The Twenties, Thirties and the turn of the century

I’m reading Frederick Lewis Allen’s Since Yesterday, which covers the span of the 1930s.

It is a popular history, which is to say that it was both a bestseller and written immediately at the conclusion of that most tumultuous time. History has its way of revealing itself in its own time, and Allen nods at that often. The Harper’s Magazine editor and historian just didn’t know yet how some of the things churning up to speed in the late 30s were going to work out yet. How could he? But this was what Allen did, he wrote recent and popular history. It is well thought out, grounded in contemporaneous research and commentary and is easily digestible.

The fun part is, that while his previous book on the Roaring Twenties was a smash success and he sat down to figure out his next effort, it had to be about the Great Depression. And while he was living it as he wrote it, you and I can still hear the echoes. This part sounds familiar to me, for example:

Back in 1880, only 25 percent of American farms had been run by tenants. Slowly the percentage had increased; now, during the Depression, it reached 42. The growth of tenantry caused many misgivings, for not only did it shame the fine old Jeffersonian ideal of individual landholding — an ideal in which most Americans firmly believed — but it had other disadvantages. Tenants were not likely to put down roots, did not feel a full sense of responsibility for the land and equipment they used, were likely to let it deteriorate, and in general were less substantial citizens than those farmers who had a permanent share in the community. In 1935, less than two-thirds of the tenant farmers in the United States had occupied their present land for more than one year! In the words of Charles and Mary Beard, “Tenants wandered from farm to farm, from landlord to landlord, from region to region, on foot, in battered wagons, or in dilapidated automobiles, commonly dragging families with them, usually to conditions lower in the scale of living than those from which they had fled.

The Beards were historians who, among other things, wrote The Rise of American Civilization and a seven-volume History of the United States. Allen uses their quote so he can dribble down into how things got to be that way. Why be attached to anything? And how could you be, if this was what life offered you?

In certain parts of the South and Southwest this trend toward making a mechanized business of farming took a form even more sinister in the eyes of those who believed in the Jeffersonian tradition. In these districts farm tenancy was becoming merely a way station on the road to farm industrialism. The tenants themselves were being eliminated.

[…]

How easy for an owner of farm property, when the government offered him a check for reducing his acreage in production, to throw out some of his tenants or sharecroppers, buy a tractor with the check, and run his farm mechanically with the aid of hired labor — not the sort of year-round hired labor which the old-time “hired man” had represented, but labor engaged only by the day when there happened to be work to be done! During the nineteen-thirties large numbers of renters and sharecroppers, both black and white, were being displaced in the South … In the areas where large-scale cotton farming with the aid of machinery was practicable, tenants were expelled right and left.

Large-scale tractor operations were reshaping farming that was a step or two about subsistence growth into the business and industry of Agriculture, a sort of sequel to 19th century industrialism. But then what?

Where did the displaced tenants go? Into the towns, some of them. In many rural areas, census figures showed an increased town population and simultaneously a depopulated countryside. Said the man at a gas station in a Texas town, “This relief is ruining the town. They come in from the country to get on relief.” Some of them got jobs running tractors on other farms at $1.25 a day. Some went on to California: out of farming as a settled way of life into farming as big business dependent on a large, mobile supply of labor.

He wondered how far the trend would go. Would there be giant farm corporations, controlled from cities, putting smaller farms out of business? He wasn’t far off.

This was the reality for a lot of people. In my family there was some of this, but they also lived and worked and farmed under the ever-growing shadow of the TVA. It brought electricity. It brought jobs. It brought the government into private business in a way not yet seen. Ultimately it brought a degree of prosperity heretofore unknown to an economically depressed region.

This was where my family called home. Some parts of my family tree go back to when it was a territory, not a state. Some of the earliest ones were trading with the Native Americans, before they were imprisoned and shipped west. Recently we found the ferry crossing where my mom’s dad’s dad’s ancestral line came into the state.

Reading this made me think of my mom’s dad’s mom. I have written here about my great-grandmother, Flavil, before. She was in a rural one-room school as a student one year, and the next year she was the teacher in that same school. Her new students were her former classmates. Some of them were older than her. And when it was time for the crops to come in, they all went home and took care of it. She talks about being a sharecropper in her memoir.

