Tackling a Depression
We tend to forget that the U.S. suffered a huge depression in the 1890s.
Residents of Grouse Creek, Utah - an outlying ranching community - in 1894.
Things weren’t so good for a lot of people:
- 20% unemployment (among non-agricultural workers)
- 800+ bank failures.
- Little new investment.
- Plunging stock prices.
- Massive business failures – such as 156 bankrupt railroad companies.
- Lower wages - and worker strikes that shut down basic industries.
- A long slump in new construction.
(Sound vaguely familiar?)
What did the federal government do?
Nothing, basically. Some people urged the government to create federal work projects. But Congress decided to just wait it out and let the market work.
That left local governments and charities to deal with the problems.
In Utah, lots of babies and immigrants had swelled the population,
and thousands of people couldn’t find jobs.
The territorial government didn’t do much about the depression. But interestingly, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints church (also known as the Mormon or LDS church) stepped in with several creative strategies to stimulate the economy and help the sufferers.
For instance, the LDS church:
- Established “community gardens” on vacant land in Salt Lake City where the poor could grow vegetables.
- Encouraged members to fast one day a month and donate the savings to help the needy.
- Urged people to “buy local,” thus supporting local employment.
- Set up an employment bureau -- a clearing house for people seeking land or employment, communities needing settlers, or employers needing laborers. It worked well.
- Borrowed heavily and invested in faltering industries as well as new industries. The beet sugar, salt, and hydroelectric industries got special attention. Church leaders also planned mining, railroad, and other ventures.
Used its investments to help employ people. For instance, the Saltair Pavilion, built in 1893, was virtually a public works project sponsored by the church.
The Saltair Pavilion at the Great Salt Lake, built during the 1890s.
- Encouraged people living in the city to move to the “country” where they could live cheaply and grown their own food.
- Actually organized or expanded colonies in outlying areas so people could move there.
- And, of course, urged church members to be thrifty and industrious and to stay out of debt.
One LDS leader (Abraham Cannon) explained that his church had a responsibility to look after people's temporal as well as spiritual wants.
It seems that these efforts helped.
While investment and development dried up elsewhere, Utah moved forward on several big projects that benefited the state for years aftward. Many people found work through these projects or through the employment bureau. More people grew their own food. And the era had its own Local First and community gardens movements, just like today.
By the turn of the century, the market forces had shifted and the nation’s economy flourished again.
Those who advocated a wait-it-out strategy were right in the end. But it took a long time! During that long wait, many suffering people gained relief through the LDS church’s surprisingly comprehensive program.
This information comes from “Utah and the Depression of the 1890s,” by Leonard J. Arrington, in Utah Historical Quarterly 29 (1961).
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