Catoctin Mountain Park
Historic Resource Study
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Chapter Five:
A New Deal for the Mountain


A debate among historians continues to rage as to whether Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal (1933-1940) represented revolutionary change or simply evolutionary reform. While the debate will go on, from the standpoint of the Catoctin Mountain area, the changes brought during the New Deal were revolutionary. The government--once playing only a distant role--became a central player in the lives of the people in the region. Older conceptions of self reliance and independence died along the way. The process of change, however, was hardly smooth. Indeed, the confusing and frequently chaotic nature of the New Deal often poisoned the transition and created problems where none need have existed. This is particularly evident in the case of relations between the government and land holders in the area under development. Chapter 5 traces these revolutionary changes, from the economic collapse beginning in 1930, through to the planning and early development of Catoctin Recreational Demonstration Area.

The Depression in Washington and Frederick Counties

While the nation experienced great prosperity during the 1920s, farming areas, such as those in Frederick and Washington counties, lagged behind the rest of the county. But the flourishing industries of the 1920s were the first to feel the sting of the economic collapse that began with the stock market crash. Western Marylanders initially hoped that, by virtue of having few industries (except in Hagerstown), they might escape the worst ravages of the Depression. Such hopes, however, failed to survive even the first year of the Depression. [1]

The first signs of trouble came with an unusually hot and dry spring in 1930. On May 4, 1930, a fire broke out near Fishing Creek and quickly spread northward. Stoked by dry conditions and shift winds, the blaze quickly spiraled out of control and threatened the school and homes at Phillips Delight as well as the Richey fishing camp near Catoctin Furnace. Some 125 volunteers labored for more than three days to control the fire. The Frederick News declared the blaze "the most disastrous in the history of Frederick County." Within four days, fire fighters had conquered the flames, but they destroyed several thousand acres, along with 15,000 young trees recently planted by the Isaak Walton League. [2]

Natural disaster, however, did not stop there. The dry heat only worsened with the coming of summer. Soon a terrible drought overtook the region. Day after day followed of one hundred degree temperatures and no rain. By late summer, few could deny that the drought was the worst in recent memory. In August, the Frederick News recalled that only a few months before there was "every indication that we would go through the slump with very little trouble. But along comes the drought, which cripples our major industry, agriculture." Describing the "short term outlook" as "depressing," the newspaper forecasted "visions of hard times . . . with winter approaching." [3] Weeks later, Professor T.B. Symons, of the University of Maryland Agricultural Extension Service, a state agency mandated by the federal government to "assist the farmer and his family . . . in every phase of agricultural and rural home life," declared that Maryland farmers were suffering their worst setback in history. Meanwhile, losses continued to mount. [4] Into September, temperatures continued to peak in the hundred-degree range. In October, Smithburg High School in Washington County temporarily shut its doors as the reservoir on South Mountain, upon which the school depended for drinking water, went dry. [5] Ultimately, state officials estimated Frederick County drought losses at more than four million dollars. [6]

Coming as it did, on the heels of the industrial and banking collapse, the drought had far reaching consequences. Farmers--in desperate need of credit to make up for drought losses--had nowhere to turn. The chair of a state committee on drought relief regretted that "there seems no legal way of getting money to aid the farm laborers and some farmers who have no credit." [7] Without access to the meager dollars that supported the local farm economy, a downward spiral began. Many farmers both hired and worked as temporary farm laborers, usually at a scale of roughly a dollar a day for a ten-hour day. [8] But with few spare dollars, this fragile system collapsed. [9]

Farmers could only cling to the hope that the drought and declining productivity eventually would give food prices a much needed boost. Yet with farmers elsewhere in the country continuing to increase their production, the price of wheat and other farm products continued to decline. The drought in fact meant that Catoctin-area farmers had less to sell at lower prices. [10]

Fears grew as colder weather approached. The condition of the poor, warned the Frederick News, "will be very difficult this winter." The paper called upon local charities to gear up for a daunting task. [11] Even before the worst of winter arrived, appeals for food and clothing from those in need overwhelmed the Frederick County Children's Aid Association. [12] County officials--seeking to coordinate relief efforts--created the Frederick County Drought Emergency Association in November, 1930.

