And a Time for Hope: Americans in the Great Depression

By James R. McGovern | Go to book overview
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5

Small Worlds Sustained

That those living on farms, in small towns, and county seats embedded in farming areas were relatively calm in the 1930s was one of the most impressive findings of the investigators of the Depression's reverberations across the nation. Although feeling the effects of the Depression, sometimes even dependent on garden produce and small business sales of farm women for butter, eggs, and poultry, rural Americans generally managed, despite uneven New Deal benefits, to maintain themselves without radicalism or cries of desperation. 1 Since nearly one-half of Americans (49.1%) still lived in communities of less than 8,000 in 1930, with 45% living in rural territory (less than 2,500), their number is critically important in explaining the response of Americans to the Depression. Yet, we have not effectively credited this information. 2 Perhaps the impression of declining rural life in the twentieth century is so pervasive that we underestimate its ongoing strengths. Rapid growth in American cities since the 1930s and the consequent urban domination of rural life may have confirmed our misunderstandings. There is also no denying the formidable challenges that threatened the integrity of rural life in the 1930s: the depopulation of rural villages, increasing impingement of national culture on rural small-town life, or growing restiveness among rural youth. It is historically correct, however, to acknowledge rural culture's formidable residual strengths in the 1930s as well. These included values and practices so integral to rural life that they helped sustain its people during the Depression and thereby contributed importantly to the equanimity of the nation.

Farm families and persons and their suppliers in nearby rural communities in the 1930s lived quite differently from their predecessors a generation earlier. In 1900, farmers spent more time at home or with farm neighbors

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