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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ethel Bowman Shockley, June 24, 1977. Interview H-0045. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Paternalism and community solidarity during the Great Depression in a southern mill town

Shockley describes what it was like to live in the mill town of Glen Raven, North Carolina, during the Great Depression. Shockley and her husband both worked in the textile mills during these years and often they only worked one to two days a week. Growing their own food in a garden was one way they were able to make ends meet during the economic crisis, but others were dependent on the generosity of Mr. Williams, the company boss. Shockley describes how Mr. Williams would bring in barrels of potatoes for the workers to share and how he didn't charge rent on company housing for the workers. The picture painted here is one of both paternalistic economic dependence and community solidarity that crossed class lines during a time of economic difficulty.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ethel Bowman Shockley, June 24, 1977. Interview H-0045. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

CLIFF KUHN:
Then the Depression came, and how were conditions in the County during the Depression? And also in Burlington?
ETHEL BOWMAN SHOCKLEY:
The County, I guess, did pretty good, because they raised their stuff. In town it was kind of hard, because people with a large family on a day or two days a week, they'd just go to the A & P or anywhere they could find something a little cheap to buy.
CLIFF KUHN:
How did it start? Did you all of a sudden go down to a day or two a week, or did you start on four and then go down to three? What happened when the Depression hit?
ETHEL BOWMAN SHOCKLEY:
Some weeks we didn't work at all, and then in some weeks maybe we'd get one day, some weeks maybe two, and things like that. And it just went on till. . .
CLIFF KUHN:
How did people survive on just a day or two a week?
ETHEL BOWMAN SHOCKLEY:
Back then you could buy meat for about five or seven cents a pound. Of course, my husband was a farmer, like; he always had his hogs and chickens, and we had our cows. My children say, "Mother, we don't know about the Depression," because we had our own food in that way.
CLIFF KUHN:
Did you have a garden?
ETHEL BOWMAN SHOCKLEY:
Yes, we had our garden stuff. But the ones who couldn't do that and didn't know how to do that, they were the ones that had it worse.
CLIFF KUHN:
Did most people know how to have a garden?
ETHEL BOWMAN SHOCKLEY:
Most everybody on the Company Hill had garden places.
CLIFF KUHN:
Where had they learned how to keep gardens?
ETHEL BOWMAN SHOCKLEY:
I guess from their forefathers and things that way. But didn't everybody have the hogs and cows and the chickens and things. That's the reason we're down here, because my husband got disabled to work, and he wanted to get out of town. That was when they decided you wasn't supposed to keep things that way in town. So we got down here and had all that place down there where the snack bar and stuff were.
CLIFF KUHN:
That was all yours?
ETHEL BOWMAN SHOCKLEY:
We could have our chickens and cows and things like that. We was down here just six months, and they put us back in the city. But we was still out far enough that we could go ahead and keep our cows.
CLIFF KUHN:
Did a lot of people come into Burlington during the Depression?
ETHEL BOWMAN SHOCKLEY:
No, a lot of people left, hunting work, during the Depression.
CLIFF KUHN:
Where did they go?
ETHEL BOWMAN SHOCKLEY:
A lot of them went up north and things that way. But the biggest majority of the people that lived in the company houses stayed on and toughed it out. Mr. Williams was real good, and he would order a carload of potatoes from out different counties. And he'd bring them in and we'd have a barrel, and we'd put in maybe a dollar or two dollars for a big old barrel of Irish potatoes.
CLIFF KUHN:
What other kinds of things did the company do during the Depression?
ETHEL BOWMAN SHOCKLEY:
During the Depression, he didn't charge us rent for our houses, and he let us have our coal real cheap. He helped us; if he hadn't, we'd never have made it.