Neither Washington County nor Frederick County could look much beyond private charities to deal with the growing need for relief. There was little tradition of using government--certainly not the federal government--to address such problems. As the Depression set in, recalled the Maryland Board of State Aid and Charities in 1935, "the opinion was held generally that the way to meet relief needs was through private agencies and voluntary relief." [13]

In Frederick County, for instance, the only real program for the poor remained the old almshouse--a decidedly nineteenth-century (or even eighteenth-century) institution. Located outside Frederick City, the Montevue almshouse, a "rather pretentious looking five story building," on a 96-acre farm, housed roughly 150 "inmates," many of whom were elderly or "suffering some chronic physical or mental disability." But Montevue also housed persons simply down on their luck, including "inmates" as young as three. [14] The onset of the Depression quickly overwhelmed the almshouse. By February of 1931, the number of "transients" seeking help at Montevue was "breaking all records." And those seeking relief were hardly the traditional poor. These new poor were "well dressed," most claiming that they never before asked for charity. [15] Most of the county's poor, however, never saw the inside of Montevue. Instead, they continued to rely on a loose network of local charities. But these such organizations also quickly found themselves stretched to their limits.

Pressed by the growing need, the Frederick County Drought Emergency Association struggled to provide whatever relief possible. The association coordinated the efforts of local charitable organizations, such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army. Over the difficult winter of 1930-1931, the association managed to distribute 7,000 loaves of bread, 1,200 loads of wood, and 3,000 quarts of milk. [16] Recognizing the continuing need, county officials, in 1931, reorganized the Drought Emergency Association as the permanent County Emergency Relief Association. [17]

Meanwhile local communities strove to coordinate and streamline their own charitable efforts. In Thurmont, representatives of relief associations gathered at the local high school, and, under the direction of Rev. J.S. Weybright, chairman of the Ministerial Association, planned relief efforts for the upcoming winter of 1931-1932. [18] The collapse of the Citizen's Trust Company of Frederick, along with its branches in Smithburg, Thurmont, and Emittsburg, in which investors saw their savings suddenly disappear, lent urgency to Weybright's work. [19]

Amid growing despair, there was some sense that "the government should take more active measures to keep people at work." [20] The county, in fact, did initiate a series of road building projects in an effort to put people back to work. The public road crews for the Catoctin and Thurmont districts included such familiar local names as Bussard, Harbaugh, Hauver, Eyler, and Wilhide. [21]

But for most in western Maryland, especially in the early days of the Depression, there remained an intense suspicion of such government aid--as well as an insistence that traditional values of self-reliance could see the area through the crisis. As the Catoctin Clarion newspaper declared: "Let us cease to whine about depression and devote ourselves to the diligent performance of our daily duties." [22]

A reliance on optimism and private charity, however, could not have provided much solace as county relief cases grew in number. Private charities simply could not keep up with the growing need. Facing another depression winter, the Frederick County Emergency Relief Association in 1932, called upon all employed workers to donate one day's pay a month to relief efforts. [23]

With little in the way of public or private relief, the individual often was left to cope any way possible. For most this meant tightening belts, raising a few more chickens, and perhaps cutting more timber from mountain lots to supplement coal furnaces over the winter. [24] Likewise, the cooperative traditions of mountain life took on renewed importance. Annual "butcherings," in which several families would gather to butcher livestock, continued, as did other cooperative practices. [25] Talk increased of the need to establish more formal farmer cooperatives to ease the increasing burden on the individual farmer. [26]

