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THE 1930s: "Survival" a key word of the decade

Jan. 15, 2009 @ 10:11 AM

Editor's note: This story was originally published Sunday, June 6, 1999.

It was 1930, and Peggy Cyrus worked 60 hours, six days a week for roughly 21 cents an hour.

But she didn't complain. She felt blessed just to have a job.

"I was very lucky to be working," 90-year-old Cyrus said of her job as a clerk in her uncle's hardware store in West Huntington. "It was the times we lived in, and you just accepted it."

The 1930s were a time of great despair in the United States. Between 1929 and 1932, the income for the average American family was reduced by 40 percent.

The Roaring 1920s became a distant dream to the nightmare Americans faced as they struggled to survive during the Depression. In Huntington, the building boom came to a standstill as Tri-Staters fought to provide for their families, and in 1937, fought the Ohio River.

"After the stock market folded, everything came to a standstill," said 82-year-old Joseph F. Hines of Huntington. "I remember seeing people going to the bank after the crash, trying to get money but all they could get was 10 cents on the dollar. It was devastating."

Before the crash there were about 10 banks in Huntington. After 1930 all but two had folded, he said. "I saw Huntington stores close. It was horrible. People were committing suicide."

In that decade, Americans no longer focused on advancement. Survival became the key word.

"It was very depressing to see people looking for food," Hines said. "We didn't have food stamps back then or Social Security. People had no means to get money."

Hines was lucky his father had gotten a job at the "Nickel Plant," named Inco Alloys International and now called Special Metals, and was able to provide food for his family. "I had never eaten so much rice and beans than I did in the '30s," he said.

In 1935, Hines attended Marshall College.

"Back then, tuition was only $34.75 a semester," he said.

Shortly after starting college, Hines went to the nickel plant with his father and was offered a job. "I was tickled to death to get the job, " he said.

It was such a thrill that Hines remembers the exact day he started. "It was May 20, 1936. I was looked over by Doc Brady, who passed me on my physical. I started the next day."

Hines went to school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and then started his shift at Inco at 5 p.m. He worked until 5 a.m. and made 39 cents an hour.

"We worked seven days a week and you didn't get off unless you had a doctor's excuse," he said.

While working at Cavendish Brothers, Cyrus said, long hours allowed an escape from the despair of the times. "We kept so busy, we didn't even have time to think about our problems," he said.

In late January 1937 Huntington residents were struck with another hardship. The Ohio River overflowed its banks, leaving hundreds homeless and businesses destroyed.

"The water just kept coming up," Hines said. "We were riding john boats up 3rd Avenue, and you could reach and touch power and phone wires."

"All the stores were completely flooded. Merchandise was just floating around. It was really bad," Hines said.

Houses on 4th Avenue were completely flooded, Hines said. "Huntington was just a big body of water."

But it didn't stay that way for long. "We worked so hard, we did not know anything else," Cyrus said.

"It was a real challenge, but in the end everything turned out OK. We saved some of the merchandise in the store and just built everything else back."

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