, it reached 13.8 million, about 25 percent of the workforce. Such widespread unemployment brought homelessness, as families were left with no money to pay their mortgage or rent, and no safety net to support them. A pervasive hopelessness spread across the country as core beliefs – in democracy, capitalism, and self-reliance – were severely tested.
The election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in November 1932 brought a dramatic change in government policy, with the key goals of Relief, Recovery, and Reform. New government programs would provide relief to the unemployed, sick, and elderly (the social safety net); recovery from the economic downturn; and reform the banking system and the stock market to prevent a similar disaster from happening in the future. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” introduced an extensive array of new programs, most notably:
- The Civil Conservation Corps (CCC)
- Employed 3 million young men in camps doing natural resources work
- Provided shelter, clothing, and $30/month ($25 was sent back to the family)
- Civil Works Administration (later WPA)
- Large-scale public works projects, such as buildings and bridges
- Federal Housing Administration (FHA)
- Regulate mortgages
- Farm Security Administration (FSA)
- Alleviate rural poverty
- Social Security Act
- Retirement income, unemployment insurance
- Financial reform
- Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)
Overall, the New Deal provided a great deal of relief, and some banking reform, but was less successful at solving the underlying economic malaise. It was only the unprecedented buildup of industrial production in World War Two that truly brought the Great Depression to an end. That is both an indication of the depth of the economic and social catastrophe and a sad commentary that it took a devastating global conflict to end it.
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How did the Depression affect Westport? In the 1920s, Westport was a quiet rural town. The big issue at town meeting in 1929 was whether to install “an automatic Stop & Go electric traffic signal” at Rt. 6 and Sanford Road. When asked whether the town should allow participation or viewing of sporting events on Sunday, the citizens voted No—an indication of the staunchly conservative local politics. It was a growing town, with a population increase of 41 percent during the Twenties. The Depression dampened expansion, however, with a 6 percent drop in population during the Thirties.
Politically, the town was Republican. Even when Massachusetts went Democratic in 1930, the people of Westport voted for the Republican gubernatorial candidate by a 2-1 margin. In the presidential election of 1932, the overall vote in the state favored Roosevelt over Hoover 51 percent to 47 percent, while Westport voted 62 percent for Hoover. Even in 1936, at the height of the Depression, when Roosevelt defeated Alf Landon in a landslide, the Republican got 56 percent of Westport’s votes. The town would remain Republican throughout the Depression, although by declining margins.
We should note that it wasn’t just Democrat versus Republican. In the fractured political climate of 1936, Westport voters could choose candidates from the following parties:
Social Democratic party
Socialist Labor party
And politics had become scary, as Hitler rose to power in Germany, and more and more frustrated Americans listened to demagogues such as Father Charles Coughlin (the “Radio Priest”) and the fiery populist Huey Long (“the Kingfish”) of Louisiana. It was believed that the two firebrands would join forces in a third party to challenge FDR in 1936, but Long’s assassination ended that threat.
Back in Westport, the first indications of economic distress came in 1930, when the town reduced payments for streetlights, town hall maintenance, and insurance. Between 1930 and 1933, salaries for most town offices were trimmed: Selectmen by 15%, Assessor 20%, and Town Clerk 30%. When bridge tender Harry Shurtleff saw his salary cut by 60% he wrote, “I don’t see how I can fulfill my duties . . . as drawtender of the Westport Point Bridge under the present appropriation of $75 for one year,” and resigned (which created an opportunity for a new bridge tender by the name of Albert Lees).
In addition to wages being cut, many people lost their jobs. The Westport Manufacturing Company, with cotton factories on Rt. 6 and Forge Road, had been in business since 1855 and was the largest employer in town. The textile business was already in trouble before the crash, and the extended Depression forced the company to declare bankruptcy in 1938. (That same year Westport endured a devastating hurricane, adding to the economic and emotional turmoil.)
New Deal programs brought some relief to Westport. The Civil Works Administration, a short-term (later WPA) program to get people working, employed 171 local men, mostly in road work, drainage, and river dredging projects. Seventeen Westport boys joined the CCC (Civil Conservation Corps) and helped support their families. The federal government, through the Public Works Administration, also contributed $32,850 (45%) toward a new town hall. At the dedication in November 1939, it was noted that much of Westport’s contribution came back to the town in labor, materials, and machinery hire. Westporters put in 12,801 hours of labor on the new building – a much needed boost to the local economy.
The town almost got a new high school as well. In 1935 the School Investigation Committee had found the current high school inadequate for its 165 students, and recommended a 300-student building with a 600-seat auditorium. The federal government would pay $45,000 of the estimated cost of $105,000, and Westport would pay the remainder with a 20-year note. This passed by a 2-1 margin, but in a special town meeting in September 1935, a proposal to appropriate $5,000 for the land to site the high school failed, as did another vote on October 9. On October 22, the proposal was rejected again, and the high school building committee was dissolved (school superintendent Milton Earle had already resigned in disgust). Finally, on December 23, the town voted to put an addition on the existing high school at a cost of $36,000. It was probably short-sighted to spend $36,000 to patch up an old building, when a brand-new building worth $105,000 could be had for $60,000. Such were the economic challenges in hard times.
One sign of the times was an unusual town meeting vote in 1935 on whether to permit a marathon dance at Cedars Hall in North Westport. Marathon dances started in the 1920s as enjoyable endurance contests, but by the 1930s they became a desperate way to possibly escape poverty, as well as a means of escapist entertainment for spectators. The times were grim and so were the contests, which might last for several weeks (ten minutes were allowed for rest every hour, otherwise the contestants had to be moving, even while eating or shaving). Most prizes were won by professionals, who preferred small town contests where they wouldn’t be known. Town meeting rejected the proposal, 306 to 92. Apparently the citizens of Westport had no stomach for this kind of mean-spirited “entertainment.”
The Great Depression persisted until the United States greatly increased industrial production for World War Two. Of the 524 men and women from Westport who served in the military, eleven were killed and many more wounded. The ordeal of the Depression was over, but now Americans would have to face four long years of a different sort of hardship.
As we listened to people who remembered the Depression in Westport, it became clear that many families were able to survive by making use of the town’s natural resources. Farms produced abundant vegetables, meat, eggs, and milk. There was hunting and trapping in the woods. The rivers and ocean teemed with fish. It was a barter economy, with little cash. Some families “lived off the river,” catching eels and trading them for flour, sugar and other needs. Times were hard, they said, but we were resourceful and we managed. Certainly in places like the “Dust Bowl” or in cities, there were few resources to exploit, but in resource-rich Westport, most people got by.
Still, federal, state, and local programs helped. What is now the fish store in Central Village was a clothing distribution center for the poor, run by Sam Boan. People remembered bread lines and soup kitchens, mostly operated by churches. The Poor Farm, which had been active for 100 years, continued to take in the homeless. Al Lees remembered how his grandfather had a government contract to cut wood on his family’s woodlots and deliver free firewood to needy residents from Sherman Hill to the Point. Taking advantage of the town’s natural resources, and through generosity and a bit of help from the New Deal, the people of Westport survived the Great Depression.
We would love to hear your stories about life in Westport during the Great Depression. We would be interested in photos, letters, diaries or written reminiscences about this era.