Just days ago, economists told Americans what they already knew: The United States is in a recession.

Although a recession is thankfully not a depression, economic downturns, no matter how deep, hurt people. So why pretend otherwise?

For years, some marketers of York County have harbored the myth that the Great Depression locally was, well, not that great.

But one thing about those bleak days of the 1930s that York County's promoters can put safely in the bank is that York countians responded to tough times with cultural and social offerings that helped people and strengthened community.

Many of those institutions continue to please, delight and aid the people of York County to this day.

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A myth has grown in York County since World War II and all its big defense work ended the Great Depression.

Some accounts of the 1930s suggest the county deflected the devastating effects of those terrible economic times.

For example, one observer has commented that the Depression "pinched, but it didn't hurt." That is, frugal York countians weathered those tough times without a trace of blood. It is true that the Depression smacked industry and banking less squarely in the county than most other areas of Pennsylvania.

But that's where the myth makers often stop.

Dig just a little deeper, and it's obvious the Depression caused widespread suffering in York County.


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Two occurrences inflated this myth of prosperity, as Charles Arthur Bloomfield explained in a 1973 master's thesis.

First, no banks in York failed except, in a technical sense, the North York State Bank. That bank went under, but purchaser York Trust assumed its obligations. Second, all York banks reopened after a mandated holiday, making it the only city in the state where all banks received permission to resume their functions.

But often overlooked are the eight county banks that failed and the nine that reorganized. On the eve of the Depression, 46 banks operated in York County. So the Depression caused a drastic drain on about 40 percent of the county's banks, crushing the financial backbone of many towns.

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Charles Bloomfield cited a York Family Service Bureau report issued early in the Depression that painted families' typical downward financial spiral.

Standard-of-living reductions initially meant that previously self-sustaining families moved into smaller or less desirable dwellings.

"They have economized and economized," the bureau's Rose Gillespie wrote.

They had been living on their savings and then went into debt for rent, clothing and food using personal credit. Next, they used their furniture to leverage cash loans.

"Then the final break with savings gone and spirit broken," Gillespie wrote, "they come to the bureau for help and guidance . . . ."

In the early stages of his master's work, Bloomfield came across the claim that York survived the Depression with almost unimpaired prosperity.

There's that myth again.

"York County did suffer materially from the Depression," Bloomfield observed. "An extensive relief effort was necessary. There was considerable personal suffering . . .

These facts belie any impression that prosperity continued through the Depression."

The Depression did much more than pinch in York County.

It punched.

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The suffering: More than 23,500 county residents are jobless as unemployment during the Great Depression reaches its peak in 1933.

"Business bankruptcies were more frequent," one history states. "People stole more. Food thefts from farms were especially high. Banks continued to go under -- in Dillsburg and Hallam. June, the traditional month for marriages, saw license applications drop off precipitously."

According to various local sources:

A shoeless Yorker smashes a $300 shoe store window to steal a pair of $3.95 boots.

A large shantytown grows west of York, and its occupants are ordered to leave.

Hard-working men who had never accepted charity grow hopeless as they walk the streets in fruitless search for work.

Recipients carry handouts from a state commissary home in burlap bags draped over their shoulders, a humiliating public act considered better than starvation.

Women and minorities are among the worst-hit victims. Women faint while waiting in long bread lines.

The York School Board notifies married female teachers that they can expect to be laid off to make room for unemployed men.

Newspapers report that women, as well as men, are committing suicide over financial losses. Female hoboes are seen for the first time riding trains through York.

A black man drowns in Codorus Creek trying to salvage driftwood to sell.

Dr. George Bowles, a York physician, urges fellow blacks not to be timid in bread lines at the York County Home. The black community should learn their rights, he said, and make sure they get their fair share of welfare.

Some blacks who came to York in the 1920s ask county government to pay their fare back to the South.

With fewer jobs and companies cutting back, labor unrest erupts.

About 20 people are injured in a riot near a Red Lion cigar factory. That total included several women who were knocked to the street and trampled.

"However, when it came to the physical fighting in Red Lion in 1934," a Red Lion history states, "the women were in the forefront, taking tear gas and billy clubs in perfect equality."

The good that came out: Despite the Depression, other entertainment, cultural and civic opportunities increase.

Bad times cause the community to come together.

And these bad times place limitations on travel and the ability to enjoy the good life elsewhere.

WORK Radio 1350, the York area's first station, goes on the air in 1932. The York Symphony performs for the first time in 1933 as George King Raudenbush conducts the orchestra playing Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" and other works at William Penn High School.

In the fall season, Sylvan Levin conducts and Agnes Davis sings in a concert performed after only five rehearsals.

In 1934, the Tassia family remodels The Valencia, enlarging the dance floor, building an orchestra-sized stage and improving its air conditioning system.

The York Chorus, Crispus Attucks Community Association, York Little Theater and the York Hiking Club also organize in these economically tense years.

Martin Library opens, the downturn proving to be a boost for libraries. Unemployed people flock to the stacks, some using their jobless time as an opportunity to gain a college education.

"The fact that the general use of the public libraries has increased from 100 percent to as high as 800 percent is a sign of the times not to be ignored," a writer commented in The Yorker, a short-lived community publication.

The predecessor to ForSight Vision also forms when the York Downtown Lions Club financed the training of a local blind man to perform as a home teacher.

That again underscored a community drawing closer.

"Can it be," Luther B. Sowers wrote in his history of Forsight Vision, "that individuals in the midst of the country's severest depression were concerned about those less fortunate than they?"

- Adapted from James McClure's "Never to be Forgotten"

James McClure is editor of the York Daily Record/Sunday News. He has written five books on York County history and blogs daily at yorktownsquare.com. To contact him, call 771-2000, or e-mail jem@ydr.com.