This exhibit opened in October 2008 in honor of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s celebration of the 75th anniversary of the New Deal. It was accompanied by several months of programming that generated interest in our exhibit as well as the State Museum of Pennsylvania’s exhibit A Common Canvas: Pennsylvania’s New Deal Post Office Murals. CCHS coincided our exhibit opening to complement the efforts of the state museum so that we could offer Central Pennsylvanian’s the opportunity to explore the topic on several levels.

For over 10 years, CCHS member and graphics designer, David Lembeck, has been studying, documenting, and photographing Pennsylvania Post Office art. In May of 2007, CCHS acted as administrator for a PHMC grant that provided the vehicle for Mr. Lembeck to continue his research and collaborate with the PHMC on projects like A Common Canvas. It became the inspiration for CCHS to consider mounting its own exhibit that explored the effects of the Great Depression on the industrial-based Centre County economy and how the New Deal programs impacted it.

We had an opportunity to share Tough Times, Lasting Legacies with a wide range of participants, from professional historians to local school children, from Centre County residents to area visitors, many of whom are seeking comfort in the resilience of the past. For those visitors, and for the many others who experienced Tough Times and Lasting Legacies, we believe that the Centre County Historical Society did accomplish its goal of successfully providing a rich new set of narratives that contribute to a better understanding of the Depression, the New Deal, and Centre County.

Tough Times and Lasting Legacies:
The Great Depression, the New Deal and Centre County

Pennsylvania’s history as an industrial leader allowed it to be especially vulnerable to the economic breakdown that epitomized the 1930s and the Great Depression. Within four years of the stock market crash of 1929, national unemployment reached 25%, but in Pennsylvania it was a staggering 37% pushing 1.4 million people into joblessness and poverty.

Centre County was a microcosm of the Commonwealth, as its diverse geographical regions supported 102 businesses and industries including coal, lumber, brick, stone, and textile production. In 1928 they provided $3.5 million in wages to Centre County workers, but by 1932 that value fell by half when 30% of the workforce was unemployed.

The competition for jobs increased and the pressure endured by businesses, especially small business that provided “luxuries” often resulted in bankruptcy. By the end of the Great Depression, Centre County lost a quarter of all its business establishments including four of its five laundries, it’s only sporting goods store, and six ice cream parlors.

Scholars continue to study and debate the factors that led to the worst economic event of the 20th century, but the federal and state response to it is an even more complex topic. Herbert Hoover was defeated in the presidential election of 1932 on the basis that he did not acknowledge or respond quickly enough to the spiraling economy or the widespread suffering it caused. Franklin Delano Roosevelt evicted him from the White House in a landslide victory and took office in March 1933 under his pledge to create “…a new deal for the American people.”

It seemed everyone, including Congress, wanted a change and within 100 days of taking office Roosevelt won 15 major legislative approvals. Some of the New Deal’s experimental programs failed but the legacy of others continues to surround us. The Civilian Conservation Corps, Public Works Administration, Works Progress Administration, and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration provided government financed programs that created buildings, roads, landscapes and direct employment locally. State assistance through the General Spending Authority also granted the Pennsylvania State University the funds to build 9 new buildings in 1937, priming it to become the second largest college in Pennsylvania by 1939. Its expansion resulted in a measure of economic stability to State College and with it the growth that would for the first time surpass Bellefonte as a population center of the county.

The Centre County Historical Society celebrated the 75th anniversary of the New Deal with a look at the Great Depression and its effect on Centre County residents. Throughout this exhibit we explore local business and industry and the general climate in which they operated, providing a greater understanding of Centre County as we know it today.

Exhibit Panels

Tough Times Exhibit Panels
Explore all 54 information panels from this exhibit that highlight Centre County during the Great Depression. How were the coal, lumber, textiles, and agriculture industries affected? What was the role of the New Deal? And a brief look at PSU and State College.
Panel design by Daivd Lembeck; text by Angela Breeden

Exhibit Photo Booklet

Tough Times Photo Booklet
View the companion booklet to the exhibit.

Oral Histories: Growing Up During the Depression

Oral histories shared by members, Grant Sherritt and John Ziegler.

John Ziegler & Grant Sherritt, retired Professors in the College of Agriculture at Penn State, have been fast friends for 60 years now. Part of their rich lives was lived in the lean years of “The Great Depression”.

The information included in this exhibit was based on the research of Dr. William Pencak, whose participation was made possible through the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and their partnership with the Pennsylvania State University Institute for the Arts and Humanities. The work of Mike Bezilla, Benjamin McNitt, Beth Rider, John Eastlake, and Angela Breeden was also included. This exhibit was funded by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.