CHARLTON COUNTY’S GREAT DEPRESSION
Jack R. Mays, Charlton County, Ga. Historian
The year was 1938. The Great Depression was in its ninth agonizing year and still Charlton County’s commercial district in the county site, Folkston, resembled most small towns in the dust belt, dirt and sandy roads, unkempt business houses and cattle and hogs running at large through the town’s main business district.
The 1938 graduating class at Charlton County High School included Jewel Mizell Hopkins Kopp and the late W.R. (Bob) Allen, Jr.
The “New Deal” policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt had begun to trickle down to the county with the CCC Camps, the building of the John Harris Junior High School building on the Kingsland Highway, courthouse jobs that sent one of the town’s once powerful businessmen, bank president and hotel owner, Ben Scott to work in the Clerk of Court’s office as a menial filing clerk.
He had lost everything he once possessed except a run-down home just behind his once-prosperous Arnold Hotel. Scott however, had not lost his pride. He would walk to the courthouse to work every day with a freshly ironed shirt, neck tie and starched britches, his head held high, and he must have thought of what once had been.
While passing Stapleton’s Drug Store on his way to work, he could glance back over his head to see the now-one-story former pride of Folkston’s spectacular hotels with its well-appointed dining room, its ground floor now filled with struggling merchants trying to eke out a living in a town that had no money.
Ben Scott was not the only one that had fallen from riches to poverty in the on-going great depression that began in 1929. President Roosevelt’s financial recovery program had begun to pour meager financial aid to the county. In 1933 the federal government had sent the county payments totaling $1400.
Of this, the county paid out to unemployed workers fifty cents per day; later directives ordered minimum pay of thirty cents per hour to be instituted from the funds to the laborers.
Near St. George the CCC Camp there paid out $1500 to recruits, who opened fire breaks and roads; and to vendors, allowing 32 cents each day for food. Two hundred CCC employees there shared in the federal pay out. It was estimated that the camp near St. George required approximately $1500 per month for maintenance and the two hundred employees.
In Charlton County the County Commissioners instituted a “paupers list” to help some in the county with their expenses. The maximum monthly allowance was five dollars, with most being paid three dollars a month. Their names would appear in the minutes and newspaper releases from the commission office.
Tom Wrench, white-haired editor and publisher of the county’s weekly newspaper, The Charlton County Herald, in each weekly edition, berated the county commission for inaction in applying for more CCC Camps; a suggestion that finally got through to the commission members who, then applied for additional CCC Camps.
Wrench was a strong-voiced, veteran newspaper man and offended many, but agitated for what he thought the community needed. More CCC Camps erected their tent cities in Folkston and Homeland and had no problems at all of filling out the employee rosters.
In the hard times of the great depression. Charlton County failed to collect much of its property taxes, placing the operations of the county government and the Board of Education in jeopardy. Editor Wrench, hearing the rumors that the county’s schools would close because of no money, asked John Harris, the wiry county superintendent of schools about the issue. Harris told Wrench. “Unless funds can be raised to meet November and December payrolls, there seems to be nothing else we can do.”
When pressed by Wrench as to why the school board could not borrow the money to meet the payrolls, Harris replied “Simply because we have already borrowed all that it is safe to borrow” Harris continued, “To borrow beyond our ability to pay would only make bad matters worse”, the school man continued, his face drawn and wrinkled as Wrench continued his questions.
On a federal level, Roosevelt’s New Deal Program poured money into the state highway department. Each county was asked to define six projects that needed federal funding. John Harris, the school superintendent, suggested remodeling the old Folkston High School building and adding music room, library and a gymnasium.
The project was approved and paid for by the federal government, as was the construction of the John Harris Junior High School building on Kingsland Drive. (A project that cost the federal government $35,000.) Still, the Charlton County schools, facing closure because of non-payment of county property taxes and the resulting failure to fund the school board budget, temporarily solved its problems as teams of businessmen and women teamed up with the county tax collector, going out to the delinquent tax payers and collecting much of the past due property taxes.
On several occasions as this collection drive was underway, businessmen of the county personally loaned the school board the money to meet the payroll of school teachers.
The financial problems of the nation not only affected the national government, but showed a devastating picture of the business district of Folkston.
The Main Street, then U.S. Highway One, was anchored on the west by the Dixie Café, one of the town’s most popular eateries. Meals were fifty cents that included meat, two vegetables, a drink, a dessert and a great big “Thank You.”
Down stairs in the Masonic Building was the town’s post office and next door was the community sewing room where the ladies made dresses, mattress covers and other products, all on the federal government programs.
Charlie Passieu’s Chevrolet dealership looked run down with gasoline pumps on the front facing the Dixie Highway. It was later adjoined on the east side by the Ritz Theater, the town’s only recreational outlet, and then Stapleton’s Drug Store and Gowen Brothers grocery store.
Some of the better jobs in town were supervising the handing out of federal government jobs and foodstuffs.
Ben Scott’s son, Arnold, supervised the free commodity food depot, a run-down shanty to the rear of the courthouse. On the north side of the street was the “Johnson House”, another dilapidated two-story home. Leonard O’Cain’s Fish Market and a palm reader’s shack.
Those traveling along the Dixie Highway through Folkston could hardly wait until they had exited the town of less than a thousand people.
But, it was not just the physical look of the uninspiring town. It was the look of depression on their faces…no jobs to go to, no money to send the nickel-a-day to the schools for their kids to eat in the school cafeteria.
This dreadful picture began when the stock market crashed in October of 1929, even though moderating, until the outbreak of World War Two in 1941 when the nation geared up for war and decent jobs and wages once again swelled the pockets of the residents of Charlton County.