Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The Great Depression of 1929-32 without question was one of the watershed periods in American history. Joseph Alex Morris once wrote that “people later would speak of ‘before 1929’ or ‘after 1929’ as Noah’s children may have spoken of the days before and after ‘The Flood.'” The personal deprivation and social upheaval of those times sent shock waves throughout the marrow of American society. Few areas or few people escaped unscathed or untouched. Nearly everyone felt the impact of the Great Depression.

Indiana County, Pennsylvania, like the remainder of the country, suffered the economic trials. Unlike other areas, however, Indiana County’s economy was not initially affected by the collapse in 1929. Instead, this county had suffered economically throughout the decade of the 1920’s. For Indiana was a coal mining area, and like farmers, the coal miners missed the frivolity and affluence of the “roaring 20’s.” Strikes, lay-offs, and dwindling coal production sent the economy of coal mining areas into a tailspin early in the 1920’s. In 1924, for example, the coal tonnage in Indiana County dropped by four million tons, with a corresponding lay-off of 1,315 people. Throughout that decade the statistics of growing unemployment in coal mining painted a bleak picture for the economy of the county.

The collapse of the nation’s economy in the 1930’s deepened and compounded the trials that Indiana countians were already facing. In 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, Indiana County was among the more severely affected counties in the commonwealth. A Pennsylvania Department of Labor bulletin estimated that in 1932 the unemployment rate for Indiana County was 25.4 per cent. When compared with the national unemployment rate of twelve per cent, it is evident that Indiana County was suffering badly. For miners, in particular, the statistics tell a grim story. Since 1923 the employment rate in mining in the county had declined by fifty per cent, and by 1933 only 6,558 miners were employed.

These statistics offer a measured view of the depression’s impact, but they cannot give a humanistic portrayal of the “hard times.” Only memories probed by the techniques of oral history can tell the personal costs of the depression.

One such memory recalls the scarcity of meat and foodstuffs in those years:

I remember when you couldn’t get a groundhog. You would have to go deep in the woods and dig them out. That’s how scarce they was. You couldn’t get an animal. I ate groundhog, I ate coon once. We were in the mines workin’ together, me and another man, and he give me this piece of meat, he says, “I got a piece of meat, here take some.” Here it was a coon … I ate a lot of stuff I wouldn’t eat again. I ate a lot of corn mush. I ate a lot of parsnips cooked. My livin’ was bad, compared to today. We used lard, lard was the main thing. We used it on the bread, as jelly. We used it, it was the main thing … I never bought a bottle of pop in my life. I didn’t know what it was to buy candy or pop like that … Eggs were cheap. I ate a lot of eggs. A lot of times I’d eat three eggs a day for a week. Three times each day for a week.

Another memory of a housewife also evokes the sense of personal sacrifice:

Husband was a driller for Phillips Gas and Oil. During the depression his job was shut down completely; he turned to odd jobs and worked as custodian for college [Indiana Normal School]. We lived on $68 a month for family of four. Didn’t worry me a whole lot. Sewed and made do. We did sell our car and learned to walk everywhere. … Other people lived with parents, preferred not to, but did.

Despite the deprivation and hardships, there were no riots, violent strikes or bonus marches in Indiana County. The people felt impotent and simply tried to cope on a personal level. As one person explained: “At least everyone was willing to give those in need a helping hand and we all pulled together.”

While most people in remembering those difficult years believe that Indiana escaped the worst ravages of the depression, still there are indications that Indiana County paid a terrific cost. Perhaps the best indication of the long­-range scar from the depression is the decline in population for the county. Indiana County from 1900 enjoyed a booming population growth until the 1920’s. From 1900 to 1920, the population more than doubled. But in the 1920’s as the economy worsened people moved from Indiana County so that it suffered a population decline of seven per cent. Its population continued to fluctuate but as late as 1970 the county’s population was still over a thousand fewer than its 1920 total. In terms of capital growth, consumer dollars, services and a viable tax base, Indiana County’s wealth declined. These losses can be directly link­ed to the Great Depression.

Not only was the employment growing desperate in Indiana County during the 1920-30’s. Strife between union miners and coal companies intensified. Pennsylvania coal companies in the 1920’s met new competition with southern coal fields and profits declined. In order to reduce costs, the companies cut wages and laid off miners. As unions retaliated with strikes throughout the coal fields, the coal companies sought injunctions to severely limit the unions’ activities and power. Membership in the United Mine Workers of America declined as coal operators exer­cised the upper hand. The companies broke local union organizations and threatened striking miners with dis­missals and evictions from company-owned homes.

