The Great Depression in Phelps County

From the Stereoscope – January 2010

The GREAT Depression

by Susan Perry

As we gather stories about the Great Depression of the 1930s, I have wondered what the conditions were in Holdrege during that time. Many of us have heard dust bowl stories with tons of dirt blowing and no crops and I have heard that my bassinet was covered with dampened cheese cloth to keep the dust away. I was told that my dad was paid with a chicken or eggs for much needed items in The Golden Rule Store. I am guessing that each of us my age could add some personal tales to this article.The City Fathers.

In 1933, city wide, here are some of the things that were happening. The city budget had been trimmed drastically, ($77,170.11) and the wages of all (9 or 10) city workers had been cut $4,500. This meant a 12 percent reduction in city taxes from the previous year. Some appointments that would have called for a salary were not filled, and when the mayor presented the council with the name and impressive credentials for the vacant light, water and sewer commissioner, the council overrode his recommendation and did not fill the position. The library was funded with money in a designated category, and when their total would exceed that amount, the library was facing having to close its doors. Just a month after the first budget “slash,” the council found another $10,000 to cut, so I am concluding that the city was dealing with the depression as prudently and conservatively as possible.The Red Cross.

Within the county several hundred women were among the 600,000 volunteers making garments for the Red Cross to distribute to persons in need. There were more volunteers at work during this time than during the First World War, reported the national headquarters. Over 10,000 branches of the organization were active in clothing and feeding the needy. In the first four and a half months of this year enough government cotton, (5,597,558 yards) was put in the hands of the volunteer seamstresses to make 30,000,000 garments. Over 300 area ladies were among the 88,920 women volunteers engaged in relief activities. Their accomplishments were among the making of 3,810,000 surgical dressings, 3,000 layettes, 21,000 miscellaneous articles and 33,000 Christmas bags besides the clothing items mentioned earlier. In more populated areas, many more types of services were provided for those who needed them. Holdrege Welfare Society.

This loosely knit organization was formed to respond to need within the area. They met infrequently, as all those involved were already busy business people, yet their committees functioned well to find ways to help those in dire need.The visiting committee: This group inspected homes and situations. I am assuming that this was a way of verifying the statements of those applying for help. Twenty-eight of these were done, and most of them were repeats from the year before.The distribution committee: “had a very busy fall and winter giving out 89 suits of underwear, 24 pair of overalls, 19 sweaters, 185 pair shoes, 52 ladies’ and girls’ coats, 28 men’s and boys’ coats, 70 hats and caps, 59 shirts, 109 pair stockings, 7 pair mittens, 170 dresses, 18 bloomers, 14 suits, 14 quilts and blankets, 8 mattresses and 229 miscellaneous articles, making a total of 1,088 articles. Besides these, special efforts were made to secure articles such as dishes, cutlery and furniture to help unfortunates who had fires and had lost all their household goods.”The employment committee: There were no jobs available to send the unemployed to, so this group of men devised the woodpile method of aiding those who needed help. Most of their volunteer time was spent finding enough wood to keep a supply on hand for those wanting to work for a meal. No chits for meals were given, but a man could chop wood and receive a half loaf of bread, a can of beans and two ounces of coffee. Each ration was worth eight cents a person. This woodpile assistance method worked in two ways; the men chopped for food, and the accumulated wood was distributed to those needing fuel. A total of 46 loads of wood were given out. Over the past year 372 had worked in the wood yard. This did not include the local people who were allowed to chop wood for half, in that way securing their own fuel. So these locals paid in, so the committee could get more wood and needed food to dole out, so the people could chop for food and fuel, so the fuel could be distributed to the needy, so the committee started over again. Special committees: Two of these were the clothing and the Christmas ones.Specials appeals were made for donated clothing items and a supply room was kept in the courthouse, “where the needs of the deserving could be taken care of.” The Christmas committee distributed 52 baskets, 8 more than the year before. They too had the job of getting the food accumulated to portion out in the baskets. All committees kept meticulous records, which were open to public scrutiny, so anyone could find out the recipients of any and all aid. The right to privacy had not been invented yet, but the public trust ethic was most important to the community. So was their keen sense of compassion, which was foremost in all their dealings in 1933 as all were struggling, in varying degrees, to survive the GREAT depression. * * *

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