Surviving the Great Depression in Polk County

Published 11:52am Friday, August 8, 2014

By Robin Edgar

This column is not meant to be a comprehensive oral history about the Great Depression in Polk County and is more of a conversation with our elders. As we learn about how different individuals from several walks of life survived back then, and how that survival shaped their lives, these stories add living color to the black and white facts about that era.

Although many people were scraping the bottom of the barrel during those hard times, some families were fortunate enough to prosper and help others along the way. One such family was Jim Jackson’s whose father, Nelson Jackson, Jr., was in the cotton yard goods business.

Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Nelson Jackson’s family moved to Tryon when he was in his mid 20s. For entertainment, he used to go to parties at the Mimosa Inn, where he eventually met his future wife, Laura Chapman, who was there from Spartanburg to celebrate her 16th birthday and they married 10 years later in 1917. Nelson and his father had started the Jackson and Jackson cotton yard goods business in 1913. Renting an office for twenty-five dollars a month on Trade Street, they sold cloth to women who saved money by sewing their own clothes rather than buy readymade. With their wares were in demand, they had salesmen all over the country and Nelson was able to support his wife and three children, Rachel, Nelson, III, and Jim, the youngest born in 1924, even during the Depression

“I did not feel the Depression because my father was in the right business for the times and our family was well off. Dad read an article in the newspaper in 1933 with a doctor’s advice that nothing but cotton should touch a baby’s skin. He decided to pile all of us in the car and drive from Tryon to the West Coast, selling cotton cloth along the way and we had a very successful business trip.

Back at home, my mother looked after anyone who suffered from poverty, so much so, that my dad would tell her she was giving his money away faster than he could make it. She would root out families up in the hills having a hard time and would give them money, clothes, and whatever they needed to survive,

Christmas for us didn’t change much during those times. We still had a tree with gifts and would go to Spartanburg to my visit my maternal grandfather who gave one of his grandchildren a bicycle each year. Unfortunately, he died before I got mine.

When I went to Tyron High School, we had 12 girls and 12 boys in our graduating class of 1941. I still remember Miss Baldwin, who taught French, Latin, Civics, History, and Social Studies. She really made us work. I remember once, when a student quit school, she walked a mile to his house after school and talked to him. The next day, he was in class and went on to be a minister.

I did not realize that there was any discrimination until I was 15 years old and we hired a young black man named Roy Berry to work with me to renovate our basement. We both loved the same music and the same sports and got along famously. One day, Roy and I decided to go to the movies, so I walked a mile from my house and he walked a mile from his and we met outside the theatre. After we bought our tickets, he went upstairs and I went downstairs. In the middle of the movie, it struck me that it wasn’t right that I couldn’t to sit with my friend. That was when I began to notice that there were two water fountains—white and colored—in front of Ballenger’s Department Store and that I could sit down in any restaurant, but blacks couldn’t do that. Public restrooms were the only thing that were not segregated because there were none at all for the blacks.”

Jim enlisted in reserve corps and served in the Army in the infantry. When he returned, he graduated from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and worked for the family business as a salesman from Ohio to Minnesota. He eventually became minister, pastoring several churches before moving to Pennsylvania to train volunteers for a program similar to the Peace Corps. He met and married Sheila Bernard in 1967 and they had a daughter and two sons. Following his mother’s example, Jim worked with the original Habitat for Humanity in Plains, Georgia. He encourages future generations to read a lot and take advantage of learning from others who have been out in the world.

Did your family live in Polk County during 1929 to 1939? The next interview session will be at LaurelHurst on Tuesday, August 12 from 1:00 to 3:00 pm. For more information on how to share your story, please contact Robin Edgar at or call LaurelHurst at 828-894-3900.

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