One miner’s memories reveal the lingering resentment from those years.

In 1927 they (the coal companies] broke the union, the first union. I think it was in ’27, some­where around there. Then things started gettin’ hard, worse. The way they used to cut our wages, they’d hold a supper, about the only time you could eat a little bit. The company would hold a supper on a Saturday and they’d want all the people to go to this supper. We’d go to this supper and they’d get up and make a speech, you know, how good we all are and everything, how good the work is gonna be next year, but you’ll have to take a cut. We got to do that to compete in the market. That’s the way they cut the wages …

Not everybody suffered the same things. Certain people, I say they were smart because they kept their mouth shut, they went along with the boss, with the coal company, with the store. They didn’t have it rough. But the fellow that tried to buck, he got in trouble. They made it bad for him. They got rid of him. They didn’t have to fire you, in the coal mines, there’s bad places, there’s good places, there’s half-decent jobs, and there’s bad ones. That’s how they worked. If they wanted to get rid of you they put you in a bad place.

Franklin Roosevelt’s administration provided a more congenial atmosphere for labor unions. The famous 7 A clause of the National Industrial Recovery Act guaranteed the right to collective bargaining. John L. Lewis of the UMW was one labor leader who quickly capitalized on the pro-union spirit in the New Deal. With his membership down to 150,000 miners, Lewis launched a massive mem­bership drive in 1933 and sent Philip Murray to campaign in western Pennsylvania. Murray went into Indiana County in May, 1933, where he found an especially friendly reception. Murray spoke at the mining town of Clymer on May 14, where an estimated four thousand people braved inclement weather to attend the UMW rally. Seven hundred new members joined the UMW at that rally. Afterwards organizers followed with rallies and enlistments in other mining towns like Ernest, Homer City, Iselin and McIntyre.

John Ghizzoni, a UMW organizer in Indiana County, in reporting the outcome of this campaign to Lewis, wrote that there was “a different feeling among miners every­where; they seem to feel that they are once more free men …. ” Another miner expressed a similar view when he wrote President Roosevelt: “As Lincoln freed the Negro of the South, so has your administration freed every man and woman who toils in industry … You have delivered the miners out of the wilderness.”

Besides the personal hardships and the revival of the UMW, there was a third impact of the Great Depression on Indiana County. The depression so altered the political structure that a viable two-party system emerged in Indiana County.

Since the Civil War Indiana County had been a staunch Republican area. Except for the 1910-14 campaigns when the Republican party was divided between its progressive and conservative wings, Indiana County had voted consistently for the GOP. In 1920 the county was among the ten having the highest Republican percentages. In 1926, when the county’s favorite son, John S. Fisher, was elected governor, the county polled the highest Republican per­centage in the Commonwealth. The Republican domina­tion was so complete that all the other parties combined registered only about one-fifth of the voters.

In the 1920’s and early 1930’s the Socialist party was among the favorite minority parties in Indiana County. It attracted miners and young people who considered socialism to offer the most promising remedy for depres­sion-wracked America. One elderly lady, Florence McNutt, remembered her youthful conversion to the Socialist party in this way:

I registered Republican at that time to support Governor Pinchot because he was a conservation­ist, which I liked … but I had a cousin who was married to a doctor here in Black Lick, a Dr. Wid­dowson. They were Socialists. And when I got to talking to them and they gave me things to read. The times were so bad. People were hungry and they were giving them beans, … in 1932 I was a Socialist and I was picked by the Socialist Party here, to be a delegate to the 1932 convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Norman Thomas was nominated to be the Socialist Party’s candidate for president for the first time.

Despite the enthusiasm and activity of the young Socialists, the party strength in the county waned after 1932. Some loyal members clung dearly to their banners but the minority party registration dropped from the ten per cent range to less than one per cent. Even Mrs. McNutt conceded that in 1936 she voted for Roosevelt.

