By C. Paul Bergeron
Part 17: Depression Softeners
The Great Depression began with the Stock Market crash of 1929 and raged on throughout the 1930's with high unemployment among the population and low financial returns for the industries and institutions that managed to keep going. Financial stress affected just about every strata of our citizenry.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office as President in 1933 a number of social programs were conceived and passed by the Congress to alleviate the symptoms of the depression, and as I recall the quality of life of many Vermilion Parish residents was improved. The NRA (National Recovery Act), which was later found by the US Supreme Court to unconstitutional, had an immediate impact on wages paid in certain occupations. I don't recall what other areas the act covered. A commodities program was begun whereas food was distributed to the poorer families. The words "welfare" and "relief" became popular as government agencies were established and services rendered to those in need. The WPA created jobs for unemployed men. These jobs mostly involved men using shovels. I recall that one day a large number of men carrying shovels swooped down on the Old School and leveled off the school grounds. They did street repairs and dug drainage ditches, always with hand shovels. Some critics ridiculed the WPA program, characterizing the workers as liking to lean on their shovels.
A CCC camp (Civilian Conservation Corps) was established in Abbeville, on the Himel property on Highway 14 West, across the road from what used to be the Lincoln-Mercury dealership. In this program single men seventeen years old and up were employed by the Federal government to do conservation work in the area. They were housed in army type barracks and directed and supervised by an Army Lieutenant. The kitchen supervisor was also an Army member. There were at least two hundred young men in the Abbeville camp, many from Vermilion Parish but some from as far away as the state of Georgia. They were paid thirty dollars per month, but twenty two dollars went to their families and they got eight dollars. They were fed at the camp, but they were responsible for their laundry and personal items. A number of these young men married local girls after their tour of enlistment had been completed.
Projects that I know that these young men worked on include the dredging of Coulee Kinney to improve drainage; the planting of oak trees along Highway 14; the eradication of the water lilies that clogged so many of our streams, including Bayou Vermilion at times; and other drainage projects where there were problems.
Just about all of the eight dollars per man found their way into the economy of Vermilion Parish. In addition the commanding officer and the kitchen supervisor brought their families to Abbeville. Nancy Foley, who was one of the prettiest girls in my graduating class of 1939, was the daughter of the commanding officer. Phillip Pickens, another of my 1939 classmates, and his brothers Thomas and Harold were sons of the kitchen supervisor.
Professional baseball came to Abbeville in the early 1930's. The Evangeline League, Class D, included teams from Rayne, Lafayette, New Iberia, Abbeville, Alexandria and Jeanerette. This brought in young baseball players from all over the country who rented rooms from residents and ate in restaurants and contributed to the economy in various other ways. The owner of the team was I. M. Goldberg. The team's name was the Abbeville Athletics, named after the Philadelphia Athletics, the parent team.
Probably the most significant occurrence that softened the depression for Vermilion Parish was the discovery of oil in about 1934 west of Abbeville. Continental Oil Company soon had people working in the area and jobs were created. But the biggest benefit was that investors began to move in and properties were leased and royalties were purchased, providing cash to the property owners that had been totally unexpected. Farms that might have been lost were saved for the owners because they were able to pay off the mortgage with the lease money.
I know of one case where a sharecropper who had saved a few dollars decided to invest all that he had and all that he could borrow to purchase a small farm for seventy five dollars per acre. The very next year a landsman came to his farm and paid him seventy five dollars per acre for a lease. He paid off the mortgage immediately.
Another farmer I knew also invested all that he had and all that he could borrow to buy a farm. He didn't get a lease immediately and had to struggle to pay off the mortgage. But in later years oil was discovered on his farm and according to what he told me, he received one hundred seventy two thousand dollars per month for ten years. Then the price of oil and gas went down and he had to get along on only ninety thousand dollars per month. Poor guy. But to his credit he did not apply for either welfare or relief.
A Cajun Boyhood, by
C. Paul Bergeron
© 2007 by C. Paul Bergeron