She was apparently named after a prolific hymn-writer, and preacher, Flavil Hall. It’s an Irish name: golden haired youth. Near the end of his own life Hall gather a collection of essays and columns he’d written in various magazines and journals and sermons he’d delivered and published them in a book he called Pearls of Grace and Glory. It’s not one of those books you can easily have shipped over from Amazon, today, but someone had a copy or found a copy and gave it to my mother, and she loaned it to me. Among the collection of published pieces there is a section on people who are named after him. Quite a few people were inspired enough by him to borrow his name, it seems. Somehow he came into possession of, and published, a letter my great-grandmother wrote to her parents just before she moved out.

To Mother and Father:

There are so many things I’ve wanted to tell you both, but tears always prevented my talking. First, let me thank both of you for the many, many things you have done for me, which I know I can never re-pay. I feel I have probably repaid the expenses of my rearing, but I know I can never repay the suffering and trouble I have caused. Only God knows how much I appreciate the many things that I can’t repay.

I have come to many cross-road difficulties before, when I knew not which way to go, but this is the greatest I have ever experienced — one that I have worried more over than anything that has ever crossed my life. There is a period in the life of every one when he really wants to begin a home of his own. It is only natural. God so intended it. I suppose every one has to make this decision some time in life, but I really don’t believe it has ever caused any one so much worry and so many tears as it has me. I have lain awake many hours when the rest of you were asleep, podering and crying over the matter. … I have always loved you both and home so much that it seems almost impossible for me to part with you. The nearer the time comes the worse it hurts me. I really don’t believe there has ever been any one who loved his mother and father any more, if as much, as I do you. I fear when I am gone your love will gradually diminish. Do you think it possible to still always love me as you do now, as as you do the other children?

I wanted so bad, and tried so hard to help get the house completed, so you could have a peaceful, happy, comfortable home in which to spend the evening of life, after your hard battle of work and toil, caused by us children …

Again let me express my gratitude and appreciation to you for the many kind deeds you have done for me, for home, clothing, and food. And most of all for your love, for that was what prompted you to “bring me up in the way I should go, and when I am old I shall not depart from it.” What I am, or ever hope to be, I owe to you.

Remember and love me just as the same little girl, and let me have your prayers, for I am just the same.

There’s also a photo of her as a 15-year-old in that preacher’s book. The photo might be blurry and the transfer wasn’t especially clean. It’s that same little girl, but it’s hard to discern much more than that.

It’s difficult to think of your great-grandparents at these ages, or writing letters to their parents, or causing so much grief for them. Maybe it’s just a failure of my imagination. I knew the quiet, old woman and she’ll always be that person to me. But there’s always more, my imagination or not. There’s no imagining this: the roaring part of the Roaring Twenties were just about to end, even in the dirt poor South, when she wrote that letter. My great-grandmother had been courted by two young men. One she liked, but her father didn’t approve. The other, she said, really liked her but it wasn’t an especially mutual feeling.

She decided to write them each a loving letter and mail them in the wrong envelopes to see which one of the boys quit visiting first.

Her conscience though, she wrote in her memoir, got the better of her.

“I could never endure seeing Kelsie with some other girl.”

So my great-grandparents got married in 1927. She was attending college and teaching. My great-grandfather was also a teacher, or would at least become one by the time of the 1930 Census. In 1940 he operated a mercantile. But in that first year of their marriage, she once told me, she was laid low with tuberculosis. Right after that came The Great Depression. Sounds like a rough way to start your family. She said she never found out why her father disproved of the man who would become her husband, but they had three kids and eight grandkids. Somewhere around becoming a mother and a grandmother she was a sales manager, ran an electronics store and became a secretary. In her memoir, which she wrote in 1980 at around age 75, she says that was work she always wanted to do.

Really, she should have written that book later, or at least included an addendum. She still had a few fantastic stories to tell.

I just found one of those “Remember Our Town When” groups on Facebook. It seems that my great-grandmother, in the year 2000 took part in a re-dedication of a World War I memorial at the local high school. She read In Flanders Fields. And, according to that post, she had read the same poem 75 years before at the original dedication. (She loved poetry.)

She lived to 98, a full life in the 20th century in the Deep South. Imagine all that she had seen in those years.

I’m reading about it in Allen’s book, from a comfortable chair in an air-conditioned room. Maybe she knew anecdotes like this one herself:

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