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Looking back, looking forward

The current state of the U.S. economy has many people thinking Great Depression. Here’s a look at how that dark time impacted Adirondackers

November 12, 2008
By NATHAN BROWN, Enterprise Staff Writer

SARANAC LAKE - Today, most products, including necessities like food and heating fuel, are getting more expensive while incomes are stagnant, credit is increasingly difficult to obtain and few businesses are hiring. People are calling it the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Seventy-five years ago, most goods were getting much cheaper than they had been. But they were still harder to get, since about a quarter of adults were unemployed and those who still had jobs had to take severe pay cuts.

Not being able to get four credit cards and spend thousands of dollars on big-screen TVs and SUVs with shiny grilles might mean major pain in parts of the country where such things are more important, but the Adirondacks have never been as addicted to conspicuous consumption as other parts of America. Similarly, fewer people up here took out mortgages on homes they couldn't afford, and the foreclosure crisis is not hitting the Adirondacks nearly as hard as the rest of the country. Neither did the Great Depression. The area even continued to do well for a time, barely affected by the stock market crash on Oct. 24, 1929.

"Our self-sufficient communities, never accustomed to luxurious living, were perhaps better equipped than most to absorb the hard times to come," Lynn Woods wrote in Adirondack Life magazine in January 2006. "Eventually, however, they did come, and a sizable percentage of Adirondackers found themselves on the relief rolls."

Clarence Petty, a well-known Adirondack woodsman and conservationist, was 24 when the stock market crashed. He was going to school in Syracuse at the state College of Forestry.

"I didn't really feel the Depression," Petty told the Adirondack Explorer magazine earlier this month. "The places where they felt the Depression were the cities. Almost everybody outside them, even in the small towns, had farms or gardens where they could raise stuff. Anybody who had a small plot of ground had no reason for going hungry."

Petty's family stored vegetables in a hole in the cellar, so they always had enough to eat during the winter, as well. His father kept his job as a guide on Upper Saranac Lake.

"He was only getting about a dollar a day," Petty said. "Still, it was enough to get by."

Then as now, hunting and fishing were practiced by a huge number of Adirondackers, and unlike urban residents, people here could turn to these to supplement their food supply. The number of licenses issued by the Conservation Department fell, due to people's inability to afford them, but the Department's 1933 report said the amount of fish and game taken that year was probably higher than ever.

"Poaching had become such a problem that game wardens set up roadblocks to search for illegal deer," Woods wrote. "They looked under seats and in the torn roof covers of cars for hen pheasants, songbirds and other outlawed small game."

Though you may be able to eat without money, you can't pay your taxes without it. The Enterprise contained several briefs in the early 1930s about people not paying their water bills. In January 1931, the village board voted to start shutting off the water of delinquents, a move which, the paper said, had the effect of causing a lot of them to pay. In 1934, a number of village residents complained to the board about how they were still levying water bills on residences that had been vacant a year or more.

In areas of the U.S. that were harder hit, many of the unemployed started to wander the country. A few even made it up here. On Jan. 13, 1932, the Enterprise had a story about a 30-year-old woman from Dallas, Texas named Sally Duneman, who was arrested for vagrancy in Lake Placid.

"Sally got as far as Albany when she decided to make the rest of the trip in style and there her trouble began for she told the taxi driver whom she hired for the 180-mile ride that her husband was a policeman in Lake Placid and that he would reimburse him upon their arrival here," read a run-on sentence by a bylineless Enterprise writer. "Joseph Leonardi, driver of the cab, became suspicious of the occupant of his car when she failed to produce the promised husband with the fare."


The Depression didn't affect the lumber industry immediately, but according to Woods, paper mills on the edges of the Blue Line started to close in the early 1930s, and logging jobs started to dry up.

According to the April 14, 1932 issue of the Enterprise, a 50,000-cord log drive was held on the east branch of the St. Regis River that spring, "largest in the Adirondacks this year and one of the last in the north woods."

The Tupper Lake Free Press reported in March 1933 that the winter of 1932-1933 "witnessed a minimum of work in the woods hereabouts. Operators in the Raquette River valley had no jobs going."

The International Paper mill at Piercefield Falls shut down, and "the once-bustling town, which at its peak included a large hotel, two churches, a movie theater and a dance hall, faded away." Today, the town has 305 people, about 700 fewer than it did when the mill was operating.

The Johnson Pulp Mill, west of St. Regis Falls, closed in 1936, according to "Railroads of the Adirondacks," by Michael Kadish. Then, the New York and Ottawa Railroad line stopped running in May 1937. Without a railroad, the Hammond Mill in St. Regis Falls closed, and so did the Cascade Wood Products Company.

Private charity

President Herbert Hoover considered unemployment and hunger problems to be met by local authorities, not the federal government.

"The buying of food for a hungry family would be an intolerable descent into socialism," Cabell Phillips wrote in "From the Crash to the Blitz: 1929-1939." "The answer to human destitution was charity."

Local and state governments called on people who could afford it to donate to the destitute, and a number of organizations were formed in the Tri-Lakes area to answer the call. On Jan. 13, 1932, the Enterprise ran a story with the headline, "Charities aid poor in fight during winter."

