At the Southern Historical Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill, I found a remarkable collection of oral history interviews from the North Carolina coast during the Great Depression.
They included a saw-mill worker, a washerwoman and the proprietor of a clothing goods store who saw the history of the Great Depression through changes in fashion and how people shopped. Each gives us a glimpse of life on the North Carolina coast that we don’t usually find in history books.
All of the interviews were done by the Federal Writers’ Project, which was part of what is often called President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Second New Deal.” Dating to 1935-36, the “Second New Deal” included the creation of some of the most popular legislation in U. S. history, including Social Security and rural electrification.
But the “Second New Deal” also included lesser-known programs that only lasted as long as the Great Depression. One of them was the Federal Writers’ Project, which provided jobs for unemployed historians, teachers, writers, librarians and other white-collar workers across the United States.
You can find transcripts of the Federal Writers’ Project’s oral history interviews in two collections at the Southern Historical Collection: the Federal Writers’ Project Papers and the Thadeus Farree Papers.
The ones I’m sharing here represent only a tiny fraction of the more than 1,200 Federal Writers’ Project interviews that you can read when you visit UNC Libraries. Many of them are now available online, too. Roughly a hundred of the interviews were conducted on the North Carolina coast. The rest are the stories of people who lived across the American South.
These are only three people’s lives, but they each speak to the history of the Great Depression for countless others on the North Carolina coast and beyond. If you are like me, you will not soon forget them.
John H. Bunch
In April 1939 W.O. Saunders, editor of the Elizabeth City-based The Independent newspaper, interviewed a man named John H. Bunch at his home in Elizabeth City. Saunders identified Bunch as a “negro saw-mill hand.”
“I was born and raised on a farm down in Perquimans County. My father was a tenant farmer and a hard worker. He taught his children to work. I worked on the farm until I was 19 years old.
“Then I worked on a ground mill run by a Mr. Old…. I worked for him about three years. He paid me a dollar and 25 cents a day. That was good money in them days, but I was young and didn’t save much.
“After working for him about three years I had saved $35 and bought a horse and went to farming for myself. I farmed on shares…– I guess you’d call it about 15 acres.
“First year I raised 3 bales of cotton, 20 bags of peanuts and about 15 barrels of corn, beside my ‘taters and peas and a little garden stuff. Raised me two or three pigs, too. The landlord took one-third of the cotton, the corn and the peanuts….
“But cotton wasn’t worth but about $30 a bale, peanuts about $2.50 a bag and corn only a dollar a barrel. It took all my corn to feed the horse and the pigs.
According to Douglass Carl Abrams and Randall E. Parker in the Encyclopedia of North Carolina, crop prices fell by more than half in North Carolina between 1929 and 1933. Many farmers lost their land. Many, like Mr. Bunch, moved into towns to work in sawmills and cotton mills if they could find a job. In many of the state’s coastal counties, more than one-third of the people were on relief.
“But all years wasn’t as good as the first year. There were wet years when I hardly raised nothing and would have gone hungry if I hadn’t worked in the logwoods and for other farmers when I got caught up with my own work. I could always find work.
“But good years or bad years, there weren’t no way to get ahead on that farm. Landlord made us trade at his store. End of the year when settling up time came, I’d come in and he’d say, ‘John, old fellow, you got right up to the fence this year but didn’t quite get over….
“I was always in debt to that white man. And then he asked me if I was going to stay with him another year.
“If I said yes, he’d holler to his store clerk to let me a barrel of flour, a side of meat, some lard and molasses and a bolt of yellow cottons, some calico, a suit of overalls and brogan shoes.
“If I said I wasn’t going to stay, I didn’t get no provisions and he would send and take the last peck of corn that I kept for my share of the crop. He was a hard man….
“I’d been farming about two years when I married my first wife. She was a big help until she got sickly. She only lived about eight years after we were married. It was before she died that I gave up farming and moved to town so she could be near a doctor.
“There was no doctor near where we lived, and living was mighty hard too. We didn’t have much of a house, just a two-room, weather-boarded shack, not ceiled inside, with a kitchen set off from the house.
“I came to town about 1907. It was January. Didn’t have hardly enough money to get here, but we didn’t own nothing and didn’t have much to move. Two dray loads took it all.
“I got a job at Foreman-Blades Mill where I’m still working, handling boards on the yard at a dollar and a quarter a day, working 11 hours a day.
“My wife died the August we moved here. We had four children, but two of them had died. My mother was living then and she agreed to take the two children that was living, and I broke up housekeeping.
