The Great Depression

A Turning Point For Watauga County

The Great Depression dominated the news of the 1930s not only in Watauga County, but around the world. While the Depression was the worst of times, it also marked a turning point in the history of Watauga County. When the county - and the nation - Transportation remained primitive in the 30semerged from the long night that began when the stock market crashed just over 70 years ago, the groundwork would be laid for a brighter future.

Appalachia in 1930 was not a pretty sight in most areas. The great forest that had once covered the mountains was almost gone, cut by outside loggers who took all the trees and left nothing behind. Nothing, that is, except exposed topsoil, which eroded by the thousands of cubic yards, clogging streams and devastating landscapes.

The land itself was exhausted. Farmers reaped the result of generations of primitive agricultural techniques, and 150 years of corn crops. In many areas, once prosperous farms were no longer able to yield a living to the heirs of the pioneers who had first cleared the land.

Watauga County entered the 1930s with an educational system that was clearly superior to its neighbors. The Dougherty brothers had revolutionized mountain schooling, all the way from the small elementary schools to the crown jewel of the northwest, Appalachian State Teachers College.

Transportation, on the other hand, remained primitive. The hard-surfaced Boone Trail - now U.S. 421 - was the only road that could be called truly modern. The railroad provided the most reliable link to the world beyond.

In the midst of all this came the Great Depression. The effects were not felt at first, but the collapse of America's economy gradually trickled down into the rural areas. Times were already hard enough in the rural parts of the region that, as one man said, "We never noticed the Depression happened. We couldn't tell the difference."

Yet there were differences. Cash disappeared from the economy, and barter re-emerged as a standard way of life. Banks - especially the smaller, local ones - closed, some never to re-open. And Watauga County also wrestled with debt: when the crash came, the county had over $500,000 in outstanding bonds. Like many other counties, Watauga was helped to get through the period without defaulting.

Yet this darkest of times was a turning point. When Franklin Roosevelt swept into the presidency in November 1932, a revolution began. Roosevelt, and those around him, believed strongly that the federal government had a responsibility to help those in need. Though a huge number of relief programs, some successful, others failures, the Roosevelt Administration struggled to get the nation back on its feet.

For the first time ever, the Appalachian region was the recipient of major federal dollars. New buildings went up, experts on agriculture helped solve erosion and soil exhaustion problems, and electricity started to appear in rural areas. In just a few years, millions of dollars - worth billions today - poured into what was one of the poorest regions of the nation.

Perhaps the greatest impact came from electricity. The power companies - which had refused to expand into rural areas - howled when the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) began giving loans to local cooperatives. Fortunately for this region, the Roosevelt Administration took little interest in the complaints of a greedy corporate America. What would become Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp. was soon stringing wire and electrifying lines.

Almost 70 years after Roosevelt came to Washington, it is hard to imagine how popular this New York aristocrat was in the rural South. Fiddlin' John Carson, a fiddler from the mountains of north Georgia, sang,

Hurrah for Roosevelt, "With his heart so good and true, "Doing all he can "To see the farmers through."

Roosevelt came promising the nation a New Deal. For the farmers and business people of Watauga County, that New Deal became reality. The Depression, which began as the worst event in the region's history, brought in unimagined help - and laid the groundwork for today's local economy.

Blue Ridge Parkway

A Source of Excitement In Region Throughout Decade

President Franklin Roosevelt was only in office a few months when Sen. Harry F. Byrd of Virginia made a radical suggestion to him: build a highway connecting the Great Smoky Mountains and Shennandoah National Parks.

hat meeting sparked a controversy that pitted Tennesee against North Carolina in the quest for what would become the Blue Ridge Parkway. When the dust settled, North Carolina - and especially the High Country - emerged the winner.

The idea of a park-to-park highway existed at least as early as 1930, and others proposed it before Byrd. But the politically savvy and powerful Virginia senator had the means to make it a reality. There was little question of how the road should run in Virginia. The great debate that ensued once the Roosevelt Administration committed to the project was over whether it should then run into Tennessee or North Carolina. Even before it was built, people realized the Parkway would be a major economic boon to whatever area received it. The competition was fierce.

The final decision lay in the hands of Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. He had a tough choice. Both sides lobbied hard, and his attempts to get an impartial view came back that the two choices were almost evenly matched. A showdown hearing in Washington on Sept. 18, 1934, left the both sides feeling victory was within their grasp.

On Nov. 10, 1934, Ickes issued his decision in letters to the governors of North Carolina and Tennessee. After months of study, he opted for the North Carolina route. He spelled out the reasons, including the fact the North Carolina was more scenic, that Tennessee already had an excellent entrance into the Smokies, and had benefitted from several large New Deal projects, including the TVA.

One of the men pushing hardest for the route which the Parkway now follows was Alleghany County Congressman Robert L. "Fighting Bob" Doughton. He had served in Congress almost 20 years, and was a powerful and wily pro when it came to the workings of the House.

