A Backward Glimpse at Mercersburg in 1932 During the Great Depression

By Joan C. McCulloh


          After the crash of the stock market on October 29, 1929, the swift downward spiral of events resulted in the Great Depression of the 1930s, an era from which the United States rebounded only during and after World War II.  This depression that affected all Americans and seared the lives of almost all formed the attitudes and responses of a generation, attitudes and responses incomprehensible to many at the beginning of the twenty-first century.


          The Great Depression struck Pennsylvania, like all other states.  By November 1931 900,000 men in Pennsylvania had no jobs.  It has been asserted that by January 1932 1,150,000 men in our state were out of work and that about one-third of those employed were able to work only half-time or less. The governor, Gifford Pinchot, made efforts to alleviate the problem of unemployment but met legislative opposition.  Later, however, after many internecine battles the legislature passed the Talbot Law designed to help the people who were in the direst need.


          In early January 1932 one of the leading articles on the front page of the Mercersburg Journal was headlined “Governor Pinchot Feeds Jobless Army of Thousands.”  The article recounts the events of the preceding week  in which many thousands of unemployed men under the leadership of Father James M. Cox, a Roman Catholic priest from Pittsburgh, stopped in Harrisburg on their way to Washington to try to meet with President Herbert Hoover and the Congress.  Governor Pinchot met the marchers and extended his sympathies.


          The Journal reported the following:  “Sympathies were not all that he gave them, as he ordered the Senate restaurants in the basement of the Capitol to serve all of the unemployed with coffee and sandwiches.  Lines were formed that extended several city blocks.  Their leaders admonished the men to keep orderly, which was done….  The Governor looked in and saw the great congestion and issued another order, which caused a National Guard truck to roll up and unload large milk cans of coffee and baskets filled with sandwiches.  Nine thousand cups of coffee were served inside and outside the Capitol and so  many thousand sandwiches that both restaurant attaches and National Guard officers lost track of the count.  Four Harrisburg bakeries were cleaned out of all bread, rolls, and doughnuts. 

When the bread and rolls ran out, the Governor ordered doughnuts.” 


          When it was realized that Father Cox’s car had not arrived, the governor dispatched his car to bring him to the Capitol.  After he had arrived, Governor Pinchot wished to speak from the Capitol steps to the marchers.  However, since the number was too large to be accommodated on the plaza in front of the Capitol steps, the governor, surrounded by the men, during a steady drizzle of rain spoke to them in a nearby parking lot.  According to the Journal, the governor “said he had four things to tell the army: That they have a right to a chance for work, that the Federal Government ought to aid them, that American citizens have the right to petition Congress and the President for relief,  and that the march is calling general attention to the ‘great calamity’ which has overtaken the country.”


          The Mercersburg area was not immune to the severe problems experienced elsewhere and reflected life in the nation as a whole.  By the winter of 1931-1932 the situation for many people here was dire. Many men were unemployed.  Some employers, however, attempted to mitigate the pain of unemployment.  For instance, Dr. Boyd Edwards, headmaster of Mercersburg Academy, arranged a work schedule for the maintenance and kitchen staff so that they could  have work three weeks out of four  People who lived out of town could raise much of their own food and, therefore, fared better than those in towns and much better than those who lived in cities.  Food to be purchased in stores was costly for many people, too costly for some.  The local A & P store in January 1932 advertised a 12 pound bag of flour for 27c, the largest can of Del Monte peaches for 15c, a pound of butter for 31c, three cans of Quaker Maid applesauce for 25c, 8 O’clock coffee for 17c, two pounds of rice for 9c, and three cakes of Ivory soap for 20c.   Likewise, the $2.00 fee for a Pennsylvania driver’s license was prohibitive for some citizens. 


          At the beginning of January 1932 the local Red Cross under the leadership of  its chair, Dr. James G. Rose, pastor of the local Presbyterian Church of the Upper West  Conococheague, initiated several programs to help those in need.  In that month the Red Cross began to arrange means of taking local men into the nearby mountains in order to cut firewood.  Lloyd Rockwell and John Z. Faust were two of the landowners who permitted people to cut wood on their mountain land.   The Journal reported:  “As was done last year, groups of men who are out of work, have, under the supervision of the Red Cross Welfare Work, been going to the mountains and getting out the dead timber, ready for trucks to haul it to town.  Each man who is a regular worker gets a big load delivered to his home.  After these were supplied, a great quantity has been stored on the town lot, where it will be given to those who were unable to help with the work.  The latter class includes people who are elderly, sick, or prevented by some other real cause from joining the wood cutting.”  The Red Cross provided meals for the workers, and local businessmen took the men to the mountains to work.  The Journal added that by the end of January about fifty truckloads of wood had been brought to town and stored in the Hitching Yard on North Fayette Street and that about thirty-five men had participated in that month.


