The bad, and yes, the good of the Great Depression in York County
The Rosie the Riveter image could suggest to some that women worked outside the home for the first time in World War II. Actually, the Great Depression brought women into the work force in droves, paving the way for their wartime role as a key cog in the Arsenal of Democracy. Women aiding their families made up one-third of York’s workers at the height of the Depression in 1933. Here, a woman runs a machine in this undated photo, courtesy of the York County Heritage Trust. Background posts: The real big York County house that little false teeth built, York County expert Dan Meckley: ‘I refuse to be politically correct’ and Valencia Ballroom became cool place during Depression.
Let’s be clear.
Depressions, like recessions, are not desirable.
But history shows that good can come out of bad.
That was true of Joseph in the Bible when Potipher’s wife set him up.
It is true in the Great Depression in York County, when many community institutions that delight today cropped up from damaged economic soil.
Can a fraction of this happen again during the current downturn?
The following adaptation from my book “Never to be Forgotten,” show the devastation and renewal spawned by the Depression.
Sports and recreation were popular pastimes during the Great Depression. Here, a photographer captures a basketball game in 1935 at St. Patrick’s School, College Avenue and Beaver Street in York.
It caused great suffering here
More than 23,500 county residents are jobless as unemployment during the Great Depression reaches its peak in 1933.
“Business bankruptcies were more frequent,” one history states. “People stole more. Food thefts from farms were especially high. Banks continued to go under – in Dillsburg and Hallam. June, the traditional month for marriages, saw license applications drop off precipitously.”
According to various local sources:
A shoeless Yorker smashes a $300 shoe store window to steal a pair of $3.95 boots.
A large shantytown grows west of York, and its occupants are ordered to leave.
Hard-working men who had never accepted charity grow hopeless as they walk the streets in fruitless search for work.
Recipients carry handouts from a state commissary home in burlap bags draped over their shoulders, a humiliating public act considered better than starvation.
Women and minorities are among the worst-hit victims. Women faint while waiting in long bread lines.
The York School Board notifies married female teachers that they can expect to be laid off to make room for unemployed men.
Newspapers report that women, as well as men, are committing suicide over financial losses. Female hoboes are seen for the first time riding trains through York.
A black man drowns in Codorus Creek trying to salvage driftwood to sell.
Dr. George Bowles, a York physician, urges fellow blacks not to be timid in bread lines at the York County Home. The black community should learn their rights, he said, and make sure they get their fair share of welfare.
Some blacks who came to York in the 1920s ask county government to pay their fare back to the South.
With fewer jobs and companies cutting back, labor unrest erupts.
About 20 people are injured in a riot near a Red Lion cigar factory. That total included several women who were knocked to the street and trampled.
“However, when it came to the physical fighting in Red Lion in 1934,” a Red Lion history states, “the women were in the forefront, taking tear gas and billy clubs in perfect equality.”
Good that came out
Despite the Depression, other entertainment, cultural and civic opportunities increase.
Bad times cause the community to come together.
And these bad times place limitations on travel and the ability to enjoy the good life elsewhere.
WORK Radio 1350, the York area’s first station, goes on the air in 1932. The York Symphony performs for the first time in 1933 as George King Raudenbush conducts the orchestra playing Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” and other works at William Penn High School.
In the fall season, Sylvan Levin conducts and Agnes Davis sings in a concert performed after only five rehearsals.
In 1934, the Tassia family remodels The Valencia, enlarging the dance floor, building an orchestra-sized stage and improving its air conditioning system.
The York Chorus, Crispus Attucks Community Association, York Little Theatre and the York Hiking Club also organize in these economically tense years.
Martin Library opens, the downturn proving to be a boost for libraries. Unemployed people flock to the stacks, some using their jobless time as an opportunity to gain a college education.
“The fact that the general use of the public libraries has increased from 100 percent to as high as 800 percent is a sign of the times not to be ignored,” a writer commented in The Yorker, a short-lived community publication.
The predecessor to ForSight Vision also forms when the York Downtown Lions Club financed the training of a local blind man to perform as a home teacher.
That again underscored a community drawing closer.
“Can it be,” Luther B. Sowers wrote in his history of Forsight Vision, “that individuals in the midst of the country’s severest depression were concerned about those less fortunate than they?”
Also of interest:
For video and audio clips of York countians discussing the Great Depression, click here.