The newspapers and television news are filled with economic bad news. Some experts say we’re getting better; some say we’re not. Some blame the president; others put the fault squarely onto the lap of Congress, greedy businessmen, entitlements, insurance costs, cheap goods from China, God’s righteous anger, the federal debt or cyclical economic trends. I’m sure there are also those who blame sunspots, fluoridation, global warming and the gnomes who live in the deep underground bank vaults of Geneva.
As an historian, all I really know is that — economically speaking — times have been worse. Right now, Derry has an unemployment rate of about 5.7 percent; 10 years ago it stood at 12 percent and 80 years ago, during the Great Depression, it was about 30 percent. I also know, as an historian, that during every period of economic crisis the blame game has been played.
In November 1932, the voters in Derry blamed the economic depression on President Herbert Hoover and the Republican Party. In a shocking move, Derry — always a sure win for the GOP — went for Democrat Franklin Roosevelt by a vote of 1,326 to 1,319. This swing to the left was a temporary aberration as the Republican candidates won the next 19 consecutive presidential elections.
Under FDR’s New Deal there was increased aid to towns to help feed the families of the unemployed, federally sponsored make-work projects and mandated minimum wage laws. Still the Depression continued. The businessmen who published the New Hampshire Labor Review magazine put all the blame for the unemployment onto the workers themselves. They wrote that the workers were too eager to strike for higher wages and better working conditions. It was the magazine’s belief that business left towns with militant labor unions and emigrated to places where the workers were more levelheaded.
The December 1933, issue of the N.H. Labor Review magazine held Derry up as an example of factories closing because of labor agitation. Rather poetically, the article says: “It is night for Derry. It is dead industrially.” It explains how the town was once a flourishing shoe manufacturing center with four of the “largest and busiest shops in all New England” employing thousands of workers. By 1933, the Woodbury, Derry, Emerson and Progressive shoe factories were all closed and their doors padlocked.
According to the article all these factories closed because Derry’s workers belonged to militant labor unions whose mantra was: “We want more wages and if we don’t get what we want, we’ll walk out.” The writer said that during the last 10 years a dozen shoe factories have moved out of Derry because of labor agitation. The author ends his anti-labor article with reference to the four businesses that recently moved from Derry. The “shoe factories are empty — their fires have been drawn. Their tall silent smoke stacks loom up like lonely sentinels against the winter sky, reminding the townspeople that labor troubles don’t pay.”
In May 1934, an anonymous writer in the Derry News blamed the Great Depression on the elected politicians. In a poem titled “The 1934 Psalm” he laments:
“The politician is my shepherd,I am in want.
He maketh me to lie down on park benches.
He leadeth me beside the still factories,He disturbeth my soul;
He leadeth me in the paths of destruction
For the party’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of the depression,I anticipate no recovery, for he is with me;
His policies and his diplomacies they frighten me;
He prepares a reduction in my salary and in the presence of mine enemies
He anointeth my small income with taxes;
My expenses runneth over.
Surely unemployment and poverty shall follow me all the days of my life,And I will dwell in a mortgaged house forever.”
Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry and plans to hold office hours at the municipal center. He is the former chairman of the Derry Heritage Commission. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.