Please welcome guest author C. Douglas Ward, principal of Williamson High School, Williamson, WV. The following article was culled from his master’s thesis, “A Case Study of an Appalachian Community during the Great Depression,” submitted, and accepted, at Marshall University in 1990. Ward is currently pursuing an ED. D . in Educational Leadership at Morehead State University.
Both preceding and following the Great Depression, the N&W Railroad was the economic heartbeat for Williamson, WV. Claude Weaver, the night clerk at Williamson’s YMCA, had been at the center of N&W life since 1924. The ‘Y’ served as lodging to the railroad employees and as a grocery store to the residents of East Williamson.
“Hard times!” Weaver said of the Depression years, “but at least I was workin’. We fed beggars at the backdoor from Alaska to Louisiana. A lot of ‘em around the ‘Y’ took to drinkin’ and tradin’ whiskey. With times tough and money hard to come by, whiskey was a trade-all! Yeah, hard times—wouldn’t have been for helpin’ out the railroader’s families and others, they wouldn’t have made it.”
Weaver’s “helpin’ out” needs some clarification. Weaver was expected to report the amounts N&W employees ‘spent’ at the store back to the company timekeeper, who in turn deducted those store debts from employee paychecks. He often didn’t turn in the full amount owed by a customer at one time.
“We needed to help each other out during them times. Hey, I’m a working man, and the lumber man helped me—he allowed me to keep the boards of this house up, after the banks shut down and we couldn’t get what money we did have.
“Budget and stretch! I had a lot of practice, being an old lumber camp cook. I had to teach some of the women of the community to budget and stretch; didn’t want to see them lose their credit. The ‘Y’ was generous with credit, but some couldn’t handle it, and lost it.
“Helped one family so good that they were completely out of debt in 10 months! The feelings people had for each other was kinda different, even the railroad. The N&W was pretty good to its men—helped its men what they could. The workin’ man could even refer to the officials on a first name basis. Times have changed! A sort of greed set in on people, and especially the N&W, after the Depression.”
“Well, after a certain trip to town in the early 30’s me and a couple of other men saw a merchant adding to the size of his store and we thought, ‘Well this fella wouldn’t be doing this work if he didn’t hold out hope for better days. We kinda talked and hoped he knew something. Kinda gave us a reason to stop worryin’ so much.”
Charlie Albert, the elder statesman of Williamson’s business community, was part of the merchant sector in Williamson since 1921. His father, Jacob Albert, started the business at the start of the century’s second decade. Albert’s Army Store dealt in clothes, specifically working man’s clothes. Albert’s gentlemanly candor reflected a conservative, even cautious, nature when asked how merchants such as himself sustained the hardships of Depression in Williamson.
“We stayed in business by the grace of God and the mercy of our creditors. Sometimes their mercy was a bit enforced. We stayed two steps ahead of the sheriff. Many merchants were leery of extending credit because no one had any money.”
Even so, Albert said that at times “We readily traded corn, tomatoes and whatever for clothes!”
Our conversation ventured toward the underlying factors in Williamson within the context of the Depression. The most notable feature was the unionization of the local coal industry, which came slowly and bitterly to Williamson, as well as to all of Mingo and adjoining Logan County in southern West Virginia.
“The growth and rise of the union movement,” Albert said, “gave rise to Williamson breaking free from two evils (the abuse preceding unionization, and the Depression). Williamson may have been in an eternal Depression had it not been for the union move. Miners would never have gotten out from the hardships with or without the Depression; the Depression just made it doubly bad.
“The Depression pulled people together, developed a kind of brotherhood. People appreciated each other more then, and what little they did have.”
The burden of making more with less in Depression-ridden Williamson fell heavily on the housewife. Myra Cumiford was married to Fred Cumiford, a general laborer for the N&W shop located in the East Williamson rail yard. “I stayed pretty tired helpin’ Fred and raisin’ two little girls. We did all right, better than some others. Fred’s work got cut to three days a week, but we ate and learned to stretch things out.
“We had a little garden and Mr. Napier with the grocery store on the corner was pretty good about lettin’ people have what they need and takin’ payment when Fred got paid. The people we rented from was good about the rent, they didn’t charge us too much. The man, Mr. Sammons, was blinded in a railroad accident and Fred did fix-it work for them. They were good people.
“The Depression gave my family and me a gratefulness nothing else did. I carried from the times a gaining of personal positives from a world of negatives. We gained an appreciation. Greed today took off from the Depression. People, especially big companies like N&W, tried to get from everybody so they could get by in case of another Depression.”
Idealism and spiritualism were evident in Marguerite Lupshu’s recollection of the Depression. She was an eighteen year old Sunday School teacher and high school teacher. She lost her father in 1930 and became burdened with helping her mother make ends meet, before marrying in late 1930. Both roles were trying. Her husband Frank, a railroad employee, got little work in the early 1930’s.
“You had to stretch roast beef on Sunday to hash on Monday in good weeks. Those were trying days.
“People were closer then. You had to go to church thirty minutes early to get a seat! I think church attendance was up during the Depression. There was a spiritual togetherness of the people in our church, and from what people in other churches said, they felt the same way. There was a hope for better times in people’s eyes, especially those not working at all. For the most part people had faith and hope for better days. Some, though, were bitter, but for the most part people had faith.”