          By late January the Red Cross had set up headquarters in the Rupley Building on East Seminary Street that were to be open every Monday and Thursday from 9:00 - 12:00 and 1:00 - 4:00.  At that time applicants were to go to the headquarters “so that the committee will know the size of the family, the income, if any, the nature of the help needed, and the value of the supplies given…. A slip is then filled out with the articles of food or clothing which have been supplied.”  Some of the supplies were obtained though the efforts of local businessmen, merchants, and individuals and through cash donations by individuals.


          Also in January Dr. Rose spoke to the members of the Woman’s Club, now the Women’s Club, about local welfare work.  According to the club’s minutes, he stated “that from Nov. 1, 1930, to July 1, 1931, the local Red Cross had expended $1500 for food, clothing, fuel, and seeds.  Two-thirds of this amount had been contributed by people from the town and one-third by the county.”  He discussed the needs of that winter which he felt were greater than those of the preceding year, stated that the most serious problem was the number of undernourished children, and noted fifty-five of these children.  He stated that the Woman’s Club could help to relieve the situation and suggested that one way would be to serve one meal a day of milk and perhaps soup to these children.  According to the minutes, the Woman’s Club readily accepted the challenge and sent Dr. Rose a letter stating “that the club would be ready to open a Soup Kitchen for feeding the undernourished children whenever the Red Cross calls upon them for that purpose.” With Mrs. Seth Steiger, first vice-president of the club, as chair,  Mrs. W. I. Jacobs as chair of the menu committee, and Mrs. H. W. Byron and Mrs. Steiger as the buying committee  the women set to work.  The club asked women who wished to help to speak to Miss Ruth Steiger at Red Cross headquarters and asked local churches to provide the space for what they termed the Food Kitchen. 


          To keep supplies in the Red Cross headquarters required individuals and organizations to provide money and goods.  The Red Cross, whose officers in addition to Dr. Rose were L. L. Steiger, vice-chair; Miss Ruth Steiger, secretary; Miss Mary Jordan, treasurer; and  the Reverend Harrison Lerch, Miss Harriet Spangler, and Mrs. J. B. Bosserman,  asked people who were employed and able “to give from their wages” gifts of money, clothing, or food.  In early February each day that the headquarters were open “in the neighborhood of twenty calls” were answered.  According to the Journal, “Without this organized welfare work the situation would indeed be pitiful.  As long as the funds and food last, each applicant is given relief.”  The Journal reported that “Donations from other sources have been received and highly appreciated.  A generous one of corn meal was made by the Mercersburg Grain and Supply Company.  Several of the merchants quoted attractive prices on goods and made it possible  for the Red Cross to purchase them.”   F. E. Myers, owner of the Star Theater, showed the movie, Politics, as a Red Cross benefit with the price of admission canned goods or staple groceries. To acquire clothing the American Legion Auxiliary held a card party with the price of admission an article of clothing to be given to the Red Cross, and the Woman’s Club gave from its collection of clothing,  The newspaper added that  in January because of gifts in addition to clothing it had on hand “a small quantity” of coffee, beans, rice, salt, hominy, evaporated milk, kraut, canned vegetables, flour, and bread


          Local people held additional events in order to support the outreach of the Red Cross.  On Monday, February 22, Washington’s birthday, the American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary held in the high school gymnasium a benefit card party and entertainment.  One hundred and twenty-five people came out on that evening to play bridge or five hundred or to enjoy only the entertainment. The card playing began at eight o’clock and continued until nine o’clock when the entertainment began and  recommenced after the entertainment had concluded.  The program for the entertainment included an instrumental medley by Cecil LeFevre,  a magician act by John Pierson, a dance by Ellen Curran, a vocal duo by Siepp and Potter, friends of Pierson at Mercersburg Academy, a minuet by a high school group, and a solo by Gladys Heefner. At the end of the evening prizes were awarded, and “dainty refreshments” were served.  In a letter thanking the Legion and the Auxiliary for the check for $92.25  Dr. Rose wrote:” It is a pleasure to carry on this work when the substantial element of the community approves and supports our efforts as it is doing.  We have responded to every call and have sought out others whose timidity restrains them from asking assistance and yet whose need is great.” 


