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25 2 The CCC Comes to Southern Illinois D uring the late 1920s and early 1930s, regional newspapers and state publications described Giant City State Park as “the Playground of Southern Illinois” and even “the Switzerland of Southern Illinois.”1 Free entertainment and a place of undisturbed natural beauty had never been so sorely needed. Times were hard. Southern Illinois traditionally relied on agriculture, coal mining, and timber; all failed miserably in the economic depression beginning in the 1920s. By 1930, the counties that had depended on the mining industry, such as Franklin, Williamson , and Saline, already had four times the national average of unemployed men. Unemployment was as high as 60 percent in some towns of the mining counties, farm produce prices dropped 63 percent, and the forest wood supply was depleted. These are merely statistics, though, that say little of the pain and deprivation , the hunger and fear, of the Depression years in southern Illinois.2 The national statistics were staggering. One-quarter of the workforce was unemployed; 10 million were without pensions or savings. Nine thousand banks failed, and the savings of 27 million families were wiped out. Onethird of the nation was “ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished.” Many people were camped, living near dumps, picking through garbage to survive, a number of them veterans of World War I.3 The gap between the rich and poor was greater than it had ever been or would be until the 1990s. Five percent of Americans were taking in about one-third of all personal income. But the majority of people had run out of buying power. Teachers were paid as little as 280 for an eight-month school year. Often, they would get only promises to be paid or garden produce in lieu of money. Children came to school with no shoes and nothing to eat for lunch. Throughout the country, crime and gangsters thrived, primarily because of the money that could be made bypassing Prohibition and later regulated liquor sales. The years 1930 and 1931 were terrible for orchard owners in southern Illinois. The precious peach crop froze on the trees in the spring of 1930. Then a severe drought, the worst in the nation’s history, nearly dried up the Mississippi River. Peaches that had sold for 3.50 per bushel in 1917 sold in 1931 for 65 cents. The bottom fell out of everything. Farm crops failed, farm animals died for lack of fodder, banks foreclosed, and then the banks failed. Local factories, such as the garment factory in Anna, closed.4 In 1930, the average-size farm in Illinois was about 143 acres, most of it planted in corn or in pasture.5 Too much of southern Illinois’s hill ground was cleared and planted in row crops out of desperation for quick cash, resulting in severe erosion of the topsoil, flooding, and muddied creeks and streams. Many farms, dotted with deep gullies, were abandoned as unfit for any production. The average southern Illinois land price in 1933 was sixteen dollars an acre.6 Landowners were having a hard time paying the taxes on their acreage. Tenant farmers , the greater majority, were struggling to keep food on their tables. Most rural families of the lower eleven counties of southern Illinois were scraping together an existence just as their ancestors had done for several generations, but they felt now that they were scraping the bottom of the barrel . Folks who lived through the Great Depression years tell of working sunup to sundown for five or seven cents an hour, or fifty cents a day. Around the towns of Makanda, Pomona, and Alto Pass, many were tenant farmers. The 5LSSHO&KUHYLQGG $0 the ccc comes to southern illinois 26 women could do the lighter farmwork: cut asparagus , hoe around the trees in the orchards, plant sweet-potato slips. The men cut timber, either for a sawmill or for cordwood. The most able could cut in a day a cord of wood, which sold for a dollar, the same price it had brought during the Civil War.7 The lives of most rural people in southern Illinois had changed minimally since the Civil War. Many still used horses for work and for travel. But their agrarian and sawmill-town ways of life were fading fast into America’s past. Industrialism expanded its influence in the mines and on the farms, where fewer laborers were needed, and lands were being consolidated into larger farms...


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