Hard Times: Part Two, Vermont in the Depression

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(Mitch) With the word now official that the United States is in recession, VPR is looking back at the country’s most infamous economic downturn, the Great Depression. Today, we get a snapshot of what Vermont looked like in the worst throes of the Depression, and how those times affected Vermonters. I’m Mitch Wertlieb.

(Janet Rood) I lived in a home with warmth and I wasn’t on the streets, I can never know what it was like for those who were.

(Mitch) When 89-year-old Janet Rood was growing up in Burlington, one image in particular sticks out in her mind when she thinks of the 1930s:

(Janet Rood) When I was a senior in high school, with my very good friend, being chosen to take the Thanksgiving baskets down to the mouth of the river to the families, and we put three of them in the back of the car, and Winston could drive. So of course we went down and drove way down to the mouth of the river, and there we took a little turn and there were about five houses, And we knew which ones to go to, and we went, with our turkey and all of our stuff, and this very large lady sat, sort of crippled in a chair and had lots of children. And she cried, and we took it all in and I sang a little song for them. (laughs) and we left and Winston said, wow, we learned something today. 

(Mitch) Much of what we know about what Vermont looked like during the Great Depression comes from the images of the Farm Security Administration National photography project. What started as an information tool to let the federal government know what America’s farm families needed during the 1930’s, ended up as an extraordinary historical document. Nancy Price-Graff chronicles some of the most striking of the Vermont photos in a book called "Looking Back at Vermont: Farm Security Administration Photographs, 1936-1942".

(Graff)  FDR wanted a record of Americans who needed aid and the effect his programs were having on them… and over time the program also became a historical document of the U.S. during some fairly critical years from 1935 to 1943. 

(Mitch) Roy Stryker was the chief editor of the Historical Section of photographs and oversaw a talented staff of photographers…many of them just beginning their careers. One was Arthur Rothstein -a 21-year old man fresh out of Columbia University, who became the first photographer to visit Vermont in the summer of 1937.

(Graff) "…and in Vermont his assignment was for the most part to take photographs of eroded lands and abandoned farms…but already Stryker’s vision of what the historical section could document was expanding so there were new themes such as downtowns, the process of how things work… he documented a farm in all its different stages of work, from milking the cows to picking up the mail.

(Mitch) And what the photos show is a state in various stages of struggle…and progress.

In one Rothstein photo, two men are seen from behind, walking into a Windsor County field to cut hay with their scythes. Price-Graff says Rothstein wanted to show that Americans were willing to do even the toughest work possible to pull the country out of Depression. And she says the picture also helps define the end of an era:

(Graff) Rothstein was capturing the tail end of hand work in Vermont… this was about the period of which it became imp for Vermont farmers or farmers anywhere to compete working by hand against farmers working with machines.

(Mitch) While some farms did fail in Vermont, many farm families stayed together-out of necessity. Farming was a way to ensure that there was always something to eat, and plenty of work to be done…and in the 1930’s, nearly one-third of Vermonters lived on farms.

During this time the dairy industry was of particular concern. Historian Paul Searls says in the early years there wasn’t much Vermont could do about milk prices…which didn’t stabilize until President Roosevelt’s Agriculture Adjustment Act was put into place in 1933.

(Searls) About 75 percent of Vermont milk was sent to the Boston market so Vermont was very dependent on forces that were out of its control…the large milk dealers in Boston set the rates and the rates fluctuated dramatically and of course any small fluctuations or drop in the rates could mean the loss of a family farm." 

(Mitch) But even after FDR’s milk program helped stabilize prices, Vermonters bucked the national trend, and resisted voting for the popular Democratic President. But, Searls says, Vermont politics did take an unexpected turn in the latter half of the decade:

(Searls) What was surprising was who was elected Governor. In 1936 and that was George Aiken…the business community had had a strong hold on the Governor’s office going back again since the 1850s with perhaps the exception of CJ Bell in 1906–he was a farmer. There was an old guard, really what was considered the ‘Proctor wing ‘ of the Republican Party– the Proctor family, which owned the Vermont Marble Company had been the single most dominant force in the state going back to the 1870s….and the Depression really meant that the old systems of power were besieged, threatened, wobbled… and the time was right for someone who was an insurgent candidate like Aiken to inaugurate an office like that."

(Mitch) During the bitterest years of the Great Depression Vermont also saw the labor strife that affected much of the country in a variety of industries. Economist Art Woolf:

(Woolf) We can look at manufacturing for example, and we have pretty good statistics on manufacturing, The number of workers employed in manufacturing in Vermont in 1929 was about 27,000. By 1933 it had dropped to 15,000, almost a 50 percent decline in the number of people employed in manufacturing. The total wage bill, the amount of wages paid to workers was down 60 percent over that four year period. I mean, those were huge declines. So people lost their jobs in droves. 

(Mitch) In Vermont, Searls says, two major industry labor conflicts took place. The Granite industry strike of 1933 was eventually settled peacefully by an outside arbiter, only after the National Guard was called in to protect management.

(Searls) But the really tragic strike was in the marble industry. In the winter of 1935 and the spring of 1936. The VT marble company was cutting back on peoples’ hours and their wages and a wildcat strike started in the Danby quarry and it spread to become universal widespread across the marble region….and it was just an awful strike the company got the state Government to pay for deputies to guard the gates and there were a large number of bombings…power lines were blown up, bridges were blown up…a lot of the workers lived in company housing and they were thrown out of their housing and lived up on a hill outside Rutland in tents during in the middle of that winter, so it was a very difficult strike. The company imported strike breakers from Quebec and some of the strike breakers had their homes bombed.

(Mitch) Still, the picture of Vermont in the worst years of the Depression is framed by life on the farm. Some of the most moving images can be found in photos taken in the Bradford region of Orange County, where many farm families were receiving Government aid. Nancy Price-Graff says Russell Lee was noted for being one of the only photographers to shoot scenes indoors, using a flash that illuminated the squalid interior conditions. But it’s an outside photo by Lee of a small child staring intently at the camera from a sleigh…set against the backdrop of a barn with hay spilling out of a mow overhead… that communicates the great struggle of families during hard times:

(Graff) What Lee did so exceptionally was give poor people, Vermont’s struggling FSA clients dignity…he showed great compassion for the people down on their luck without judging them and that’s true not just of this photo but of the others that he did take indoors. 

(Mitch) Price-Graff says the importance of having these Vermont photos available now…and especially then…cannot be overstated:

(Graff) There was so much focus on the Midwest and the dust bowl during the depression. Striker had a strong urge to show that Americans all around the country were suffering in similar ways… not identical ways. And of the approximately 1,700 images that historical section photographers took in Vermont, there are a great number of Vermonters suffering …so it dispels the image that the nation’s most destitute and most needy were restricted to the high plains and the Midwest.

(Mitch) Tomorrow in our series, we’ll examine the lessons learned from the Depression …and how today’s troubled economy compares. For VPR News, I’m Mitch Wertlieb.

Photos: Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress, Russell Lee/Library of Congress

VPR Photo: Janet Rood

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