          An early February edition of the Journal recorded that the Food Kitchen established under the aegis of the Woman’s Club in order to provide lunches each school day for the undernourished children in the public schools had been opened on February 9 in the Presbyterian Church. The plan, which was followed, was to have the Food Kitchen for a term of two weeks in each of the following churches after the initial program in the Presbyterian Church:  the Methodist Episcopal Church, Trinity Reformed Church, and St. John’s Lutheran Church.  Different committees were to prepare and to serve the luncheons each week. The author of the Journal article pleaded:  “This is a work worthy of the concerted efforts of our entire community; there is a place for every willing woman, and possibly a chance for the men, when the times arrive for moving equipment from one kitchen to the next.  So don’t wait to be asked to help!  And don’t feel slighted if you do not happen to be asked!… This project is going to be very expensive, and, as it progresses, food donations will be very acceptable and necessary.” 


          On the first day of the Food Kitchen thirty-nine children were served vegetable soup, bread and butter sandwiches, cake, and milk, and on Wednesday of that week fifty-one children were served scrambled eggs, canned peas, bread and butter, stewed apples with raisins, and cocoa.   At the end of the first week of the Food Kitchen the local newspaper reported that an average of forty-six children had been served and that “The management is gratified by the splendid order observed by the children - their quiet and respectful entrance and exit -  and their general good manners at the table.”  The Journal added that the menus were being planned usually a week in advance, that donations of food were welcome but that people desiring to give food should consult the menu or buying committee, and that the buying committee was grateful to local merchants who had either given food or had sold it to the committee at cost.  By the time the Food Kitchen had started its third week, now in the Methodist Episcopal Church, it was serving an average of forty-two children daily with the knowledge that illness was preventing the attendance of some.  On Tuesday of the third week the women served the children baked beans, creamed cabbage, bread and butter sandwiches, gingerbread, and milk and on the following day served vegetable soup, peanut butter sandwiches, oranges, homemade cookies, and milk.



       In mid-March changes in the Red Cross program occurred as it  decided to keep its headquarters open only on Mondays.  The local paper stated that the reason for the change was “that the work is now arranged that it can be cared for on only one day instead of two,” that about twenty calls were answered each day,  “that the 40-odd people will go on Monday and receive the help that is needed,” and that there would be “no curtailment of services.”  This news article added that during a recent epidemic of flu the Red Cross had aided people unable to go to headquarters and that a member of the Executive Committee had taken food to a family of nine, all of whom were sick and had no food, who lived seven miles out of town.


          Later in  March the Journal reported that the Red Cross had seen “no decrease in the needs of the community” although because of the bad conditions of the roads caused by a recent blizzard fewer people had come to the headquarters.  It also stated that there had been “no relief through permanent employments” and that cash donations and the cooperation of local merchants had kept costs to the minimum and permitted the local Red Cross to keep supplies ahead of the demand.  The paper added that a visitor to town had observed that the system in Mercersburg was the best he had seen and that each dollar was used twice as prudently as that given in other communities “where relief work is done in a haphazard way.”


          At the end of March the Journal reported that the Public Opinion had carried an article praising the work of the Red Cross in Mercersburg.  It stated that the Mercersburg system of buying supplies, storing them in the headquarters, and giving people applying for aid  a questionnaire that eliminated duplication of relief  and that stated a refusal to give to “those who operate cars and those who continue to drink”  was effective. The visitor who had earlier praised the Mercersburg system had said to the editor of the Public Opinion, ”I would say that the Mercersburg plan is a model.”


          In April the Food Kitchen, which had served meals to undernourished children on every school day for eight weeks, was closed.  Sponsored by the Red Cross, administered by the Woman’s Club, and held in four participating churches, it had served 1531 lunches to an average daily attendance of forty-nine children out of the sixty-two on the roll.  The chair of the committee, Mrs. Seth Steiger, had been assisted by sixty-five local women, working in groups of eight.  One worker had served every day in the life of the Food Kitchen.  At the conclusion of the eight weeks the committee expressed its gratitude to the approximately one hundred and twelve persons and organizations that had contributed either food or money for the  project.


