An Appalachian New Deal: West Virginia in the Great Depression

By Dougan, Michael B. | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Autumn 1999 | Go to article overview

An Appalachian New Deal: West Virginia in the Great Depression


Dougan, Michael B., The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


An Appalachian New Deal: West Virginia in the Great Depression. By Jerry Bruce Thomas. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998. Pp. x, 316. Acknowledgment, introduction, illustrations, photographs, notes, bibliography, index. $36.95.)

The Great Depression is the central event shaping American life in the twentieth century. More dramatic than industrialization in the nineteenth, the Depression left a political legacy still controversial today. For far too long the event has been treated as a national phenomenon, although each region of America was affected differently. When state boundaries crossed regions, anomalous conditions defying easy analysis resulted.

In the twentieth century West Virginia has suffered from bipolar depression. One pole was its coal miners. Coal mining arrived in the late nineteenth century in competition with the established fields of Pennsylvania. West Virginia led the way in developing that system of southern industrialization popularized by Mississippi and copied in Arkansas that promised lower costs by being union-free. Soon absentee mine owners controlled the state government, owned most of the press, and dominated many counties through their deputy sheriffs. The New Deal experienced real troubles in coping with the over-production of coal, though its labor legislation allowed John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers to carry on a successful campaign of union recruitment.

The other depressed pole of West Virginia was agriculture. Mostly of the small, self-sufficient variety, West Virginia farmers had to endure the Drought of 1930 and then faced collapsing prices. When the Depression cut off the outside income from timbering or working in small coal mines that had helped sustain life on worn out, eroded land, West Virginia agriculture became a disaster area. Compounding the problem, thousands of ex-residents returned to their former homes, and the number of farmers actually increased during the Depression. Agriculture, too, was not well served by New Deal programs. Some experimental communities were set up, but the day of subsistence farming had already passed. In probably no southern state did the Rural Electrification Agency lose more battles to power companies.

Indeed, the entire sorry saga of Depression-era West Virginia ranks as the worst in the South. The state's geography created isolated communities, and in-grown politics, and generally retarded modernization. The dominant coal companies prevented the adoption of severance taxes and starved government services generally. Arkansas readers may take some solace that "The Wonder State" ranked above West Virginia in public libraries and other signs of progress. …

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