Depression Reflections

Area residents share memories that parallel today’s unprecedented times

This article is published in the May 2020 issue of TheBurg magazine

By Karen Hendricks

John Wolfe was 5 years old, riding in the front seat of the family car with his sister, his mother at the wheel. All of a sudden, a runaway trolley car from the Spring Grove-to-Hanover line barreled toward them.

His mother’s instincts kicked in. She instructed him to jump into the backseat.

He did—and it likely saved his life. Tragically, his mother was killed upon impact, and his sister died days later.

“I go to bed with that memory every night,” said Wolfe of York, now 94. “I tried to live a life my mother would be proud of.”

To Wolfe, that accident, in 1930, is synonymous with the country’s spiral into the Great Depression.

The fact that his father was a Packard mechanic meant he was employed despite the Depression.

“All the lawyers and doctors in York drove Packards,” said Wolfe. “In effect, all three adults in our household pooled their money together so that we could survive.”

In the midst of today’s COVID-19 pandemic, record unemployment figures, and economic uncertainties, are there comparisons to the Depression era?

“The Great Depression was the only time in the last century we’ve experienced a huge economic downturn,” said Scott Hancock, chair of Gettysburg College’s history department.

We spoke just as a record-breaking 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment in late March.

“That 3.3 million figure is Depression-era type numbers, though the difference is the incredible jump—it appears unemployment claims jumped by about 3 million in one week,” Hancock said. “Nothing that sudden has ever happened before. So, even though comparisons with the Great Depression are in some ways limited, I think that kind of one-week jump in unemployment also shows we are in uncharted waters.”

He’s quick to point out that he’s a historian—not an economist—but he makes a few observations.

“Part of what leads to the Depression is poor business practices—a lot of economic growth in the ‘20s was built on credit, which is what we saw in 2008—really shaky,” Hancock said. “The question I would be asking: Is our economic growth from 2008 to now built on things that are more stable than the early ‘90s into 2000s? If so, maybe the economy will recover from the hit we’re about to take.”

Hancock points to the Depression’s effects on society. It was a time when America’s middle class developed a stronger empathy for the poor.

“It’s an odd side effect of the Great Depression, and it will be interesting to see whether that happens today [as a result of the pandemic],” said Hancock. “I was glad to see that Harrisburg has halted evictions—a judge here in Adams County did likewise. So, at least there’s some humanity being demonstrated by our political and judicial leaders. I hope that continues to grow.”

Read more, here.

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