By JOHN KIENER
“The country’s financial system was unstable. There were bank panics and bank closures. By early 1933, nationwide unemployment had reached about 25 per cent,” said Joe Spiker to an audience of 20 people at the International Storytelling Center (ISC) in Jonesborough.
Spiker, a member of the Heritage Alliance staff, first explained that “The Great Depression” occurred when the Stock Market crashed in October of 1929. The crash was followed by The New Deal: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (FDR) attempts to provide economic recovery from the Depression. FDR’s national economic plan wound up having some regional impact. Spiker’s talk, occurring on Oct. 17 some 90 years after the market crash, was 2019’s final History Happy Hour presentation.
According to “The New Columbia Encyclopedia,” The New Deal in United States history is the term for the domestic reform program of the administration of FDR, first used in his speech in accepting the Democratic Party nomination for President in 1932.” While the event has been written about in thousands of publications, The History Happy Hour talk was limited to Washington County reform projects with references to national happenings in order to place local events in context.
Elected in 1928, Herbert Hoover took office as U.S. President during an economic boom. However by 1932, there were homeless camps throughout the country of largely unemployed World War I veterans. The camps were often referred to as “Hoovervilles.”
Chester Inn Museum Head Docent Spiker said the history of The New Deal was part of his ongoing research after he used material on the era in an exhibit last year. His focus on The New Deal, he said, was through the lens of Washington County. His talk centered on three aspects: projects in Washington County, local criticism of the programs, and the New Deal legacy.
A former Governor of New York, FDR was able to blame President Hoover as ineffective in dealing with the country’s economic downturn. The Tennessee Valley Administration (TVA), National Youth Administration (NYA), the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) were New Deal programs. The programs were an alphabet soup of attempts to establish prosperity and were designed to address the nation’s economic issues. Some of those agencies including the NYA were active in Washington County.
The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was another active agency in the area. Jonesborough’s Old Town Hall and Fire Station was built in 1939 with WPA funding. The Booker T. Washington Elementary School, built in 1940 for instruction of African American students, is another example of a New Deal Construction project in Jonesborough.
Both buildings continue to serve the community today. Old Town Hall houses a restaurant and other retail shops while Booker T. School is the McKinney Center offering lessons and programs in the arts plus space for a variety of community events. Ernest McKinney had been the school’s principal and was the Town’s first black alderman. His son, Kevin McKinney, was elected the Town’s first black mayor.
One of the most interesting local projects was the building of Lavender’s Super Market, located at the site now occupied by the Storytelling Center. Although it was built after the New Deal ended, The TVA designated Lavender’s as a “Building of the Future” in 1947. It had a sunken roof designed to hold water, including rainfall. The water was to provide cooling for the building during hot summer months. It functioned as a grocery store until its destruction in 1999.
Other projects in Washington County included Memorial Stadium in Johnson City built in 1935 and the Johnson City Post Office built in 1937. Memorial Stadium, now destroyed, is the site of the city’s Community Center while WJHL- TV occupies the former post office building. A mural painted by Wendell Jones who received government funding was displayed at the post office. Titled “Farner Family,” it is now displayed at the East Tennessee State University (ETSU) Testing Center. The Amphitheater at ETSU was also a WPA project, constructed in 1941. Perhaps the most ambitious regional project was the establishment of McKellar Field in 1937, now the location of the Tri-Cities Airport.
Art and public records preservation also were New Deal projects. Efforts to index and organize Washington County’s public historical records were processed under the direction of Mary Hardin McGown. It was estimated the New Deal funded programs employed 525 people in Washington County.
The National Youth Administration provided school and educational opportunities for both students and teachers. Sponsored workshops built desks for teachers and librarians along with reading tables and chairs.
The New Deal programs were administered until the close of World War II. They were not conducted without criticism, Spiker said. Area Republicans supported by newspaper editorials were critical of the New Deal and President Roosevelt’s running for a third term. Chief among the critics was First District Congressman Carroll B. Reece. It was charged that the programs had “too much Red Tape,” offered little support for African Americans and other minority groups, and had “mixed results” in their support for women.
On balance, Spiker believed that East Tennessee benefited from New Deal programs. However, with a number of family farms and support from tobacco as a cash crop, local families were able to survive the adverse economic effects of The Depression in many instances better than their neighboring city dwellers.
After the successful 2019 programming, Spiker said he will begin preparing and looks forward to another series of historical offerings beginning in March 2020.