Faced with fewer and fewer opportunities to make money, moonshing remained a fixture of mountain life, especially before the repeal of Prohibition. Despite the recent tragedy at Blue Blazes, moonshiners continued to man their stills. In 1930, authorities raided a 1,000 gallon still west of Thurmont and seized 13,000 gallons of mash. One of those arrested had been a witness at the Hauver (Blue Blazes) murder trial. Two years later, police staged a similar raid on a 75-gallon still near Wolfsville . [27]

Those not engaged in illegal activity often sought escape in any form from the relentlessly troubled times. While children continued to find diversion at the popular swimming hole at Owen's Creek, adults might enjoy a twenty-five cent double feature at the State Theater on Water Street in Thurmont or visit the increasingly splashy spectacles put on by Wilbur Freeze at his Cozy Inn. On weekends, Freeze would fly hot air balloons or bury a man alive in a wooden box. Freeze's tireless efforts gave the Cozy an increasingly central role in Catoctin area social life. [28] One also could go dancing every evening at the Mountainside Inn in Sabillasville. [29] Later, perhaps to compete, Freeze opened his own Camp Cozy Nite Club, urging patrons to "Meet Your Friends at Camp Cozy." [30]

Faced with a struggling town, the enterprising leaders of Thurmont were eager to strike a blow against the collapsing economy. [31] In meetings and discussions among themselves, they pondered ways to bring economic recovery to their town. As increasingly is the case today when regions face economic difficulty, Thurmont's town leaders concluded that the answer lay in tourism. As an editorial in the local newspaper explained: "In a nutshell, the idea is to make a drive for the summer tourist trade in an effort to bring more people to Thurmont who in turn would put more dollars in the cash registers of every business in town." But despite the presence of "good hotels, excellent drinking water, cool summer days, good roads, fine transportation facilities and a variety of stores," Thurmont, the city leaders declared, needed more--in particular a swimming pool and tennis courts. [32] No doubt the city fathers recalled that swimming pools at Braddock Heights had attracted more than 11,000 paying swimmers the previous summer of 1932. [33] "Make Thurmont Attractive to Folks, and Folks will be Attracted to Thurmont," declared the proponents of tourism, who then initiated a poll of town citizens on the question of a municipal swimming pool and tennis courts. [34] Despite the eagerness of the town fathers, little support for sacrifice could be mustered in the midst of hard economic times. Undaunted and still eager to lighten the depression mood and attract visitors, town businessmen initiated a series of summer band concerts in the corner square of town in 1932. [35]

Yet it was a less harmonious event that summer that lingered in the minds of local citizens. In Washington, DC, veterans of World War I had gathered from around the country to press Congress for early payment of bonuses promised to every veteran. When Congress failed to pass the bonus bill, and the veterans, or Bonus Marchers, failed to leave the city, President Herbert Hoover--a frequent guest at Lawrence Richey's Catoctin Furnace fishing camp--ordered General Douglas MacArthur to corral the remaining marchers out of the city. The violent spectacle that followed upset the nation and did much to dash Hoover's hopes for reelection. Once out of the city, authorities hustled 2,000-3,000 marchers, including some women and African-Americans, north through Frederick County. Many spent the night at the Frederick County Fair Grounds, where the Maryland National Guard fed them 1,500 loaves of bread and 150 gallons of coffee. [36] Residents of the Catoctin area also remember seeing Bonus marchers camping in one of Hooker Lewis's fruit fields just south of Thurmont (current site of Bogley's Chevrolet). [37]

The horrific spectacle of the Bonus Marchers and continuing economic difficulties no doubt contributed to a growing sense of depression in the area. Soon the local newspaper in Thurmont was worrying that the "amazing decline in property values" have caused "many owners to allow home and places of business to fall into extremely poor condition." [38] Despite the traditional Republican conservatism of the area, residents were ready for change. On November 8, 1932, area voters overwhelmingly supported New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt for president. [39]

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Last Updated: 21-Nov-2003