“But after 18 months boarding, I got married again, married a cousin of my first wife.
“We rented a house and got along pretty good with my wife helping. She was always a mighty good field hand and a lot of times she could make more money than I could make, picking peas, digging ‘taters, picking cotton….”
In the 1920s, when the mill was booming, Bunch borrowed $1,000 worth of lumber from the mill owner to build a house. He had saved another $600.
“I took my $600 and bought the bricks, the shingles, nails, paint and hardware and hired my labor and built this house. It took me eight years to pay for that lumber. Interest eats you up. And then about the time I got that lumber paid for, they began to cut wages — first 50 cents a day, then another 50 cents, then another cut, until they got me down to a dollar and 40 cents a day.”
He was describing the beginning of the Great Depression. Banks closed. Unemployment rose. Businesses went bankrupt. Wages were cut, and there were mass lay-offs. People lost homes.
“Them was tight times…. If I hadn’t had this house paid for, I would have lost it. But praise the Lord, I had my house all paid for and had bought the lot side of it for a garden.”
George A. Twiddy
Saunders interviewed George A. Twiddy on Jan. 12, 1939. Mr. Twiddy was the senior partner at a clothing and dry goods store called Twiddy & White in Elizabeth City. I love how he sees the history of his times through the lens of fashion, clothes and the experience of shopping.
“It was the year of the total eclipse of the sun — 1900, I think it was — when I went to work for C.H. Robinson’s Fair Store. I worked mornings and afternoons before and after school and the full day on Saturdays. I was 16 years old. My pay was $1.50 a week.
“My principal job was cleaning spittoons. Spittoons were important fixtures in all stores in those days. It seemed to me that most men chewed tobacco and many women dipped snuff and were not ashamed of it. Many of our women customers used those spittoons freely.
“Shopping was different in those days. There were no automobiles. The farmer took a day off to come to town. He would leave home around daybreak, spend the greater part of the day in town, leaving town after noon and getting home around sundown. He didn’t come to town often and his shopping list contained many items.
“Often as not he brought his wife with him. Stools were provided at regular intervals in front of the counters for the convenience of patrons.
“And between stools were oversize spittoons. We didn’t call them cuspidors. There were 22 spittoons in Robinson’s Fair Store, including the spittoons in the office.
“In front of every store were hitching posts for the convenience of our rural customers. It was not unusual for a farmer to drive up with his horse and buggy, or horse and cart, at 9 o’clock in the morning and leave his horse tied until he had finished his business town at 3 or 4 o’clock that afternoon.
“At noon he would put a bundle of fodder and eight ears of corn down for his nag … and let her feed. The horse droppings were prolific and as soon as I showed up at the store in the afternoon, if I didn’t think of it first, Mr. Robinson would suggest that I should clean up after the horses.
“The streets were not paved. In places they were knee deep in mud in winter. In dry weather every passing vehicle stirred up clouds of dust. The merchants in our block had combined to build a water tank in the neighborhood from which ran a one-Inch iron pipe providing spigots on every storefront.
“With a 50 ft. length of garden hose we sprinkled the street twice a day and kept down much of the dust. Part of my job was sprinkling the street in front of the store,
“Stairs were lighted with kerosene oil lamps with bright metal reflectors. Most stores opened early mornings and closed at 9 o’clock at night. It was part of my job too to keep the lamp chimneys cleaned and polished.
“I was employed at Robinson’s less than two years when (the) Sawyer & Jones Hardware Store just across the street offered me $1.50 a week. Their offer appealed to me because they had fewer spittoons to clean and fewer hitching posts, which meant less chambermaid work for fewer horses….
“My next job was with Jones, Harper & Co., dealers in dry goods, clothing, notions, hats, boots and shoes. I was getting along.
“It wasn’t long before I was offered a better job with Owens Shoe Co. I left Owens Shoe Co. in 1907 to go with … R.J. Mitchell, the largest and busiest department store in town.
“I was a full-fledged shoe salesman then. I was with Mitchell’s for seven years, until 1914, when I engaged with my partner in the present business which we have carried on ever since.
“A lot of water has gone under the bridge since I first went behind a counter. The merchant used to get his goods in wooden packing cases. The wooden packing case is almost a thing of the past. Almost everything today comes in paper cartons….
“The telephone and the electric light had not arrived. Automobiles were unthinkable, and when they began to appear early in the century they were regarded as another rich man’s toy.
