Surviving the Great Depression in Polk County: John McEntyre

Published 10:10 pm Thursday, August 13, 2015

By Robin A. Edgar

Born in 1923, John McEntyre was the third oldest of 16 children. His father, also named John, used his pension from serving in World War I to buy a farm with a small house in Polk County in the Green Creek Township by Hwy. 9 and Coxe Rd., where he and his wife, Estelle, raised cattle, chickens, and pigs and grew cotton, corn, and soybeans as well as vegetables to feed their large family.

John McEntyre is pictured with his wife, Emma.

John McEntyre is pictured with his wife, Emma.


“My parents had nine kids during the Depression. During Roosevelt’s Hoover Days, they would give food away in Columbus at the courthouse to poor people: corn meal (white for whites and yellow for the blacks), cheese, bologna, and powdered milk. We had cornbread for breakfast; biscuits and red-eyed gravy and ham for lunch; and buttermilk and cornbread for dinner.  We also ate vegetables out of our garden. We would go to the Hillcrest thrift store to buy things for less than half price. I remember gas for the farm truck was nine cents a gallon and kerosene was two cents. A candy bar was only two cents, but we couldn’t afford that.”


“In 1936, the WPA gave my dad a job for 50 cents a day to bust up rock with a sledge hammer to build a church in Polk County. I would walk half a mile to the job site to carry him a half a cake of corn bread and half a gallon of black-eyed peas for lunch. By that time, his overalls would be wringing wet with sweat.”


“We were the only blacks in the area, but we got along well with the other neighbors until my father bought a farm with a bigger house where the man across the street said didn’t want black people in the neighborhood. We would cut wood and pick corn for the other neighbors and, before long, got along like brothers and sisters and didn’t have any problems.”


“The black kids went to Green Creek Grade School, which went up to the seventh grade. Sometimes we only went for half a day and worked the other half on the farm. We had to walk five miles each way in rain, sleet, or snow but the whites got to take a bus to their school. During the Depression, the teacher cooked pinto beans from the government for our lunch while we were in school. The government also gave us hats and gloves and the school gave us tablets and pencils. We got used books from the white schools and sometimes pages about Negro history were torn out, but we had to make do. When we got home from school, we did our chores like milking the cow and cutting wood. After dinner, since we didn’t have electricity, my mother would put the kerosene lamp in the middle of the table so we could work on our lessons.”


“For fun, we made our own games and played baseball in our backyard with family and neighbors. In order to earn enough money to go the county fair in the fall, we would pick cotton for other folks. It was great fun to ride the Ferris wheel and play those games where you throw a ball to knock something down for 25 cents. You hardly ever won a prize. It was like a slot machine that does nothing but take your money.”


“For Christmas, we cut down our tree and got holly from the farm. Besides an apple and stick of peppermint candy, the boys would get a horn to play and the girls got a cosmetic set. We would pick cotton for other folks to buy clothes and shoes for the wintertime, so we didn’t have any money left over for presents.”


McEntyre was drafted in the Army in 1943 and was sent to Fort Bragg, N.C. Singled out because of his small stature, which was ideal for submarine duty, he was asked to serve in the Navy instead. Trained as a cook, he was assigned to the USS Panamint and went to Aleutian Islands and Japan, where the formal occupation ceremony was held on board his ship in 1945.  


Moving to Tryon after he was discharged, McEntyre worked at Missildine’s Pharmacy until 1946, when he went to work for Nelson and Laura Jackson (Jim Jackson’s parents) as a chauffeur and a cook for 10 years. He married Emma Logan from Mill Spring in 1950 and they had two girls, Luzeen and Zina. Although he moved to Washington, D.C. in 1952, he hasn’t missed the Green Creek revival held every August in Polk County for the past 64 years.

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