Maybe you have heard that some country folks who lived through the Great Depression said that they did not notice much difference, “Just had to eat more sweet potatoes and cornbread.” That probably was true for some who had productive farms and no debt. They could lean more heavily on subsistence practices, food from farm, garden and forest, unless they were struck by death, serious illness or complete crop failure. However, such fortunate families were in the minority.
Some lost their farms because of debt. They were paying off loans from their purchase of the land, to buy mules to cultivate it, to purchase vehicles, to pay bills to doctors and grocery store owners. When time came to pay, they often learned that their friendly hometown banker had sold their accounts to an insurance company or another bank in Yankee country, leaving no hope for negotiating. They had to leave.
Even families on farms that were financially secure struggled if there were many children, which was often the case. They could not support the elders plus two or three married offspring and their spouses. The traditional pattern of subdividing the land to provide farms for offspring at marriage had run its course. Land holdings were too small to further divide. When young people came of age, they had to look elsewhere for a way and place to make a living.
Before the Depression, towns and cities offered opportunities and many young people migrated to the new railroad towns or to Savannah. However, the economic collapse known as the Great Depression destroyed jobs in cities. Unemployed and hungry, people flocked to bread lines and soup kitchens. Migrants from the country went home if possible. Eating sweet potatoes and cornbread was better than not eating at all, but for many, back home was not an option.
Florida was an option. Its citrus groves were flourishing. Although the national economy was weak, there was a market for fresh fruit and canned juices. A budding tourist trade attracted investments from some who were not wiped out by the economic crash. So, there was still some construction activity.
Country folks from South Georgia — male and female — mostly young, flocked to Florida by bus and ragged automobile to become its first migrant laborers. Their plight was not as grim as the “dust bowl” migrants to California so well depicted in “The Grapes of Wrath.” But it was bad enough. Scampering up and down ladders leaning on orange trees to fill big shoulder bags with fruit was hard and hazardous work. Most were not completely cut off from places and people called home. There was a place to go when everything went wrong if one could just find a way to get there.
Of course, migration to Florida was not an entirely new thing. Farmers, timber cutters, herdsmen and turpentiners — mostly from South Georgia — pushed into northern Florida as soon as it was ceded by Spain. They were even called “Florida Crackers,” an extension of “Georgia Crackers.” Georgians were involved in the often ill-conceived development schemes of the 1920s. But these were a trickle compared to the Great Depression flood.
Many — perhaps most — of those who went to Florida did not remain. They stayed until disenchanted, until they “got back on their feet” or until economic conditions back home improved. My father and two brothers and my father-in-law and two of his sisters were prime examples. Daddy got enough after a short time working in a juice canning plant and was soon back behind a plow in Toombs County. His brother Ira stayed for several years, sometimes returning “home” during the off season for citrus harvest and sometimes piecing together enough work to remain there year-round.
Others became permanent residents, either because they could not come back home or because they found better opportunities — work — to do all year. They might visit or write occasionally, but they were permanently “gone to Florida.”
Daddy’s cousin Remer was one of those who never came back to stay. He had a farm, large enough but sandy and unfertile. He had lost his wife and two children in untimely deaths. One day when I was 5 years old, I was with Daddy in the back side of a big field when Remer and a son came to say goodbye. He had reached the end of his resources and was going to Florida.
Drawing upon his experience on the farm, Remer became a butcher, permanent employment. He still owned his farm and got a little income by renting it to others, but never came back to live there. He visited a couple of times a year, almost always with us because an improved agricultural economy had enabled Daddy to buy the farm where Remer had been born and raised. There was a wistfulness about him. I recall his remarks about flowers and shrubs in the yard that his mother had planted. Part of him remained on Reedy Creek but he had “gone to Florida."
Correction: My column for May 5 on the proliferation of railroads in southern Georgia set the time as the last couple of decades of the 18th century. It was the late 1800s, thus the 19th century.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.