“Why, I remember the sensation caused by the first barrel of gasoline that was brought to town. George W. Twiddy, who ran a small grocery store, bought a peanut roaster to be heated by gasoline.
“He had to order his gasoline from Baltimore. When his barrel of gasoline arrived, he had it carted in from the steamboat wharf and placed back of his store.
“News of the arrival of that gasoline spread like wildfire. Gasoline was thought of as a highly inflammable, explosive and dangerous article. What was Mr. Twiddy thinking of, to bring a barrel of that deadly stuff to town and set it down right in the heart of the business section? Did he want to blow the whole town up?
“The town council was hurriedly called into special session. The mayor and councilmen, with white, tense faces took immediate action. An ordinance, effective pronto, was enacted prohibiting the storage of gasoline in greater than one-gallon quantities in the city limits.
“Twiddy was ordered to remove that barrel of gasoline to the outskirts of town, where he built a shelter over it and drew out a gallon at a time as needed for his peanut roaster….
“Imperceptibly at first, but rapidly enough, the automobile revolutionized all business. Sales became smaller and more frequent.
“The farmer who used to come to town once a month or once in three or six months with a list of supplies to last him until his next trip, now runs in any day in the week and buys a pair of shoes, a suit of overalls or a plow line and goes his way.
“The automobile has otherwise effected all business. It has increased the tempo and the cost of living. With the fixed charges of his automobile, higher rents, higher taxes and other advances of modern living, the masses seem to find it increasingly difficult to meet all of their obligations.
“Again, the automobile has made the larger stores and bargain days of larger city stores available to the average man or woman who formerly had to buy at home or resort to a mail order catalog.
“Every day we see cars full of people passing us by to go to Norfolk or Richmond to buy. Often as not they could do as well at home, but they enjoy the excitement of travel and the contacts with the larger city life. But down the line, the smaller country merchant is seeing carloads of his old customers going by his door, heading for ours….
“”You hear a lot of bellyaching from little businessmen these days. You’re not getting a squawk out of me; I trim my sails to the winds as they blow, and when they don’t blow for a while I put out my oars.”
A Federal Writers’ Project interviewer named Ruth L. Riddick talked with Betty Staton at her home in Elizabeth City, in the fall of 1938. Ms. Staton was a 48-year-old African American woman, mother of four. She made her living by taking in other people’s laundry.
“Child, I have been bending this here back over washtubs and boiling pots since I was 16 or 17 years old. For the men folks that live by themselves, I charge them 50 cents if they were just hard working, but if they have good jobs I charge them a quarter more.
“I always try to figure out what they can pay according to what they can make.
“Then when I have a family’s washing, I charge $1.50 or $1.75 and if there is somebody in the family that work in grease I charge 10 cents more because that grease is mighty bad when you have to scrub and rub on it.
“I like to wash in the folks’ kitchens because then I don’t have to skimp around for wood to burn in the stove. But most folks don’t like you messing and boiling in their kitchens.
“I like to work in their kitchens because of the victuals you get to eat, too. When hard times were cramping my innards, breakfast and dinner were mighty tasty. I could save a little out and not eat it and then take home to my children.
“Hasn’t ever been no fuss about that except one time. That was a mighty penny pinching and choosey lady who was always telling me not to use too much soap powder in my washing and such as that.
“We had pork chops for dinner and I was washing dishes for her and… I saved the bones because all the meat wasn’t gnawed off of them. My children love to gnaw bones.
“Well I had a middling size bag full and she spied it. She grabbed it up and when she saw what was in it, she sure did look funny.”
Then Ms. Staton talked about how she kept her children warm during the hardest years of the Great Depression.
“It was a hard job to keep the children warm. But when I wasn’t washing, we always walked down the railroad and picked up the cinders that weren’t all burned up. Sometimes we found lumps of good coal and that burns mighty pretty when it’s mixed up with cinders.
“I (also) used to go to the backs of stores every morning early before they got to work and pick up the pieces of broken boxes that things were packed in, and they helped a lot to keep warm with.
“I wasn’t ashamed to go after they got there, but seems like when folks throw something away and then somebody comes along and picks it up, they think maybe they shouldn’t have thrown it away and then right away they want it back.
“I only have one meal a day, and that’s according to how lucky I am. Sometimes some of the neighbors that have gardens give me some greens, and I boil a pot of peas when I have them. We eat salt pork when we eat meat. I go to the fish markets and they always give me the fish they can’t sell.”