Depression hit Augusta early

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Workers at an Augusta textile mill line up at the "pay cart" in this photo taken around 1932, during the Great Depression. Augusta's mill workers benefited from a federal program that boosted wages from as low as $6 per week to as much as $12.

The Great Depression that took the country by surprise in 1929 wasn't nearly as much of a surprise here in Augusta.

"For many Augustans, the Depression began personally long before the stock market crashed," said Lee Ann Caldwell, the director of Augusta State University's Center for the Study of Georgia History. "There was already a major problem with the boll weevil in this area."

Cotton was the South's economic engine, and Augusta was a regional hub. In the decade that followed the arrival of the boll weevil around 1915, Georgia's cotton crop was cut nearly in half.

"As the cotton crop began to fail, that had a spiraling effect on the economy of the area and ultimately led to more problems in the textile mills of the area," she said.

As the Depression unfolded in the early 1930s, the stage was already set for worsening problems.

Dr. Ed Cashin, Augusta's late historian and author of The Story of Augusta, summed it up this way:

"For the first time since this story of Augusta began, the zest went out of things. The mart no longer bustled, enterprise was discouraged, the vision of empire was lost, the Old South was a legend and the promises of the New South sounded hollow."

Augusta, he continued, had always prided itself on its ability to solve its own problems. But those problems had become far too great to solve without help. "Cotton prices were depressed, banks were failing and unemployment was rampant."

Augustans tried to cope with the Depression by creating an Emergency Relief Committee that raised $30,000 and created jobs for 4,300 people in 1931 and 1932, Dr. Cashin wrote. Storefronts along Broad Street were decorated with the blue eagle posters of the National Recovery Administration, with the words, "We Do Our Part."

The New Deal brought dollars to Augusta in the form of public works projects that included New Savannah Bluff Lock & Dam, completed in 1937. The Clarks Hill dam and lake project was approved in 1936, when Congress approved $21.2 million toward its construction.

Walton Way was paved, the airport was expanded, Olmstead Homes and Sunset Homes -- the city's first public housing centers -- were built and opened. Bell Auditorium was built with a $170,000 Works Progress Administration grant and a $200,000 bond issue.

Also under the national recovery program, mill wages were boosted from as low as $6 per week to $12, and agreements were forged to limit workers to 40 hours per week, and to stop hiring children younger than 16.

One of the lingering impacts of the Depression was a positive one, said Dr. Caldwell.

A Florida businessman named Commodore J. Perry Stoltz had announced plans to build a huge hotel on the Fruitland Nursery property on Washington Road, and the development plan called for razing an old plantation home on the property.

The combined effects of a coastal hurricane and the Depression wiped out the capital for the project, and in 1930, Fruitlands was resold for $70,000 to a group that developed the Augusta National Golf Club.

The first Masters Tournament was held there in 1934. The old plantation home, thus, was saved from demolition and survives today at the Augusta National clubhouse.

Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119 or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.