Cape Lookout National Seashore Historic Resource Study By

The Great Depression and the New Deal

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The Great Depression and the New Deal

The years between the two great wars of the twentieth century were not especially good ones for the Outer Banks – especially on their southern end. The dramatic booms that came to Charlotte and Asheville in the 1920s were driven by speculative development schemes not in evidence either on or near the Banks. In the mid-1920s only Wilmington and New Bern (and to a lesser extent Beaufort) were served by good roads, and even those did not extend either far out from the town centers or toward the Banks. [ILLUSTRATION: NC highways ca 1924 EncycNC p566. CAPTION: Fig. 6-25: North Carolina Highways, ca. 1924. Encyclopedia of North Carolina, 566. Map by Mark Anderson Moore. North Carolina Office of Archives and History.]

Although the two-lane wooden Wright Memorial Bridge across Currituck Sound had opened in 1930 and the Wright Brothers Memorial in 1932, the tourist development that had long been centered around Nags Head was still hampered through the 1930s by the lack of adequate bridges and all-weather roads. The tourist-related development that would be spurred by the development of Cape Hatteras National Seashore (toward the development of which there had been efforts since the late 1920s) lay both further north and still twenty years in the future.89

Meanwhile, the state in general was hard hit by the Depression. Nearly 100 banks closed in the 1920s, and nearly 200 between 1930 and 1933 (88 of them in 1930 alone). Growing mortgage debt (especially on speculative projects), declining automobile sales, rampant speculation in stocks and bonds, poor banking practices, and declining farm income combined to bring on the “crash” of October 1929.

The state’s people suffered severely as the state budget fell by a third. Cotton that had sold for thirty cents a pound in 1923 brought only 6 ½ cents in 1932; state receipts from the crop fell by two-thirds between 1929 and 1933. Tobacco fared no better. The furniture industry – the fourth most important in the state – contracted dramatically, but the textile industry was the hardest hit. Rapid changes in clothing styles, foreign competition, falling demand, labor unrest due to falling wages and adverse changes in work rules, and aggressive union organizing put major pressure on the industry. Along with numerous other towns and cities, Wilmington witnessed serious labor violence. Textile workers’ General Strike of 1934 brought hundreds of thousands out of the plants and into the streets all over the South.90 In virtually every county, mortgages were foreclosed and land was sold for nonpayment of taxes. Diets took a turn for the worse, and children suffered malnutrition.91

Following a 1930 advisory study he had requested from the Brookings Institution, Gov. O. Max Gardner took some dramatic steps. New state agencies moved to improve control over and efficiency in state purchases and personnel; a revamped Department of Labor and a reorganized state Board of Health addressed critical needs; a Local Government Act stabilized the credit of towns and counties; and the state took over the task of road maintenance from the counties.

Unfortunately, such approaches, while appropriate, were slow to improve the lives of ordinary people. In the short term, direct relief efforts were quickly put into place. Gov. Gardner’s “Live at Home” program encouraged the conversion of crop land from tobacco and cotton to food crops, and agricultural extension agents urged people to grow their own gardens. A new Council on Unemployment and Relief organized relief committees in 88 of the state’s 100 counties, using funds from the Federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation.92 Statistics compiled by the Council showed that percentages of people on relief in the southern Outer Banks counties were about thirty percent higher than in non-coastal metropolitan counties, and more than fifty percent higher than in the state as a whole. Except for New Hanover County (Wilmington), Carteret County had the highest rate (17%) of the five.
Table 6-1: Persons on Relief in Southern Coastal North Carolina Counties, 1932-1935

Southern Banks County


Persons on Relief

% on Relief

Metropolitan County


Persons on Relief

% on Relief

















New Hanover






























Source: Adapted from Kirk, et al., Emergency Relief in North Carolina . . . 1932-1935 (1936), 54.
Emergency employment programs took a variety of forms throughout the state.93 In eight coastal counties, including Carteret, oyster planting projects added nearly $60,000 to local payrolls; eighty three men from coastal counties improved facilities at agricultural experiment stations; others worked on pest control projects, reworked the city docks and built gymnasiums in Morehead City and Beaufort, and a biological laboratory in Beaufort, and repainted the Carteret County courthouse, on which county finances had not allowed any work for years. Vastly larger projects at Fort Macon, Camp Glenn (the National Guard camp at Morehead City) and Fort Bragg employed nearly 9,000. Consistent with gender norms of the period, women (twenty-five percent of them heads of families) cooked, sewed, cleaned, and did clerical work. Women in Carteret County tied nets for fishermen.94 Under the Rural Rehabilitation Program, some Carteret County families were relocated onto subsistence farmsteads.95

Between April 1934 and March 1935, in any case, nearly $95,000 in relief payments poured into Carteret County, just under one percent of the funds expended statewide. More than three times as much was allocated for the Wilmington area.96 Necessarily, the Carteret County money flowed to inland areas, since by the 1930s almost no one except Coast Guard crews and lighthouse keepers still actually lived on the southern banks. Diamond City, which once had perhaps as many as 500 residents, had blown away in a hurricane more than thirty years earlier, and Cape Lookout Village, which until around 1920 had had as many as eighty residents, was little more than a collection of seasonal cottages.97 Portsmouth’s population had been declining steadily since 1870; even then it had had scarcely more than 200 residents, and by the 1950s it had only about a dozen.98

A major entity involved in relief efforts throughout the nation was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC; 1933-1942), to provide employment and training to young men seventeen to twenty-five years old. Nationwide, some 120,000 enrollees worked out of 600 CCC camps.99 There were sixty-one camps in North Carolina. Projects included landscaping, erosion control, trail building, fire prevention, and park facilities construction.100 Unfortunately, of the twenty-three camps set up by the National Park Service in North Carolina, seventeen were in the mountains; only three were on the Outer Banks – two at Cape Hatteras and one at Fort Macon, leaving the southern banks with no installation.101

A major CCC project was the North Carolina Beach Erosion Control Project, run out of CCC Camp Virginia Dare at Manteo, which grassed 142 million square feet of the coast and planted 2.5 million seedlings.102

Unfortunately but predictably, the CCC project ran afoul of local racial mores.103 Local politicians requested that no “colored” CCC units would be established. Bruce Etheridge, Director of the North Carolina department of Conservation and Development, told Rep. Lindsay Warren that if a “colored” camp were established,

the people locally will bitterly resent it and I fear that trouble may arise. Placing myself in their position, I know that I should resent it to the better end. Two hundred or more strange and wild negroes placed in a small community such as Buxton, just what their action might be is unknown.

Warren replied that he was “shocked and surprised” that such a move would even be contemplated, adding that “it would be best to have no camp at all than to have a negro camp.”104

As in the rest of the state and nation, the Depression in eastern North Carolina lingered until the advent of World War II. The major development with regard to government presence on the southern Banks after World War II was the coming of Cape Lookout National Seashore, which we reserve for discussion in the subsequent chapter on tourism.

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