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Letters from the Field: June 11, 1934

Letters from the Field: Reports on the State of the Nation

Lorena Hickok, Jounalist
Lorena Hickok, Jounalist

 Editor’s Note: In 1933 Harry Hopkins, Director of the Federal Emergency Relief Organization, asked journalist Lorena Hickok to travel through the United States and report on the state of the nation. Hickok was in the Tennessee Valley during June, 1934, and sent two reports to Hopkins recording her impression of the local scene and the local reaction to TVA. This is the second of those reports.

From Lorena Hickok
To Harry L. Hopkins
Enroute, Memphis to Denver, June 11, 1934

Dear Mr. Hopkins:

As you can see, I’ve finished my trip through the Tennessee Valley and adjacent territory and am on my way to Colorado and the sugar beets.

I wound up this last weekend in Memphis, where I saw several kinds of people, including:

One wealthy cotton man and banker who gives the impression that he thinks all tenants are lazy beggars and should be treated as serfs and would rather see the price of cotton stay down at 5 cents a pound forever than be boosted with Government control and Government insistence on any sort of fair play for share-croppers and laborers.

The local political boss, who assured me that everything was just too hunky dory, but who wasn’t at all enthusiastic about the possibility of 3,000 transients now in Memphis remaining there forever.

A flock of social workers, who would like to see Tennessee have a good, strong public welfare department and are, they said, working toward that end, but whose approach to the relief problem is so typical of the old line social worker, supported by private philanthropy and looking down his–only usually it was HER–nose at God’s patient poor, that it made me gag a little.

The conservative editor of the conservative Memphis Commercial-Appeal, who thinks we’ve got a big rural relief load that will stay on our hands forever, if we don’t drop ’em pretty soon, and who wonders if the people down in Tupelo, Mississippi, who are now getting their electricity for one third of what it used to cost them, aren’t going to have to make up for it later on in higher taxes.

And the liberal editor of the Scripps-Howard newspaper, who thinks the New Dealers aren’t aggressive enough–don’t do enough propagandizing.

One thing I’ve noticed particularly. That is that people outside the relief business aren’t thinking much about it. They are more like they used to be last summer, when things were booming and, if they were conscious of relief at all, they were bored by it — not critical, just bored. CWA apparently aroused public interest in relief for a time. Now that’s gone, and they’ve lapsed back into indifference. The comment you usually hear is, “You’ve got a lot of people on relief who are there to stay as long as you’ll let ’em.” And that’s all they have to say. No criticism. No commendation. They’re just indifferent.

On this trip I’ve tried not to be too preoccupied with relief. I’ve tried to find out what the people as a whole are thinking about–people who are at work. I carry away the impression that all over the area, from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Tupelo, Mississippi, and on up to Memphis and Nashville, people are in a pretty contented, optimistic frame of mind. They just aren’t thinking about the Depression any more. They feel that we are on our way out and toward any problems that have to be solved before we get out their attitude seems to be, “Let Roosevelt do it.”

They are strong for the President. They seem to have absolute confidence in him. Their attitude toward the rest of the New Dealers seems to be one of good natured tolerance — so long as they themselves are not hampered by any of the New Dealers’ policies. They didn’t take Dr. Wirt seriously at all. When I asked the political boss in Memphis what people thought about the Brains Trust, he grinned and replied:

“Oh, just a necessary evil, I guess.”

Outside of one town, there isn’t any particularly militant labor leadership in Tennessee, apparently. So Toledo, the threatened steel strike, the labor difficulties elsewhere in the textile industry, and troubles down around Birmingham seem to make little impression in Tennessee. You don’t see much evidence of restlessness.

There apparently isn’t much among the people on relief, either. That may be due to the fact that in Tennessee the number of skilled workmen and white collar people on relief is relatively small. The load is largely rural, of a class of people whose incomes normally and whose standards of living are so low that relief does not seem inadequate to them at all. They are quite satisfied with it. The problem is going to be getting them off.

Everywhere, even though the relief loads remain large, you hear the same story. Business has picked up. Retail sales and advertising in Memphis, for instance. I was told that no city in the South has received greater benefits from the cotton program than has Memphis, a shipping and trading center. Down in Tupelo everybody seems to be feeling grand. Garment factories and a textile mill are going peacefully along under the code, the Chamber of Commerce is getting inquiries from industries attracted there by the low power rate, and the proprietor of a 38-room hotel relates with satisfaction how she operates her hotel, with lights, fans in all rooms, two vacuum cleaners, two electric irons, refrigerator, and radio with an electric bill of around $20 a month.

Incidentally there are now in Tupelo six companies selling electric equipment, including both the expensive kinds and the new, cheaper models put out by the manufacturers in agreement with TVA. They say that in 17 days, after the new models were brought in, 137 refrigerators were sold and 17 ranges–that one dealer sold in one week 21 units, i.e., stoves or refrigerators.

Differences in prices between the regular equipment and the new models, not quite so deluxe, run something like this: electric refrigerators, top standard price $137, new price $80; hot water heaters, top standard price around $95, new top price $60; ranges, top standard price $137, new top price $80.

When I was in Tupelo they had no figures to show just how much electric equipment had been sold, but I was impressed with the figures of one dealer, who handles only the high priced stuff. In less than a month he had sold ten refrigerators and five ranges. And Tupelo is only a small town, about 6,000 population.

