You do not expect to find much of real value in a garage sale––even if it is a giant one like our church puts on every year. All year long people donate unwanted or unneeded items, stuff from their garages, closets, cupboards, drawers and even from other garage and estate sales. They drop boxes and pickup loads and trailers-full of stuff, and we cart it all upstairs to our third floor attic to sort and sticker with bargain-prices. Surprisingly, most of what we collect sells, which goes to prove the maxim, “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.” Occasionally, I find something I like––some nicknack, old book or cast-off that grabs my interest, and I buy it for pennies and take it home. Rarely do we find anything of worth. Until last week.
We’re not sure where it came from. Either someone dropped it off with their other stuff, or in sorting and moving stuff, someone found it tucked away somewhere upstairs. It is a copy of our local paper, yellow and faded, brittle to the touch, the Roseburg News-Review, dated Thursday, October 27th, 1932.
When we found it, I brought it downstairs, carefully opened its stiff pages, and started reading. Will Rogers, the famous humorist, had a column. The investigation into Charles Lindbergh’s child’s kidnapping was underway. The Associated Press were reporting that Gandhi must obey or stay in prison; his civil disobedience apparently was gaining wide attention.
At home in Roseburg, everything was on sale: The Oregon Woolen Store was selling $22.50 suits for $8.75, expensive fedoras for less than a dollar, and socks for 8¢. The want-ads were filled with stuff you could buy cheaply––if you had any money. You could buy beans for $3.59––for 100 pounds! A pound of Nob Hill Coffee would set you back three dimes. At Montgomery Ward, you could buy a pair of new shoes or a double cotton blanket or a man’s dress shirt or a wool sweater for a buck each.
You could go to the Rose Theater and see “The Night Mayor” with Lee Tracy for a quarter, or go downtown to the Indian Theater and watch Jack Oakie in “Madison Square Garden” for 35¢.
If you lived then, you were local news. A few of the entries on page 2 include:
“Leota Davis spent Thursday and Friday at Umpqua visiting Lucile Hebard and her sister, Gertrude Davis.”
(Shocking news, isnt it?) And:
“Dorothy Arundel spent Thursday in Roseburg shopping and visiting friends.”
(I’m beginning to wonder how the reporters discovered this juicy tidbit.)
And of course, we wouldn’t want to miss these important items of breaking news:
“W. D. Valentine Jr. is repairing his house on State Street where he and his family expect to reside this winter.”
“Raymond Bell left this morning for Eugene to visit over the weekend. He plans to attend the Oregon-Gonzaga game Saturday.”
(I suppose it kept people from gossiping over the back fence.)
Still, it was an uneasy time. What we now call, “The Great Depression” had begun nearly three years ago to the day. On Tuesday, October 27th, 1929, the U.S. stock market collapsed, plunging not only our country, but the rest of the world into financial crisis. It would last until the start of World War 2 in late 1941, another nine years off. Now, in 1932, unemployment was at 25%––one in every four had no job and no prospects. Everyone else felt the squeeze financially, and very few could afford to live like they had in the 1920s.
This copy of the News-Review reflected that simpler, harder time. The bold headline announces, “England’s hunger Army Battles Police”. Cutbacks and shortfalls in other countries apparently were causing rioting. Perceived unfairness in administering “The Dole System”––how and how much they distributed food to the unemployed––sparked protests among fifty thousand in Hyde Park.
Then, in the middle of the front page, the paper announces, “R.F.C. Loan To Douglas $20,832.” The RFC was the “Reconstruction Finance Program,” a federal government program that lent money to states and counties, who then would hire individuals to do “make-work” and be paid accordingly. The money would be repaid eventually to the Federal Government through the collection of delinquent taxes, as the economy improved and people returned to work.
The report explained:
“The amount is to be distributed...and will be expended in the various districts of the county, but will be used exclusively to provide work at the emergency wage for men who have not other employment and who are dependent upon this source for food for themselves and their families.”
As I pondered this historical cameo, some details sharpened into clear focus:
•The Federal Government was loaning money to the state, and expected to be paid back. (Historically, that happened––nearly all of the funds were repaid.)
•Though the Federal Government initiated the funding, it was the counties that managed the disbursements. (Apparently, they thought local oversight was better than federal.)
•Finally, I was surprised to see something they knew, and we apparently have forgotten: you don’t give people who can work money or goods for not working. They didn’t issue checks to the needy, or simply give handouts to the unemployed. If you needed work, they found some work for you to do, and paid you with the RFC funds. It sounds strangely reminiscent of a passage in the Bible: “If a man is unwilling to work, he shall not eat” (2Thessalonians 3:10). On one hand, hunger is a great motivator, and on the other, working for a wage is both honorable and responsible, even if the work isn’t what you’d like to do, or if it doesn’t pay what you think you’re worth. Doing something for something is always better than doing nothing for something.
The paper is a delicate and valuable piece of history––our history, and it can speak to us if we’re willing and open to listen and learn.
Our economy is fragile, and it is possible that we will awaken to find ourselves in a situation akin to others in our past. I wonder, will we have the wisdom and hindsight, the character and patience not to expect handouts like those in Britain, but to help ourselves and one another through difficult times––like those in Roseburg?