The Great Depression
The U.S. stock market crashed on October 24, 1929, creating an economic depression that became an international phenomenon. Countries all over the world suffered from falling prices, decreasing production, and rising unemployment. America entered the worst period of the Great Depression in 1932-1933. The price of farmed goods had been dropping since the mid-1920s, so when prices dropped even further, Louisiana plantation owners continued to struggle. Many small farmers, who were used to “subsistence” and produced most of what they needed themselves, were able to survive the Depression without noticeable changes in standards of living; however, most small business owners, merchants and tradespeople suffered greatly from the economic devastation. Some businesses in West Baton Rouge Parish were forced to close due to economic hardship. An example of this is the fate of Willie Goudeau’s Grocery Store in Erwinville. Even though residents were allowed to buy items on credit, there came a point when the owner could no longer re-stock the store and was forced to close after 15 years.
Franklin D. Roosevelt became President in 1932. He immediately set out a plan called the “New Deal” in order to meet the needs of a suffering nation and to provide for the welfare of the people. Many of his first programs called for legislation to relieve agricultural and industrial economic crises. Work-relief was introduced in Louisiana through the New Deal program called the Works Progress Administration (WPA), established in 1935. The WPA created a number of large-scale work projects in order to provide paying jobs in various fields, some of which included construction in West Baton Rouge Parish. Rougon Road in Erwinville was paved through WPA program around 1932. Several young men from the Erwinville area went to Civil Conservation Corp. Camps (CCC camps), a New Deal program, in Louisiana in order to learn the skills needed for jobs such as park management and road building and ended up working back home on this road project. By 1934, there were 26 camps throughout Louisiana for men 18-25 years old, who would work 40 hours a week at the camps and, in some cases, take classes.
The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), another New Deal organization, cooperated in the supervision of canning centers that opened throughout the parish in 1934. The Port Allen Observer noted that there were 14 centers in operation in a July 1934 issue. The public could bring their food products to the center, do the canning work using the center’s equipment, and pay with 1 out of every 5 cans of food produced. Such canning centers worked in conjunction with the parish’s local Home Demonstration Clubs that provided education to improve domestic and farming skills.
Construction on the West Baton Rouge Community Center began in January of 1936 with the help of the WPA and was completed one year later. A swimming pool was later added adjacent to the community center.
The WPA also built a gymnasium on the campus of Brusly High School (now the Middle School) in 1937. It served as both a school and as a gathering place for the community at large.
Although a controversial figure in Louisiana history, Huey Long implemented an unprecedented program of modernization and reform in Louisiana - from the building of roads and bridges to a free public education program. He was also a great supporter of Louisiana State University and its football program. West Baton Rouge citizens recall the occasions when Long would disembark from the Port Allen ferry with the LSU band and march down Court Street to the railroad depot in order to catch a train for out-of-state games. He became governor of Louisiana in 1928; halfway through his term, the Great Depression swept the entire nation, and Long wielded power with an iron fist. Some believed that Long’s political tactics bordered on dictatorial. After calling for a tax on oil to fund his social programs, he was impeached in 1929 while serving as governor. Long was criticized by opponents for corruption, bribery, and misuse of state funds; nevertheless, the impeachment failed to remove him from office.
In 1930, Long successfully ran for a U.S. Senate position, but left his seat vacant for over a year until he found what he believed to be a suitable replacement as governor. Long considered his programs in Louisiana to be effective in raising people out of poverty and he wanted to implement this philosophy on a national scale with his “Share Our Wealth” campaign, unveiled in 1934. Long’s policies were considered by many, including President Roosevelt, as radical and close to communism; as the Great Depression worsened, some of Long’s beliefs became more popular, and he was poised to run for the Presidency in 1936 against Roosevelt. However, he was shot at the Louisiana State Capitol on September 8, 1935, and died two days later.
Huey P. Long Photograph Album (Mss. 4495), Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA.