Surviving the Depression
By Evelyn Hayden Hodge
(Used by permission from Old Huntsville Magazine)

The Hoover Administration had hardly begun when the stock market crashed in the fall of 1929.

After the crash, the country sank into the worst depression of its history. Millions of people lost every cent they owned. More factories shut down, stores closed, businesses were paralyzed. Local governments could not collect half their taxes.

By the end of 1931 there were 12 million people out of work.

Now, how did the average, everyday person in Huntsville cope with the depression?

First, there was no money. Everybody was scrambling to find work wherever they could. Men and boys rode freight trains from one place to another, looking for work. Even when they found work, it paid very little. A ten-hour workday in the field - hoeing cotton or tobacco - paid 25 cents a day and people picked cotton for 50 cents a hundred pounds. The farmers had a rough time too. All farm prices dropped - cotton fell from $1 to 5 cents a pound. Corn sold for 25 cents a bushel. Most farmers were deep in debt at the end of the year.

One man recalls that his father, grandfather and uncle all worked at a sawmill for 25 cents a day. On payday, instead of receiving $1.25 in cash, they were required to take the equivalent in trade at the company store.

Another tells about the people who worked in the cotton mills, eleven hours a day: 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., with an hour off for lunch. The mills owned the houses where most of the workers lived and they would take out the money for rent and utilities. The employee's take home pay was about $4 a week. This fellow also said that, when he was fourteen years old, he worked in the mill during the summer vacation and was paid 10 cents an hour. Some jobs paid a little better. My brother worked at a drug store for a dollar a day. One man, who had been a traveling salesman for a Nashville wholesale grocery company, was out of work. So he bought and butchered hogs and ground them, except the hams, into sausage. He cured the hams for use at home and sold the sausage to the public for 20 cents a pound or two pounds for 35 cents.

Groceries were dirt cheap but nobody had any money so everybody who had any space at all raised a garden. We moved outside the Huntsville city limits so we could keep a cow. We rented a six-room stucco house with a carport and a basement for $20 a month. We had a large lot with plenty of room for the cow, chickens and a large garden. We had our own milk, butter, eggs and vegetables. We not only grew vegetables for the table in the summer, we canned and preserved everything available for winter.

We had fruit trees too. One year we had a big crop of peaches. I recall that my mother sold the surplus fruit to a grocery in town. I don't remember how many peaches she sold but, I do recall, that they paid her $15 in gold - a ten dollar and a five dollar gold piece. We never figured out why they paid in gold but that $15 seemed like a lot of money then.

During the Depression I was teaching at Rison School for $65 a month. The highest salary paid to any Madison County teacher then was $146 to a high school principal. For two or three years Alabama had only enough money to run the schools for seven months. Parents who could afford it paid tuition for the other two months so their children could complete the full term.

One year the state was so short of funds that they couldn't pay the teachers. So for three months they gave us warrants (IOUs). Nobody wanted the warrants because of their extended date of maturity. I was told that the Alabama Power Company would take them in trade. So I traded my three warrants to the power company for our first electric refrigerator.

Madison County, like the state, also ran short of funds. They didn't have the money to pay people for jury duty. They gave them IOUs called script. There were two or three men in town who bought the script at a big discount from the jurors. They collected the full amount when it became due.

Real estate prices fell lower than ever before. In 1935 a farmer, who had 44 acres of land with a house, two barns, and a crib sold it all for $1,000. Then he bought 153 acres with a house, two barns and a smokehouse for $1,800. He paid the thousand he got from the sale of his property and signed a mortgage for the $800. He paid that after he sold his crop the next year. Young people also felt the pinch of hard times. Getting gasoline for their cars was a problem. Four or five boys would get together or couples would double-date so they could split the cost of the gasoline. They had no money for movies so that would go up on Monte Sano and park at one of their favorite gathering places. Sometimes several couples would get together at the home of one of the girls and, if a piano or a guitar were handy, that made it all the better. Picnics, swimming and other inexpensive pastimes were also popular.

There were the popular floursack dresses. Back then flour came packed in white cloth bags with the label printed on the front of the bag. It was packed in 24 and 48 pound bags. The milling companies hit upon the idea of packing the flour in cloth bags that were printed in colored designs. Women would select a pattern that she liked and then she bought flour in that same print until she had enough material to make a dress or other garment for herself or another member of the family.

Prices were in line with what people earned back then but they seem almost unbelievable to us today. For example, a lunch consisting of a hot dog, a pint of milk and a piece of pie cost 20 cents, a five pound bucket of peanut butter cost 60 cents and a pound of crackers was 50 cents. Before blue jeans, men and boys wore overalls which cost 50 cents a pair. A four-door model A Ford cost $665.

By 1937 times were some better but not by a whole lot. I recall that we could buy groceries for two for $5.00 a week. That included flour, sugar, coffee, bacon, potatoes, a beef roast and other smaller items.

Times were slowly improving. Even as the depression wound down and World War II had begun, a frame house sold for three or four thousand dollars and a brick house could be built for around $5,000.

Most of us survived the Great Depression and it is something we shall never forget, but we truly hope that there will never be another one.