Great Depression not only pinched in York County, it punched
This trolley in York’s Continental Square is shown in the last year that such electrified cars ran in York County. York County’s trolley system was already shaky entering into the Great Depression and did not make it through the 1930s. Background posts: York-area picture book not your typical coffee table publication, Smoketown a popular York County name in a century ago, and It couldn’t happen in York County? Women were trampled in Depression-era labor unrest.
York County is probably no different than many heritage-minded places in trying to separate out areas in which it is historically different or even world famous.
In a previous post, Did York’s Thanksgiving proclamation indeed create America’s first Thanksgiving?, I explored one such claim.
I tried to give context to the claim that the first national thanksgiving occurred in York during Continental Congress’ visit here. The summary point on this one is that no national consensus exists that recognized this local claim.
Just by way of contrast, a consensus can be found that the first battle of the American Revolution occurred in the Lexington-Concord outside Boston.
In a York Sunday News column (12/7/08), I dealt with another local notion: The Great Depression pinched but drew no blood in York County… .
I relied on the careful research in Charles Bloomfield’s master’s thesis and other sources to contend that the Depression not only pinched, but it punched:
Just days ago, economists told Americans what they already knew: The United States is in a recession.
Although a recession is thankfully not a depression, economic downturns, no matter how deep, hurt people. So why pretend otherwise?
For years, some marketers of York County have harbored the myth that the Great Depression locally was, well, not that great.
But one thing about those bleak days of the 1930s that York County’s promoters can put safely in the bank is that York countians responded to tough times with cultural and social offerings that helped people and strengthened community.
Many of those institutions continue to please, delight and aid the people of York County to this day.
A myth has grown in York County since World War II and all its big defense work ended the Great Depression.
Some accounts of the 1930s suggest the county deflected the devastating effects of those terrible economic times.
For example, one observer has commented that the Depression “pinched, but it didn’t hurt.” That is, frugal York countians weathered those tough times without a trace of blood. It is true that the Depression smacked industry and banking less squarely in the county than most other areas of Pennsylvania.
But that’s where the myth makers often stop.
Dig just a little deeper, and it’s obvious the Depression caused widespread suffering in York County.
Two occurrences inflated this myth of prosperity, as Charles Arthur Bloomfield explained in a 1973 master’s thesis.
First, no banks in York failed except, in a technical sense, the North York State Bank. That bank went under, but purchaser York Trust assumed its obligations. Second, all York banks reopened after a mandated holiday, making it the only city in the state where all banks received permission to resume their functions.
But often overlooked are the eight county banks that failed and the nine that reorganized. On the eve of the Depression, 46 banks operated in York County. So the Depression caused a drastic drain on about 40 percent of the county’s banks, crushing the financial backbone of many towns.
Charles Bloomfield cited a York Family Service Bureau report issued early in the Depression that paint ed families’ typical down ward financial spiral.
Standard-of-living reduc tions initially meant that previously self-sustaining families moved into smaller or less desirable dwellings.
“They have economized and economized,” the bureau’s Rose Gillespie wrote.
They had been living on their savings and then went into debt for rent, clothing and food using personal credit. Next, they used their furniture to leverage cash loans.
“Then the final break with savings gone and spirit broken,” Gillespie wrote, “they come to the bureau for help and guidance . . .”
In the early stages of his master’s work, Bloomfield came across the claim that York survived the Depression with almost unimpaired pros perity.
There’s that myth again.
“York County did suffer materially from the Depression,” Bloomfield observed. “An extensive relief effort was necessary. There was considerable personal suffer ing . . . These facts belie any impression that prosperity continued through the Depression.”
The Depression did much more than pinch in York County.
For video and audio clips of York countians discussing the Great Depression, click here.