          However, the committee had not yet completed its work.  It made arrangements to have milk and rolls available each school day to children of  need who attended the public school.   Mr. C. A. Whitmore, who owned and operated a bakery in the building at the corner of West Seminary and North Park Streets, provided the rolls.  To purchase the milk the Rotary Club gave $40, and Mr. McFadden gave five gallons of milk each week. To receive the food  each child  was  given a ticket which he or she presented at the bakery.  The cost to the Food Kitchen for this care of children was $196.61.


          In mid-April the Red Cross began to give garden seeds and on the first day gave garden seeds to fifty-one people.  Each person received an assortment of seeds, which according to the Journal the recipients appreciated, including seeds of peas, beans, early and late sweet corn, two varieties of lettuce, two varieties of beets, and two varieties of radishes.  In receiving the seeds each person promised to “go by the directions for the care of the garden, to take a sheet with them for reference, and to sign a promise that the seeds would be planted and the garden cared for and made to produce as much as possible.  Each promised that surplus vegetables would be canned for the next winter….”  In addition, in  the first week of seed distribution the Red Cross gave meat, potatoes, beans, sugar, flour, lard, eggs, syrup, and canned goods to those needing them.


          Locally that month joblessness increased as the Liebovitz shirt factory, which  employed women in the sewing factory, closed and did not re-open until May 2


          But more changes were to come.  Governor Pinchot had made several attempts at having the state legislature pass bills that would aid the unemployed.  Among them was the calling of a special session of the legislature in November 1931.  Finally after much opposition to the bill the legislature in April 1932 passed the Talbot Law that provided state monies to be given to the unemployed, a major effort of the Pinchot administration to relieve distress.  The  $50,000  granted  to Franklin County by the Talbot Law was given to the County Board of Directors which was to administer the program to help people and which by July had helped 1300 county families.  The passing of the Talbot Law and the high cost of the work of the local Red Cross resulting in the closing of the local Red Cross headquarters on East Seminary Street on Monday, May 2. 


          The May 20 issue of the Journal enumerated the accomplishments of the local Red Cross that had served three hundred and seventy-seven people.  The article stated that it had spent $1249.22 and that the willingness of merchants to sell items at cost had enabled it to aid an increased number of people.  The Journal added the following:  “Total cash contributions for use in the store room from January 1 to May 5 were $807.56.  The money was spent to make the following purchases of food at wholesale rates from our local merchants:  439 lbs. of meat, 24 barrels of flour, 162 bushels of potatoes, 145 sacks of corn meal, 60 lbs. of pudding, 90 dozen eggs, 265 lbs. of lard, 174 lbs. of butter, 90 bushels of apples, 400 lbs. of beans, 200 lbs. of rice, 275 lbs. of coffee, 400 lbs. of sugar, 3 bushels of sweet potatoes, 400 cakes of soap, 300 lbs. of hominy, 180 lbs. of macaroni, 170 quarts of syrup, 112 quarts of kraut, 84 cans of milk, 116 sacks of salt, 96 boxes of matches,  and 106 cans of baking powder.  Many other articles were distributed which were donated.”   The report also stated that it had spent $188.93 to provide meals for the men who had cut firewood in the mountains and the men who had hauled both the workers and the wood from the mountains into town.


