Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Sense of Setting

The stock market takes a nosedive. The banks are collapsing. Loans are near impossible to get for the lower class and small businesses are dying off. Sound familiar? I’d be willing to bet that most folks would assume I’m talking about our current economic crises, but as you’re sitting there reading a dramaturgical blog (nerd), you know I must be talking about something else. Yes, dear reader, this was life in our town of the sad cafe. But it goes much deeper. Welcome to Georgia during the Great Depression.

To best understand what impact the Great Depression had on our small, rural town, let’s rewind a decade. During World War I, the demand for cotton created a boom in the industry, but by 1920, with the war over and the demand gone, cotton prices plummeted. The farmers were forced to use every inch of land and put in twice the labor just to keep up. Many deserted the farms for the city, while others had no choice but to become sharecroppers under large landowners (i.e. big business). You’d think that would be enough, but the bad news didn’t stop there. Boll weevil, a nasty little bug with a penchant for chowing on cotton as a young larvae, first showed up in 1915 and just eight years later, it had destroyed 2.6 million acres of cash crop. Want a little salt in the wound? Because the farmers had to plant every bit of land they had in order to keep even, the soil became depleted. This, along with the stripping of natural forests which left the farms helpless against erosion, turned once fertile ground into a wasteland. This was the condition of our little town as they approached the stock market crash in October of 1929.

It’s like they didn’t even have a chance. While the urban parts of the state were relatively protected because of recent industrialization and a large bump in their workforce due to the influx of former farmers, the rural areas were decimated. If one even needed a bad omen, the decade began with the worst drought in the history of the state. As the Depression continued, the conditions just got worse and worse. Hope arrived with President Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1933 and his subsequent New Deal, but Georgia, again, got the short end of the stick. Its governor at the time, Eugene Talmage, felt Roosevelt and his New Deal were full of communist ideals and stopped at nothing to block their influence. This lasted until the end of his term when he was mercifully beaten by E.D. Rivers. Finally, Georgia could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I’ll wrap this up, but before I do, let me bring it briefly back to our “Ballad.” Try to put yourself in the middle of this devastation. Picture a home with no electricity, no running water, and no indoor plumbing. The most common meals are some combination of molasses, fatback and cornbread. If you own a farm, it’s in foreclosure and your fields are decimated and no longer plowable. If you’re working at the cotton mill, the jobs are disappearing quicker than the cotton. Picture all of this and it’s no wonder that the good people of our “Ballad” flocked to Miss Amelia’s cafe. Stay at home in the dark and chew on a piece of fat off the back of the pig or walk on down to the cafe for some homemade moonshine, a little comforting company and a menu of fried chicken, ham, winter peas, hominy grits, and collards.

This is what the cafe meant to this town.

Your humble dramaturg,


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