Tough Times and Lasting Legacies: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and Centre County
Presented by the Centre County Historical Society in 2008.
Pennsylvania’s history as an industrial leader made it especially vulnerable to the economic breakdown that epitomized the 1930s and the Great Depression. Within four years of the stock market crash of 1929, national unemployment reached 25%, but in Pennsylvania it was a staggering 37% pushing 1.4 million people into joblessness and poverty.
Centre County was nearly a microcosm of the Commonwealth, as its diverse geographical regions supported 102 businesses and industries including coal, lumber, brick, stone, and textile production. In 1928 they provided $3.5 million in wages to Centre County workers, but by 1932 that value fell by half when 30% of the workforce was unemployed.
The competition for jobs increased and the pressure endured by businesses, especially small business that provided “luxuries”, often resulted in bankruptcy. By the end of the Great Depression, Centre County lost a quarter of all its business establishments including four of its five laundries, it’s only sporting goods manufacturer, and six ice cream parlors.
Scholars continue to study and debate the factors that led to the worst economic event of the 20th century, but the federal and state response to it is an even more complex topic. Herbert Hoover was defeated in the presidential election of 1932 on the basis that he did not acknowledge or respond quickly enough to the spiraling economy or the widespread suffering it caused. Franklin Delano Roosevelt evicted him from the White House in a landslide victory and took office in March 1933 under his pledge to create “…a new deal for the American people.”
It seemed everyone, including Congress, wanted a change and within 100 days of taking office Roosevelt won 15 major legislative approvals. Some of the New Deal’s experimental programs failed but the legacy of others continues to surround us. The Civilian Conservation Corps, Public Works Administration, Works Progress Administration, and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration provided government financed programs that created buildings, roads, landscapes and direct employment locally. State assistance through the General Spending Authority also granted the Pennsylvania State University the funds to build 9 new buildings in 1937, priming it to become the second largest college in Pennsylvania by 1939. Its expansion resulted in a measure of economic stability to State College and with it, the growth that would for the first time surpass Bellefonte as a population center of the county.
The Centre County Historical Society commemorates the 75th anniversary of the New Deal with a look at the Great Depression and its effect on Centre County residents. Throughout this exhibit we explore local business and industry and the general climate in which they operated, providing a greater understanding of Centre County as we know it today. Indeed, the voices and forces of the past seem to have an echo quality in the challenges we are even now facing as a nation, commonwealth and county, some 75 years after the New Deal era.
View the exhibition panels below or download here.