History comes alive most effectively when it is personalized.
Retired Wall Street Journal reporter and editor George Melloan does just that in his book “When the New Deal Came to Town.” He examines life in his hometown of Whiteland during the 1930s. Along the way, he offers commentary on federal policy and the failure of many New Deal programs.
But it is this unique, detailed examination of life in Whiteland that will attract local readers. He mentions names and places that will strike a chord with most residents, even if they didn’t grow up in Whiteland or aren’t old enough to remember the Depression.
Melloan almost lovingly recounts the town’s businesses, describing each storefront along Main Street. Some of the buildings are still there, although the businesses are long gone. Others disappeared when Whiteland Community High School was built. But it’s still fun to imagine what was there before the school. He does the same along U.S. 31, the town’s western boundary. The eastern boundary was essentially the railroad tracks.
At one point, he writes: “On the southeast corner of Whiteland Road and Highway 31 was Tom Tribble’s Linco filling station. … Tom had a nice station but didn’t do as much business as the Gulf station northward up the highway owned by Marley Williams and managed by ‘Babe’ Baughman, who had been a Whiteland High basketball player in the 1920s and had many friends and admirers. Marley knew what he was doing when he hired Babe.”
A variety of local characters populate many of Melloan’s anecdotes. One of the most endearing people is Ralph Barger, “a hunchbacked dwarf whose face was often blackened by coal dust because he made his living in fall and winter hauling coal in his one-horse wagon from the railroad yard to the coal bins of Whiteland homes.”
Melloan tells several stories about Barger, showing the man’s industry and willingness to do whatever was necessary to get by during those lean times. Along the way, the author drops nuggets of social history. For instance, he writes that Barger “sometimes lunched at the Fishers’ store on a 10-cent baloney sandwich and a five-cent bottle of milk.”
Some of the people mentioned in the book, such as athletes George and Ray Crowe, will be readily recognized by today’s readers. Others will be familiar only to longtime residents.
Significant space is devoted to local canning operations, which formed the backbone of Johnson County’s agriculture at that time. Several companies operated plants, such as the Polks in Greenwood and Morgan Packing in Franklin. In Whiteland, the packer was Stokely, which eventually bought the Polk operation, as well.
Melloan describes in detail how the canning operations contracted with farmers and handled the harvest. These sections are especially illuminating, and recording the information will be valuable as many Johnson County residents today know little about this significant part of local history.
But the author doesn’t let his fondness for Whiteland cloud his vision. He tries to offer a warts-and-all portrayal.
The weakest portions of the book are his critique of New Deal programs, which he dismisses as nearly all failures that not only didn’t help end the Depression but in fact might have added to the nation’s problems.
The author holds particular animus toward the Federal Reserve system, which he argues should be abolished. His almost visceral contempt for this federal entity is clearly at odds with his warmer passages about local life. Fortunately, it is easy to skim past those diatribes in order to enjoy this loving portrait.
Title: When the New Deal Came to Town
Length: 240 pages
Publisher: Threshold Editions, a division of Simon and Schuster
Price: $25 hardback, $16 paperback, $4.99 e-book