Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2021/Spring/105/Section 56/Mac Mabe

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Mac Mabe, referred to as Mrs. Jim Shelton, was interviewed by Louise L. Abbitt in association with the Federal Writers Project. The interview took place on January 23, 1939 in Walnut Cove, North Carolina.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Mac Mabe, referred to as Mrs. Jim Shelton, was a White woman born in Peters Creek, North Carolina. While her date of birth is unknown, it can be assumed that Mabe was born sometime in the late 19th to 20th century. Mabe was born into a large family. Her father had seven children by his first wife, and then married Mabe’s mother, in which he had seven more children. Mabe’s father took little interest in his family and did not make much money to sustain a household with fourteen children. Because of this, much of Mabe’s childhood was lived in poverty. She stated, “As time went on, some of the children married and moved to themselves. Then there was plenty room at home, but still not much to live on. We just had to get along the best way we could.”[1]

When Mabe was a child, her mother died from unknown causes. Her father was rarely present in her and her siblings’ lives, therefore, she was raised by neighbors. Mabe was raised on a farm and there was often a load of work to be done in order to maintain the land. As a result, she was unable to attend school regularly. By the time she reached fifth grade, Mabe had dropped out of school completely.

At age 23, Mabe married Jim Shelton, a farm boy in the Danbury area. Mabe and Shelton had seven children together: three boys and four girls. After getting married, Mabe and Shelton moved to the mountains in North Carolina where they spent several years. They then moved to Forsyth County where they rented a farm in Dennis, a small town in Salem Chapel, North Carolina. According to Mabe, they did best on the farm in Dennis than they had done ever before.[1] After living in Dennis for a few years, Shelton unfortunately, became sick with heart trouble, leaving him unable to farm. As a result, in 1937, they moved to Walnut Cove. Here, they rented a dilapidated two-room shack for $4 a month. By this time, all of their children and had married and moved away except their two youngest children.

In July of 1937, Shelton tragically committed suicide. While the reasons for his suicide are unknown, Mabe assumed it was from his heart illness. She stated, “I’d been thinkin’ Jim wasn’t feelin’ good for a long time, what with his heart bein’ bad, but we never had any idea that he’d really commit suicide.”[1]

The years after the death of her husband were defined by sickness and tragedy. Mabe stayed in Walnut Cove where she continued to care for her two children and grandchild after the death of her daughter in childbirth. While she received a $9 old-age pension from the federal government, it was barely enough to get by with housing and food expenses. Mabe could barely afford wood and food to keep the children warm and fed. Mabe hoped to move to Virginia where she could stay with her daughter as conditions only worsened. However, Mabe was still living in Walnut Cove when her interview for the Federal Writers Project was conducted on January 23, 1939.

Social, Political, and Cultural Issues[edit | edit source]

The Effects of the Great Depression on Farming and Agriculture[edit | edit source]

The Great Depression was a worldwide economic downturn that began in 1929 and lasted until 1939. The Great Depression is known as the longest and worst economic recession of the 20th century. To put the depression into context, in 1929, economic output was equal to that of $105 billion. By 1933, output was equivalent to $56.4 billion. The United States had suffered a nearly 50% decrease in economic output in four years.[2] While the depression affected all industries, the toll upon the agricultural industry proves to be one of the largest impacted. The effects of the Great Depression resulted in a drastic deflation of crop prices. In 1933, 4 years into the depression, gross farm income was 46% of its level in 1929.[3] While the decline in gross income was a major problem for farmers, indebtedness was even larger. Farmers borrowed from banks for several reasons, but mainly for the use of purchasing land. As farmers grew weaker, so did banks, resulting in increased loan expenses. The fall in prices from June of 1920, caused real interest rates to increase by almost 50% and interest payments of mortgage-backed loans to rise to nearly 17% of farmers’ income. Net savings of farmers fell by an estimated $2.5 billion while debt increased by almost $7 billion.[4]

Barn on a tenant's farm in the South during the Great Depression. The barn depicts the poor status of farms during this time.

Suicide During the Great Depression[edit | edit source]

The Great Depression defined a time of economic hardship for many families during the 1920s and 1930s. The stock market crash of 1929 and the depression that succeeded devastated many families and individuals to the point of suicide. The largest increase in suicide rates occurred during the Great Depression from 18.0 in 1928 to 22.1 in 1932. Additionally, suicide rates also rose during the severe recession that occurred at the end of the New Deal from 1937 to 1938.[5] According to public health professionals, of the six causes of death that composed of an estimated two-thirds of total mortality in the 1930s, only suicides increased during the Great Depression.[6]

Living Conditions During the Great Depression[edit | edit source]

A mother and her children during the Great Depression

As the Great Depression began to take control of American life in 1929, its effects could be seen in the living conditions of the population. As individuals financially struggled, obtaining food and maintaining a safe and healthy home became increasingly difficult. Many individuals were left homeless and hungry. Studies suggest increased malnutrition among low-income groups was consistent with the economic recession.[6] According to WHO, “income constraints that compel people to live in dwellings with inadequate space for their needs can also mean that such households struggle to afford housing that is in good repair or to heat homes sufficiently.”[7] Households embraced a new norm of life, as individuals patched worn-out clothes, and potlucks and thrift gardens became popular in efforts to stretch food budgets. Additionally, before the depression, Americans held negative views on government welfare programs and would often refuse them. However, following the New Deal, attitudes towards government assistance began to change as families began to accept financial support from the government.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "Folder 275: Abbitt and Dunnagan (interviewers): Life History of Mrs. Jim Shelton :: Federal Writers Project Papers". dc.lib.unc.edu.
  2. Amadeo, Kimberly. “The 9 Principal Effects of the Great Depression.” The Balance. Dotdash, June 30, 2020. https://www.thebalance.com/effects-of-the-great-depression-4049299#:~:text=The%20Great%20Depression%20of%201929,and%20deflation%20soared%20above%2010%25.
  3. Abrams, Douglas Carl, and Randall E Parker. “Great Depression,” 2006. https://www.ncpedia.org/great-depression.
  4. Federico, Giovanni. “Not Guilty? Agriculture in the 1920s and the Great Depression.” The Journal of Economic History 65, no. 04 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1017/s0022050705000367.
  5. Luo, Feijun, Curtis S. Florence, Myriam Quispe-Agnoli, Lijing Ouyang, and Alexander E. Crosby. “Impact of Business Cycles on US Suicide Rates, 1928–2007.” American Journal of Public Health 101, no. 6 (June 2011): 1139–46. https://doi.org/10.2105/ajph.2010.300010.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Tapia Granados, J. A., and A. V. Diez Roux. “Life and Death during the Great Depression.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no. 41 (September 28, 2009): 17290–95. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0904491106.
  7. “Household Overcrowding.” Essay. In WHO Housing and Health Guidelines. WHO, 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK535289/

Bibliography[edit | edit source]