The Great Depression - A Turning Point For Watauga County

The Great Depression - A Turning Point For Watauga County

The Great Depression dominated the news of the 1930s not only in Watauga County, but around the world. While the Depression was the worst of times, it also marked a turning point in the history of Watauga County. When the county - and the nation emerged from the long night that began when the stock market crashed just over 70 years ago, the groundwork would be laid for a brighter future.

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Appalachia in 1930 was not a pretty sight in most areas. The great forest that had once covered the mountains was almost gone, cut by outside loggers who took all the trees and left nothing behind. Nothing, that is, except exposed topsoil, which eroded by the thousands of cubic yards, clogging streams and devastating landscapes.

The land itself was exhausted. Farmers reaped the result of generations of primitive agricultural techniques, and 150 years of corn crops. In many areas, once prosperous farms were no longer able to yield a living to the heirs of the pioneers who had first cleared the land.

Watauga County entered the 1930s with an educational system that was clearly superior to its neighbors. The Dougherty brothers had revolutionized mountain schooling, all the way from the small elementary schools to the crown jewel of the northwest, Appalachian State Teachers College.

Transportation, on the other hand, remained primitive. The hard-surfaced Boone Trail - now U.S. 421 - was the only road that could be called truly modern. The railroad provided the most reliable link to the world beyond.

In the midst of all this came the Great Depression. The effects were not felt at first, but the collapse of America's economy gradually trickled down into the rural areas. Times were already hard enough in the rural parts of the region that, as one man said, "We never noticed the Depression happened. We couldn't tell the difference."

Yet there were differences. Cash disappeared from the economy, and barter re-emerged as a standard way of life. Banks - especially the smaller, local ones - closed, some never to re-open. And Watauga County also wrestled with debt: when the crash came, the county had over $500,000 in outstanding bonds. Like many other counties, Watauga was helped to get through the period without defaulting.

Yet this darkest of times was a turning point. When Franklin Roosevelt swept into the presidency in November 1932, a revolution began. Roosevelt, and those around him, believed strongly that the federal government had a responsibility to help those in need. Though a huge number of relief programs, some successful, others failures, the Roosevelt Administration struggled to get the nation back on its feet.

For the first time ever, the Appalachian region was the recipient of major federal dollars. New buildings went up, experts on agriculture helped solve erosion and soil exhaustion problems, and electricity started to appear in rural areas. In just a few years, millions of dollars - worth billions today - poured into what was one of the poorest regions of the nation.

Perhaps the greatest impact came from electricity. The power companies - which had refused to expand into rural areas - howled when the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) began giving loans to local cooperatives. Fortunately for this region, the Roosevelt Administration took little interest in the complaints of a greedy corporate America. What would become Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp. was soon stringing wire and electrifying lines.

Almost 70 years after Roosevelt came to Washington, it is hard to imagine how popular this New York aristocrat was in the rural South. Fiddlin' John Carson, a fiddler from the mountains of north Georgia, sang,

"Hurrah for Roosevelt,
"With his heart so good and true,
"Doing all he can
"To see the farmers through."

Roosevelt came promising the nation a New Deal. For the farmers and business people of Watauga County, that New Deal became reality. The Depression, which began as the worst event in the region's history, brought in unimagined help - and laid the groundwork for today's local economy.

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