The Democratic party was beneficiary of the voters who left other minority parties to seek a more viable alternative. The Democratic party gained Republican converts, too. In 1932 the Democratic vote in Indiana County increased by 3,769 votes over its 1928 poll. In addition, Democrats won ten townships whereas in 1928 they had carried none. But the key campaign for the Indiana County Democrats was the 1934 gubernatorial campaign. In that year voter registration data revealed a sudden shift of ten per cent of the voters to the Democratic party. More significantly, the Democrats and the miners collaborated for the first time.

In 1934 the reinvigorated UMW in District 2 created a labor Non-Partisan league. Headed by John Ghizzoni, UMW organizer from Homer City, the Non-Partisan league became the political arm of the UMW in District 2. The union mobilized its membership in the gubernatorial campaign in 1934 behind the Democrat ticket because the candidate for lieutenant governor was Tom Kennedy of the UMW. For the first time a working relationship between the Democratic party and the UMW was evident throughout Pennsylvania. That linkage was also apparent in Indiana County. That autumn the Non-Partisan League and the Democrats co-sponsored political rallies at union halls around the county. When state campaigners toured the county for the Democratic ticket the Non-Partisan league sent delegates to the rallies.

Republicans were alert to the alliance between the UMW and the Democratic party in Indiana County. For the first time Republicans became more solicitous of the labor vote. “Whatever the advantages of joining a labor union may be,” exclaimed the county’s self-acclaimed most stalwart Republican newspaper, “the Democratic party has been using its labor union policy as a smoke screen while it has been mischievously tunneling under the industries by which our people live … ” Other Republican newspapers cited arguments from the National Coal Association that New Deal hydroelectric power projects would cripple the coal industry. The county GOP organization met the Democratic challenge with increased party rallies and meetings. One such meeting exemplified the increased Republican awareness of ethnicity as they advertised a GOP rally with a Polish speaker who would speak in the Polish language.

The intense political activity by the UMW aroused Democratic hopes in Indiana County. But reality does not always match expectations as the Democrats learned in 1934. The State elected a Democratic governor, which brought considerable satisfaction, but Indiana County remained a Republican bastion. Nonetheless the Republican margin of victory was a slim 1,219 votes, a marked contrast to the 4, 121-vote margin in 1932. The Democrats polled 46.1 per cent of the vote, which represented their highest poll in Indiana County in the twentieth century. To the Democrats, then, who had been accustomed to losing every campaign, the narrow defeat in 1934 was a moral victory. They had reduced the Republican margin in the county and certainly had assisted in the election of a Democratic governor. Therefore the Democratic organization felt a “victory parade” was in order for Indiana County. The Democrats paraded through down­town Indiana borough and ended with a rally at the county courthouse, where their newly-elected congressman and UMW officials addressed the party’s rank and file. Perhaps one county wheelhorse captured the spirit of the rally most precisely when he exclaimed optimistically that “Indiana County has come into civilization ‘after 40 years in the wilderness.'”

The 1936 campaign in Indiana County as in the nation was an acutely intense presidential race. Again county Democrats and labor leaders collaborated to swing the county to Roosevelt. The organizations staged a series of joint party-labor rallies at the county fairgrounds. One rally took on an especially festive note as John L. Lewis, president of the UMW, visited Indiana County to speak on behalf of labor and the Roosevelt administration. Recognizing the closeness of the campaign in Indiana County, John Ghizzoni solicited Lewis’ assistance in urging miners to vote for Roosevelt. The rally opened with a parade through Indiana borough and climaxed with Lewis’ address. The press estimated that 20,000 people attended the rally.

The active campaigning by all organizations resulted in a record turnout of 84.6 per cent of the voters. Despite all their preparations, activity and expectations, the labor­Democratic coalition failed to break the Republican grip on Indiana County. Republicanism was too deeply im­bedded in the minds and hearts and habits of Indiana countians. Still, a considerable political transformation had occurred in the county. The New Deal political revolution had extended to rural Pennsylvania and Indiana County. The county enjoyed a healthier political system with two competitive parties.

Politically and economically, the institutions of Indiana County underwent modification as a result of the Great Depression. A stronger two-party system emerged and unions played a vital role in the county’s labor relations. Personally, for Indiana countians as for people elsewhere, the Great Depression caused personal sacrifices and crushed individual dreams. Indeed, those were special times in American history and the impact is still evident. But we should recognize, too, that the people who lived through those years were a special generation and their accomplish­ments left a noble legacy.


Dr. W. Wayne Smith is a member of the history depart­ment of Indiana University of Pennsylvania.