Vol. VII, No. 3, Spring 1994


"When The Big Change Came In Here"

by Robert Flanders




A Shannon County, Missouri, resident called it "The Big Change." In a 1970's interview, she said repeatedly, "Now when the big change come in here," such-and-such happened. She made "The Big Change" a proper noun, the name of a major happening. From the context, I knew she was talking about the time of the Great Depression. I finally asked, "What was 'The Big Change'?" She paused a moment, then said, "Son, if you don't already know, I don't see rightly how I could explain it to you!" The Big Change was basic. It was big. It changed things. I believe she might have used the word "modernization" if she had had it; for that, I believe, is what she meant.

On a 1977 Ozarks Studies field trip, overnight accommodations were in upscale condos at Cherokee Village, Arkansas. The heat of July made everyone sweaty, and the spacious air conditioned expensively furnished dwelling was welcome after the school bus. My housemates were three young men and the father of one of them, a traditional Ozarker. The boys appeared after showers in crisp shorts and T-shirts. Dad came out in overalls and undershirt, sock feet buried in the deep carpet. He stopped in the middle of the room, looked around at the unfamiliar luxury and said with mock gravity, "I never knowed it before, but I'm poor!" The Great Depression of the 1930's and the national response to it may have had a similar effect on many Ozarkers. They found out that they were "poor," had always been poor, but had never known it before then.

The Great Depression was an event in the Ozarks, as it was across the nation and the world. But its effect here was sometimes different than elsewhere. R.B. Mullinix in "On the Feed Dock of Burlison's Store, awaiting Jim Owens' showing of Hoot Gibson and the Sheriff's Daughter" says that the Good Ol' Boys on the feed store loading dock in Omaha, Arkansas disagreed about what had happened--or indeed if anything very unusual had happened. In "Winds of Change Blew Over the Ozarks," Kathleen Van Buskirk says that though people may not have known what to make of them, big changes were afoot.

"The Depression" in economic terms meant massive layoffs from wage-paying jobs; steep declines in commodity prices, including everything farmers marketed; massive foreclosures on farms, homes, and businesses; the failure and closing of thousands of banks causing the loss of depositors money; a collapse of the real estate market; and the slowing of almost all business activity to a crawl. How did such economic events impact the Ozarks? The answer depends on the extent to which individual families, particular counties, different sub-regions, were "in business.'' Everyone who sold something in order to make a living was effected. Prices plummeted as buyers stopped buying. Towns and townspeople suffered acutely.

Lacking business income, employers laid off workers. Businesses failed, ending all jobs. A "contraction of the currency" occurred, meaning in practical terms that money seemed almost to disappear. Few people had any, or could get any. As farm commodity prices fell, farmers tried to sell more by increasing production, increasing the oversupply glut and depressing prices even more.

Who was least effected by these events in our region? And where? Those least involved in business, in those areas with the fewest products for sale. In other words, people and places already poor, already (or still) virtually outside the national economy.

The very survival into the second third of the twentieth century of such people and places defined the Ozarks to the outside world. Those who produced their own food, sawed their own stove wood, cut their own house logs, even made their own clothes, were at once independent of the depression and very poor by modern standards.

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Most Ozarkers were somewhere between the towns people totally dependent on the money economy and the rural folks mostly independent of it. Dean Wiley's "These Were the Good Old Days" provides an insight into the life of a "middling" farm family. Though they were in northwest Missouri at the time, their experience was probably not unlike that of many Ozarkers in similar circumstances.

The proposition of this issue is that the Great Depression, dated roughly 1930-1942, was not only an event, but the marker of an epoch that wrought historic changes in the Ozarks. Thus the title, "In The Time of the Depression." Certain facts about that time include a great drought, degradation of the natural and human environments, and the introduction by government of conservation and development projects that changed the Ozarks for the better.

That the Ozarks is a fragile region in its geology and ecosystems was a fact not understood by most people until recently. Resident natives who inhabited and drew their sustenance from its land had little experience with or interest in any conservation of nature. Between the Civil War and World War I, a growing population coupled with the commercial and industrial exploitation of soil, game, timber, and minerals caused a depletion and decline of all those resources. By the time the post-World War I agricultural depression hit, 1919-1921, the Ozarks was already a much impoverished land. Then in 1927 and 1928, much of the vast Mississippi River watershed, including the Ozarks, was devastated by floods. (The destruction of commercial cotton lands downstream from Ozarks rivers triggered federal plans for flood control that resulted in the Corps of Engineer dams built here from the 1940's to the 1970's.)

These disasters were followed in the 1930's by years of the worst drought in memory. The total effect was of biblical proportion. Commercial apple orchards, the basis for an industry along rail lines since the nineteenth century, were wiped out. "Ever-flowing'' springs dried up. The "wet seasons" became dry. Winters were warm, autumns and springs hot. Summers were searing. Animals died for lack of food, even lack of water. Gardens could not survive June. Rural people, trying to feed themselves, often fared poorly in the effort.

At the same time, newcomers arrived in the Ozarks. They were refugees from urban unemployment, desperate to survive the crisis. The population swelled in the time of the Depression, just when regional resources and a national economy were least able to support it. Most were returnees, daughters and sons of Ozarks farm families who had left for city jobs during the war am the industrial boom of the 1920's. Some were like my own family, who departed Kansas City not because my father was unemployed but because he was overwhelmed by the Great Depression emotionally and intellectually.

In those dark years, though, changes ,were wrought in the Ozarks that altered the region for good. Events with lasting impact of the time of the Depression were those achieved by what the Old Ozarker (a.k.a. Springfield columnist Dale Freeman) called "the damguvmint." The "events" the damguvmint brought were jobs in various work programs--PWA, WPA, SCS, and especially CCC. Though the programs themselves were often scorned and heaped with abuse, the jobs and the cash they provided were a godsend. The human side of the CCC camps at Shell Knob, Missouri, is well told by Steve Ilium in "CCC Days at the Shell Knob Camp." Illum writes from interviews conducted at recent reunions of Shell Knob's CCC veterans.

The programs themselves were building and conserving programs. Probably few people realized at the time the lasting effects they accomplished. Jim Denny's "The New Deal, The CCC, and Missouri State Parks" offers a definitive treatment of the historic structures raised in Missouri's new, raw, state parks by the CCC under the direction of National Park Service architects and supervisors. Bob Gilmore's photo essay provides graphic evidence of the range of public buildings raised across the Ozarks by government-run works programs of the 1930's. Linda Myers-Phinney's "Before Welfare: Poor Relief in Douglas County, Missouri," reminds us that local government was involved with "relief" long before the 1930's.

In the time of the Depression Ozarkers began--one might better say speeded up---a revolution of expectations. They were changing their collective mind about the acceptability, if not the bearableness, of hardship. In truth, the Dad of the anecdote at the beginning of this article was not poor, at least not by the 1970's. He left for California in the 1940's and made enough money---to return to the Ozarks.

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