The Depression which began in the aftermath of the stock market crash of 1929 ushered in a decade of severe economic and social dislocation for Americans throughout the land. Until 1939 and the start of World War II, the United States was mired in an economic slump of gargantuan proportions: millions of workers lost their jobs; millions more lost their homes and were on the verge of starvation; businesses, from the corner grocery to major financial institutions were collapsing at an alarming rate; farms throughout the nation failed and were foreclosed, victims of both a steep decline in farm prices and a drought so severe that it turned much of the rural heartland into a virtual desert. Statistics convey some idea of the severity of the crisis. Between 1929 and 1933, the gross national product fell from $103.1 billion to $55.6 billion, while the average family's wages dropped by 35%. The unemployment rate soared to 25% in 1933, and those workers who managed to keep their jobs typically saw their paychecks get smaller, as 90% of businesses cut wages to cope with the crisis. Such statistics, though, often hide the human costs of the Depression, masking the suffering that people went through during these years. From the erection of the Hooverville shantytowns to the rising incidence of pellagra and malnutrition among children to the declining school enrollments, the Depression exacted a severe toll on ordinary Americans, disrupting, often forever, heretofore patterns of life.1
The Depression also profoundly altered the nation's political landscape. The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president in 1932 not only initiated an era when Democrats controlled the White House for two consecutive decades and twenty-eight of thirty-six years, but also began the process of stitching together what became known as the New Deal coalition--urban ethnics, labor unions, southern and western farmers, and African Americans--the constituencies which would sustain the Democrats in power over these years. As well, Roosevelt's aggressive efforts to halt the Depression differentiated him from nearly all of his predecessors. Roosevelt's bold program of government action--the creation of the numerous alphabet agencies, such as the AAA, CCC, TVA, and WPA, which became the hallmark of the New Deal--served to make the federal government a permanent presence in Americans' lives.
While the Depression, and the political, social, and economic changes it wrought, affected all Americans, most scholars have downplayed its impact on the Commonwealth. Economically, they note that the Depression was not the catastrophe for Virginia that it was for other states. Thanks to the Virginia's balanced economy, the state managed to maintain 80% of its pre-Depression economic level compared to approximately 50% elsewhere in the nation.2 Moreover, in the political arena Virginians continued to rely on the state's conservative political machine for leadership and to return to office Senators Harry Byrd and Carter Glass, two well-known critics of the New Deal. In these scholars' view, then, the Depression and the New Deal had a minimal impact on life in Virginia.
Virginia, however, was not immune to the effects of the Depression and the New Deal. Although broad continuities connected the 1930s to the pre-Depression years, the economic crisis and the program Roosevelt developed to combat it were deeply felt by Virginians. Thus, while Virginia may have fared better than most states, the Depression did hit the state hard. Thousands of Virginians lost their jobs or saw their wages reduced with the onset of the crisis. Several hundred workers lost their jobs when the Ford assembly plant in the state closed in 1933, and others faced severe hardship when two of the state's railroads went into receivership. State and local governments around the Commonwealth lowered wages from ten to thirty percent, and the Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth cut pay and hours as demand plunged. Likewise, Virginia Electric Light and Power reduced its employees wages when some of its largest customers, including the University of Virginia, forced the company to lower its rates by threatening to construct their own power stations. Increased workplace conflict accompanied the worsening economic conditions. Seven hundred fifty furniture workers in Marion lost their jobs in a dispute with the Virginia-Lincoln Company, and strikes hit textile mills, such as Dan River. Nor was all quiet on the state's political front during the 1930s, as a group of liberal politicians launched an ultimately unsuccessful challenge of the conservative political machine's control of patronage in the state. Despite the machine's continued domination of state affairs, Roosevelt was immensely popular throughout Virginia. Virginians overwhelmingly supported Roosevelt at the polls, and many of his New Deal agencies, such as the WPA, CCC, and NYA, were as popular as he was in the state. For Virginians, then, the Depression and the New Deal were not abstract concepts or events which happened elsewhere, but rather powerful forces which affected their daily lives and brought considerable change to the state.3
The winds of change blew throughout the state in the 1930s, from metropolitan Richmond and the growing suburbs surrounding Washington D.C. to the coalfields of Southwestern Virginia and the large and small farms of the Southside. Examining one region of the state, the rural Piedmont of Central Virginia, reveals how one group of Virginians experienced the change of the 1930s. In particular, focusing on two stories of the New Deal in the Piedmont--the creation of Shenandoah National Park and the electrification of the region's farms and houses--shows how New Deal policies altered the lives of ordinary Virginians, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. These stories are part of the larger narrative of change in New Deal Virginia, and like other developments in the state during the 1930s, they were born out of conflict and created divisions in the state. Not all of the residents of the Piedmont benefited from these changes or welcomed them with the same level of enthusiasm. Yet these changes were so momentous that few could avoid feeling the consequences of the park's creation or the coming of electricity to the area.
1 Good general treatments of the Depression years include William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940 (New York: Harper & Row, 1963); Anthony J. Badger, The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933-1940 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989).
2 Peter Stewart offers the 80% figure in his brief essay which succintly makes the case that, despite certain elements of stability, such as the state's economy, the 1930s was a decade of tremendous change in Virgina. Peter Stewart, "A New Image of the Old Dominion," preface in Brooks Johnson, Mountaineers to Main Streets: The Old Dominion as Seen through the Farm Security Administrtaion Photographs (Norfolk, Va.: The Chrysler Museum, 1985), 2.
3 Stewart, "A New Image of the Old Dominion," 2-4; on the political challenge to the Byrd machine see A. Cash Koeniger, "The New Deal and the States: Roosevelt versus the Byrd Organization in Virginia, Journal of American History, 68:4 (1982), 876-896; Alvin L. Hall, "Politics and Patronage: Virginia's Senators and the Roosevelt purges of 1938," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 82:3 (July 1974), 331-350.