According to the article, between 35 and 40 families had applied for aid so far that winter, a 15 percent increase over that time in 1931. A group called the Citizen's Unemployment and Relief committee had collected donations and turned them over to the village, which in turn used the money to fund a cleanup project on McKenzie Pond. Ninety-five men were employed on this project.

The article also said poor men were cutting wood under the committee's supervision. The committee then hauled the wood the men chopped to their homes for free.

"The relief situation in Harrietstown is well in hand, (town welfare officer William A.) Mr. Lawrence reports. No unusual conditions are expected to overtax either the town's or village's ability to cope with needy cases."

The Enterprise itself collected a Six Neediest Cases fund. This fund was administered by a private group called the Lend-a-hand society. The society also distributed 94 Christmas dinners in 1931, and gave out "Clothes, food and toys donated by various organizations and individuals." It also provided medical care to 40 needy children in 1931.

"There were 24 operations for tonsils and adenoids, eight children had eyes examined and were provided with glasses," the Enterprise reported.

The society raised $1,611.47 in 1931, $588.81 of it from a calendar sale and $400 left over from 1930. $659.75 was spent on medical care for the children and $259.96 on Christmas dinners.

Over in Tupper Lake, the Mayor's Relief Committee was formed in 1930 to collect donations of food and clothing, Woods wrote. It started to provide free soup to schoolchildren in January 1932, after the Tupper Lake Relief Committee reported that "scores of children are going to school poorly clad and underfed." By April 1933, 202 families in Tupper Lake were on the dole.

The demand for charity now is not as great as it was during the Great Depression. But neither is the capacity to give. Finding volunteers, in particular, has been a problem. The Seventh-Day Adventist thrift shop in Saranac Lake is only open on Wednesdays; the Help Closet in Tupper Lake used to be open more, but is now only open three days a week, four hours per day, due to a lack of volunteers. The Lake Placid Ecumenical Food Pantry is $3,000 in debt.

Charitable donations have been picking up lately, however. The Lake Placid High School Student Council is currently collecting donations of hats, mittens and non-perishable food items for their "Warming tree"; this is the first year they have collected food. And the Palace Theatre in Lake Placid is now giving a dollar off on the ticket price for any adult who brings in two cans of food.

The New Deal

The nation's first old-age relief law was passed in New York, at the urging of state Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1931. Soon, 225 people in Essex County were receiving pensions of $20 a month, according to Woods. Roosevelt also undertook a number of public projects to create jobs, such as building the bobsled run in Lake Placid and a reforestation program.

Roosevelt defeated Hoover in the 1932 presidential election. Upon taking office in 1933, he created the National Recovery Administration, which regulated wages and working hours in hundreds of industries.

"In Tupper Lake, grocers, clothiers, department stores, barber shops and beauty parlors all signed up for the NRA," Woods wrote. "The town was so enthusiastic that it hosted an NRA parade in October."

Their neighbors on Lake Flower were no less enthusiastic. Saranac Lake held an NRA parade on Oct. 11, according to the Enterprise at the time. Businesses and village offices closed for the second half of the day, and the parade was followed by a furious "Buy now" campaign to encourage workers to spend their higher wages at local businesses. People have been talking about similar measures to stimulate the economy today. Bush's stimulus checks were supposed to encourage people to spend, and a recent Enterprise editorial suggested patronizing local businesses as a way to help decrease property taxes.

"This NRA movement can and will be a great success if every merchant and consumer will honestly do his part in pushing the movement to create greater consumption of merchandise," Saranac Lake Chamber of Commerce President R.B. Leonard said in October 1933.

The NRA ended up being ruled unconstitutional. However, other New Deal programs provided jobs directly. The Works Progress Administration undertook a number of public works projects, among them the airport and post office in Lake Placid. And the Civilian Conservation Corps planted trees, built ski trails and lean-tos, and made truck trails for firefighters. Petty got a job supervising one of their work camps.

"The C.C. boys in two years have improved fire protection in the forests to a point which the Department scarcely hoped would be reached in a decade," said the Conservation Department's 1934 report.

"The long arm of the government had reached out to the Adirondacks and rescued it," Woods wrote. "In a sense, the relationship hasn't changed: Prisons and facilities for the developmentally disabled, subsidized by the state and federal governments, keep the economy afloat in many North Country municipalities."

That long arm was paid for by massive borrowing on the government's part. After seven decades of deficit spending, the federal and state governments would likely not be capable of financing projects on the same scale as the ones that helped save this country in the 1930s, even though the state has put a freeze on hiring and is cutting spending.

The current economic downturn is not nearly as bad yet as the Great Depression, but if it gets that bad, a federal government that is more than 10 trillion dollars in debt and involved in two expensive wars will have to try to find a radically different and less costly way to save our economy. Until then, as they did more than 70 years ago, Adirondackers will likely have to rely on each other and their own thrift and ingenuity as they wait for the economic climate to improve.

Contact Nathan Brown at 891-2600 ext. 26 or



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