Excitement in the area following Ickes' decision was great. Many did not believe it possible to build a hard-surfaced road on the crest of the Blue Ridge. They were also used to slow-paced government, and were amazed by the speed with which Ickes moved forward on the project.

On Sept. 11, 1935, a group of men climbed out of a truck, crossed a fence and started digging. It was a foggy day, with mist in the air, but the work on building the Blue Ridge Parkway had begun.

Back in Washington, one more battle remained. The House of Representatives stubbornly refused to pass a bill that would put the Parkway under the administration of the National Park Service. Critics argued this should be a locally built and maintained highway. The battle raged, and the bill failed three times to pass.

After the bill failed for the third time, Doughton pushed parlimentary procedure until it practically howled. Within an hour of its defeat, he had the bill back on the floor of the House. This time, it squeaked through with 145 in favor, 131 against and 147 not voting.

Back home, progress on the Parkway was continuous but not fast. By the end of the decade, work had started on 13 road sections in North Carolina. The first to be completed and opened to visitors was a 7.641 mile stretch between U.S. 21 (Milepost 229.7) and Air Bellows Gap (Milepost 237.15). Some of those first 13 sections, however, were not opened until 1955.

By Jan. 1, 1940, the Parkway in Virginia was completed between Adney Gap (Milepost 136) and the North Carolina line (Milepost 216.9). In North Carolina, where the terrain was rougher, the road was complete from the Virginia line (216.9) to Deep Gap (Milepost 276.4). One small section, between McKinney Gap (Milepost 327.5) and Spruce Pine (Milepost 336.3) was also done. In just over four years, almost 150 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway - nearly a third of its completed length - was finished.


New Deal Brought Modern Structures, New Hope

For some of Watauga County's poorest families, a start to the end of the Great Depression came when the WPA came to town.

Part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, the Work Projects Administration had two goals: community improvements and putting people to work. Across the nation, workers with the WPA erected buildings, many of which still serve their communities. In some areas, they were the first substantial and modern built facilities around.

The process worked something like this. The WPA would hire people to work on projects in conjunction with county governments. Local laborers would go to work, usually supervised locally. Once the building was complete, it was turned over to the county or town for its use.

Sometimes getting there could be complicated. The largest WPA building in Watauga County is Cove Creek School. Finding the money - besides what the WPA provided - for this beautiful native stone structure involved getting a loan from the North Carolina Literary Fund. The forms had to be in before the fiscal year ended on June 30.

The forms went in the mail, but did not arrive in Raleigh until July 5. The state refused to loan the money. The Watauga County Board of Education went to court.

The case finally went to the North Carolina Supreme Court, and the man representing Watauga was Wade Brown. He took with him a beautiful architect's drawing of the school.

Assistant Attorney General George Patton opened the case for the state, and presented his evidence. When Mr. Brown's turn came, one of the older judges called him to the bench and everyone started looking at that drawing! Mr. Brown, who was appearing before the state's highest court for the first time, did not know what to do. The justices examined the drawing and asked him questions - and his time slipped away.

Mr. Brown never did get to argue his case, but it did not matter. The justices had already decided that mailing by the closing date meant "constructive delivery" and ruled against the state. Watauga County would get its school.

The man the WPA used to supervise these projects was a Valle Crucis native named Charlie Ross Hartley. Born in 1886, he had grown up working with his father as a carpenter. By the time of the Depression, Mr. Hartley had a regional reputation for the quality of his work.

His first job for the WPA was adding a foundation to the old courthouse. With 47 men - and just 10 shovels - he dug under the building and installed the needed support. These men were hard workers, but most were desperately poor. People with working farms were not even considered for WPA, as it was felt they could survive. The program sought the poorest of the poor.

Convinced by his performance at the courthouse, the WPA then hired Mr. Hartley for a bigger assignment: building a new school at Valle Crucis. That was his first rock building.

There were more. There was a gymnasium at Blowing Rock, and what is now the courthouse annex in Boone. All this led up to what he considered was his crowning achievement: Cove Creek School.

All this was hard work, to say the least. The men on WPA worked 28 days a month. Laborers earned roughly $1 a day. Mr. Hartley got $56 a month, though this amount was later raised.

Or two years, Mr. Hartley and 106 workers labored on the Cove Creek School. The work began in 1939, and finished just before World War II in 1941. The county paid for the materials, while the federal government paid everyone except some of the men handling the rock. Among those rock men was legendary Deep Gap toy maker Willard Watson.

Cove Creek School remains a tribute to the hard work and dedication of these men. Its stone walls stand 12 inches thick. The inside studs are two-by-six hemlock, and the floor joists two-by-twelve hemlock. In spite of its age, the building remains, literally, solid as a rock.

With the end of the 1930s and the start of World War II, the WPA disappeared from the scene. But its legacy of fine buildings lingers on.


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