Sunday, September 20, 2009

Talking Great Depression Blues

I posted this on my Stage Matters blog, in connection with a Dell'Arte School original production here on the North Coast about the Great Depression. But since it's about family and history, and what I learned on my summer vacation, it seems to me it also belongs here...

I saw the Dell'Arte original show about the Great Depression, called The Body Remembers, shortly after returning from a visit back home to western Pennsylvania. While I was there, my sisters and I sorted through several boxes of photos and documents, some unopened since each of my parents died (my mother in 1974, my father in 1990.) There were some photos from the 1940s and 30s, and also three letters my father received at his CCC Camp in 1940--one from a hometown buddy who was in another CCC camp, and two from his mother--my paternal grandmother, who died several years before I was born.

My father rarely talked about his past, but whenever there was an economic recession or other economic problem in the news, I could pretty much count on him saying that what they ought to do is revive the CCCs. I've since read about the CCC and other New Deal programs, but those letters provided something more specific: the role they played in my father's life, part of which led to me.

The Civil Conservation Corps was a program that employed young men (starting at 17 or 18) in conservation projects all over America. The projects were developed by the Interior Department, but the Corps was run by the Army. Young men lived in Army-style camps, were provided with food, clothing and shelter, and paid a small wage, most of which was automatically sent back to their families. Between 1934 and 1943, some 3 million men cumulatively worked in more than 4,000 camps.

From the letters we learned that my father was in a camp in Blain, Pennsylvania, a few hundred miles from his home in United, PA. Some guys got sent thousands of miles away, often to the West, but that may have mostly been earlier in the program. His friend was in a camp even closer to home, in the Laurel Highlands, not far from where one of my sisters now lives. There were apparently about 150 guys at my father's camp (though 300 was the norm), and they were building Big Spring state park. The camp was very isolated, probably as far into the woods as he'd ever been (or ever would be again). But besides a military schedule and discipline, they had activities--sports teams that competed with other camps, for example. His friend was closer to a town (Somerset) and so seemed to have a lively social life. (Here's another good source on the CCCs in this region.)

My father's hometown was built by the United Coal and Coke Company, and his father and grandfathers were (or had been) coal miners. Mines were closing in the 30s, and there were big and violent strikes in the 20s and 30s, that got the miners essentially nothing. There were few jobs, no money and no future there.

The plight of the miners in the area was so severe that the FDR administration built one of a few experimental communities there. They built new houses (with a novelty in the area: indoor plumping) and started cooperative farms and eventually a small garment factory. It came to be called "Norvelt," the last syllables of Eleanor Roosevelt's name, after she came to visit it. Locals apparently just called it the homestead.

The homestead is mentioned in my grandmother's letters, though they didn't get to live there. They were still in United. By 1940 Norvelt was changing, and people who lived there were being asked to buy their houses rather than rent them. But I also learned about Norvelt on this trip because there was an article in the local newspaper while I was there: this summer was Norvelt's 75th anniversary. And as it happens, one of my sisters now works for a small business that's housed in the very building that used to be the Norvelt coop garment factory.

At issue in the letters in 1940 was what my father was going to do next. Apparently his hitch was up, and there was anxiety about losing the money he was bringing in. The family was saving to buy their house. The letters left the matter unresolved, but they fit with something else I saw many years before. It was a mimeographed, stapled newspaper, and inside it was my father's name, as editor-in-chief. Probably my mother dug it out and gave it to me, when I started my string of editors jobs in junior high. My father never mentioned it. I've examined it since, though at the moment I've lost track of it again.

It was the publication of the "self-governing community" called Armor City, a National Youth Administration work experience project in South Charleston, West Virginia. It was another federal project under the umbrella of the Works Project Administration. It seemed to be very much like the CCCs, except this was for slightly older young men, and it's purpose was to train them for jobs in industry, not the woods. Eventually it was training them for jobs in national defense, and judging from other information about South Charleston at the time, that's what my father was probably doing. There was a big naval munitions plant in South Charleston, which FDR visited.

My father was at Armor City in 1941 and apparently still there in 1943, when he was called home for his mother's last illness. (He was found physically unfit for the draft. As children we were told it was because of color-blindness, but it may actually have been because of a deformation in his back, perhaps the result of a fall in infancy.) Soon after, he got a good paying job in industry, in a plant in Youngwood, PA that made military instruments. That's also where he met the young woman who would become his wife and my mother.

I grew up with some tales from the Depression, on both sides of the family, as well as from the lives of parents and grandparents of school friends, and total strangers. I got more interested in it all in the 60s, thanks in part to Bob Dylan being so interested in Woody Guthrie. And of course, Arlo. I've heard stories since--Steve Allen told me a few--and read many more. It's important in terms of what individuals and families went through, though I would stop short of calling those who lived through it and are still alive "Depression survivors," as some of the Dell'Arte publicity did. It sounds too much like "Holocaust survivors," which is a different order of experience.

It also tends to distance us from it. Books like the Stud Terkel volume that inspired this production are one way to get close to it, or even recollections in memoirs--I was especially interested in Malcolm Cowley's, with his Pittsburgh connections. But of course the best of all is family memories, and letters like these.

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