          In July what became known as the Bonus Army, unemployed men who had served in World War I, descended upon Washington in order to seek help.  Camped in several areas of the city, they were considered a menace.  President Herbert Hoover in ordering the Army to evict the men from government property declared:  “The veterans have been led to violence which no gov. can tolerate.”  He added:  “For some days police authorities and Treasury officials have been endeavoring to persuade the so-called bonus marchers to evacuate certain buildings which they were occupying without permission….This morning the occupants of these buildings were notified to evacuate the buildings concerned.  Thereafter, however, several thousand men from different camps marched in and attacked the police with brickbats and otherwise injuring several policemen, one probably fatally.”   On Saturday, July 30, according to the Journal, a long line of Pennsylvania state trucks carrying the veterans who had been evicted from Washington went through Mercersburg.  On the previous day many trucks and cars which had taken the bonus marchers to Washington had passed through town carrying the men who had had to leave the capital.   On July 30 the Pennsylvania State Highway Department had three hundred and sixty trucks that traveled in caravans of about thirty-five in relay to take these men through the state.  These veterans were picked up near Emmittsburg, Maryland, and were taken through town and then west on route 30.  Some were transferred to other trucks in McCconnellsburg, some  were transferred in Bedford, and others were transferred near the West Virginia line. The  writer of the article in the Journal stated:  “Each division of trucks was accompanied by a convoy of State Police.  The men were quiet and orderly.  Almost every group of men huddled into the trucks silently proclaimed their loyalty by the display of Stars and Stripes under which they had fought in the World War…. Women and children were in the great exodus, which is considered by those who witnessed those abroad, to be as heart rending as the sight of foreign refugees.”  The  Harry Lackhove Post 517 of the American Legion had made preparations to feed two hundred and twenty-five of the approximately eight hundred people who, it was assumed, were to be taken through the state.


          In September, as unemployment rates in Pennsylvania were still high, both the governor and local people remained concerned.  Governor Pinchot urged county emergency boards to “avoid delay in relieving distress,” to cut red tape,  to postpone “time-consumng investigations,” and to “see that the hungry can be fed at the earliest possible minute.”    Also that month in Franklin County a Mercersburg resident, John L. Finafrock, was appointed to the county emergency relief committee whose mandate was to find work for able-bodied men on a maintenance project.   In addition, in Mercersburg  local  men, all representatives of local organizations, the two local banks, and the Mercersburg Academy, formed a committee for the purpose of finding or providing employment for local men.  Members of the committee were the Reverend J. Graham, Dr. James G. Rose, Edwin Hoffman, Seth Steiger, Harmon B Hege, L. Lee Steiger, John L. Finafrock, Dr. Calvin A. Brown, Raymond G. House, J. A. Straley, and William E. Selser.  Members of the committee met with the Secretary of Highways, Mr. Lewis, who “assured the committee that his department would do all it was possible to do but it was found that the matter rests more with the County Commissioners as to funds for such work.”   The committee noted that about sixty men had been employed to work on Faust Street and Steiger Avenue and that the men worked in shifts in order that all of them could receive money made available by the Talbot Law.  The committee also stated that the only other public  project was work on one mile of road from Heister’s to the Montpelier School.


          As by November the situation remained difficult, local people continued to be concerned about others.  The local Red Cross, which continued its work, reported that in the past six months it had given 1634 sacks  of flour, 1500 yards of dress goods, muslin, and sheeting in addition to other items.   In mid-November Earl Rice, owner of the bowling alley on Wet Seminary Street, offered his bowling alley free of charge to the American Legion so that the Legion could operate it every evening from Thanksgiving “until after the holidays” and give the proceeds to those in need.  The Journal stated:  “The American  Legion cordially invites all of the men and women who are interested in assisting with the Charity calls this winter to enter in the spirit of the occasion  so that a goodly amount may be raised….”


          That November Hotel Mercer advertised a Thanksgiving dinner, which included fruit cocktail, soup, roast turkey and oyster dressing, mashed potatoes, sauerkraut, candied sweets, cranberry jelly, dried corn, hearts of celery, and lettuce and for dessert pumpkin pie, mince pie, cocoanut cake, fruitcake, chocolate, vanilla, caramel, strawberry, or peach ice cream for c``75, but many people could not afford it.  Nor could they afford to pay 51c for two pounds of butter, 25c a pound for Red Circle coffee, or 22c for three cans of string beans at the local A  & P.


           At the end of 1932 times remained hard.  Before Christmas  the local merchants promoted sales of their goods.    Hege and Myers advertised a washing machine for $59.75, men’s shoes for $5.00 or $6.00, and “Patent Slippers for Women” from $2.75 to $5.00,  E. D. Hawbaker advertised  7-tube Compact Atwater Kent radios for $53.50, C I. Selser in his store had for sale  10-piece walnut dining room suites for $78.00, “Mattresses, All Cotton” for $3.75, and Hoosier cabinets from “$21.00 Up,” but these items remained out of reach for many.   The Great Depression was the great challenge.

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