It is still a little early to see what the new electric rate is going to do for householders and farmers in and around Corinth and Tupelo. I went down there thinking perhaps I could see some urban housewives and farm wives actually using the electric refrigerators and stoves that they’d never have had in their lives if it hadn’t been for TVA. But it hasn’t reached that class yet. New wiring is just being begun–10 miles of it in Tupelo! But it’s going along. Dealers say they are taking orders from farmers right along. One thing they are doing is to cut down greatly the cost of wiring a house. For instance, in Tupelo it used to cost as high as $60 to have an electric stove installed in your house. It now costs $5

Even though I was disappointed in not being able to find in Tupelo and the surrounding country housewives using electric equipment that they had never expected to have, I felt that my trip was not in vain. Private industry, to a large extent, in Tupelo has actually tried out the subsistence homestead idea! And it seems to work!

It began back in 1923 with one garment factory, the management of which adopted a policy of hiring only workers who lived out in the country, on their own little farms. The movement spread. There are in Tupelo two garment factories and a textile mill that employ a total of around 2,000 people, and of these, I was told, only 700 or 800 live in town. Busses collect the workers from their farms, averaging around 15 acres each, every morning and bring them to work. And each evening take them home. As a matter of fact, they are school busses. They bring the workers into town first, then take the children to school, and in the afternoon they take the children home and then come after the workers.

People generally around Tupelo are pretty keen about the idea after having seen it in operation for several years. Relief workers told me that very, very few of the workers who lived that way had appeared on the relief rolls. One young man, a clerical worker in one of the garment factories, told me how it works out for him. He has a 10-acre farm, about three miles from town. Has a cow, some pigs and chickens, garden, some pasturage, a good comfortable house. Raises practically everything he eats.

“As a matter of fact,” he said, “except for what I pay out for clothes and the upkeep of my car, the salary I earn here in the factory is just about all net profit! And I’ve got the place, all clear of debt, to go to if anything happens to my job.”

They are setting up near Tupelo a subsistence homestead unit to which no one will be admitted who hasn’t a job. Most of them are employed in the garment factories. Well, at least those people have a reasonably good chance of being able to pay their way out….

I think perhaps the most interesting person I’ve met this last week was the Scripps-Howard editor in Memphis. He’s sold, heart and soul, on the Roosevelt program. But he’s worried.

The thing that bothers him most is the ignorance, the lack of understanding, on the part of the general public of what we’re up against and what we’re trying to do.

To begin with, he thinks, most people still don’t understand that this is no ordinary depression. The part that technological development plays in it just hasn’t sunk in on people generally at all, he thinks. And I’m inclined to agree with him

Now, he says, with business picking up due largely to heroic effort on the part of the New Dealers, the businessmen who aren’t actually fighting the New Deal have settled back into a comfortable complacency, lulled off to sleep by improvement in their own particular situations. People ARE so damned lazy mentally. They WON’T think.

“Take our cotton planters and our merchants here in Memphis,” he said. “They are a lot better off than they were a year ago. So, aside from kicking a little about Government expense, they’re perfectly contented as long as they aren’t interfered with. They have no conception at all of the problem or of what Roosevelt is trying to do.

“Now all really thoughtful people realize that things are never going to be the same again. They’ve got to change – they ARE changing – whether we like it or not. And if Roosevelt isn’t able to bring about that change in an orderly fashion, it’s going to happen the other way, with a lot of disorder and suffering.

I feel that the Administration is falling down, badly, in not getting this over to the public. We’ve got to sell the public the idea that this change is coming – that it’s bound to come – and that Roosevelt is the boy who is going to put it over with the least amount of suffering for everybody.”

“Well, how are you going to propagandize with most of the newspapers of the country agin you?” I demanded.

“It will have to be clever propaganda, concealed propaganda – propaganda in ‘made news,'” he said. “This is a democracy. Our government can’t put over propaganda the way they do in Russia and in Germany. It can’t suppress news. We don’t want any censorship. But you can put propaganda over in the news. What’s happened to Charley Michelson, by the way? He did exactly that thing all through the Hoover administration, didn’t he? That was destructive propaganda, tearing the Hoover administration to pieces. Now we want the same thing, only constructive instead of destructive. I don’t care how anti-administration the newspapers are, they’re going to print news and don’t you forget it. What we’ve got to do is to give ’em the right kind of news.”

And, with 20 years’ background in the newspaper business myself, may I add that we must slip over this propaganda sugar-coated with news, so they don’t realize it’s propaganda they’re getting. That is what Charley Michelson did during the Hoover administration as a matter of fact.

You certainly don’t hear much about the drouth down here. We are now traveling through Arkansas, and the country looks grand. They’re harvesting, winter wheat apparently. Cornfields look good, and the stock is fat.

Well, despite drouth and pig-headed capitalists and labor leaders, people who don’t have to be on relief but want to, and people who have to be on relief and hate it, the machine that takes jobs away from men, stupidity and indifference on the part of the public toward what we are trying to do, and all the other things there are to worry about–it’s funny, but I believe that probably in many large areas of the United States right now go percent of the people are perfectly happy and contented, working along, thinking, as Rex Tugwell says, “mostly about baseball and the races!”

That’s probably true in much of the territory I covered in my last trip before this one. Only I stuck too close to the relief picture, I guess, and couldn’t see anything else.

Source: Hickok, Lorena, “Letters from the Field: Reports on the State of the Nation,” New Deal Network, (April 18, 2014).