San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

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A scrap metal likeness of a naked inmate tethered to a ball-and-chain crowned the entrance to the former Hays County Jail for decades. This is what it looked like in January 1939 during the first of Lee’s two visits to San Marcos. In 1977, Texas Monthly’s editors awarded the Hays County Commissioners Court a Bum Steer Award for its refusal to remove the unusual public art installation. According to the magazine, commissioners argued for its preservation because it had once been featured in a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not syndicated newspaper column. PHOTO by RUSSELL WERNER LEE VIA THE U.S. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

PHOTOS by RUSSELL WERNER LEE  |  ESSAY by BRAD ROLLINS

Six months after Black Tuesday, an anxious nation was beginning to believe that Wall Street — and Main Street — had somehow avoided economic ruin.

The spectacular stock market crash in late October 1929 — and the panic it caused — set off waves of bank closures. By April 1930, however, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was back up to its January 1929 numbers. Meanwhile, the percentage of workers without jobs remained well within the single digits, never exceeding 8.67 percent of the U.S. workforce in 1930.

Nationally, unemployment rates were uncomfortable but less than calamitous; locally, they were barely measurable. When census takers fanned out across Central Texas in 1930, they could find only 73 people in Hays County — 73 out of a labor force of 5,117 — who reported being unemployed.

When census workers returned to San Marcos ten years later for the 1940 headcount, they found a very different Hays County. The data they collected tell part of the story:

Nearly a quarter of the county’s working-age population — 1,247 people — were without work in 1940, a breathtaking 1,215 percent increase over the 1930 local unemployment rate.

There existed, by 1940, 168 fewer family farms in Hays County than had been in operation in 1930. Often undone by loan default or drought, one out of every five farms in Hays County were abandoned or absorbed by other farms. During the 1930s, the average farm or ranch in Hays County grew from 244.9 acres to 323.2 acres as those who did have a bit of money bought up cheap property from the banks or their broke neighbors.

The ranks of people with even a “bit of money” were demonstrably thin. In 1928 — a year before Black Tuesday — San Marcos’ three banks had 1,845 depositors. By 1932, two-thirds of those accounts had been closed, leaving only 650 bank accounts among a county with 14,915 people. Broke people did not need a bank and those who wished to avoid becoming broke often did not trust a bank.

On more than one occasion, officials could not meet City Hall’s operating expenses and were forced to walk, hat-in-hand, to Moore Grocery Store, 101 S. Edward Gary St., to ask the proprietor for a loan, according to municipal financal records.

The hardships facing Hays County folks had made Hays County fertile ground for work of the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal program charged with “aiding the poorest third of farmers displaced by the depression.”

To rally popular support for his agency’s work, director Rexford Tugwell started a sophisticated public relations program that included documentation of the living conditions endured by country people knocked flat by the depression. Starting in 1935, roving photographers working for the FSA’s Office of War Information captured more than 77,000 images of rural Americans and the communities they had built. With later acquisition of other contemporaneous photographers, the FSA-OWI archives would swell to include 170,000 photographs, according to a team of Yale University academics that recently digitized the collection.

In the estimation of the Yale team, the Farm Security Administration collection include “some of the most iconic images of the Great Depression” and “shaped the visual culture of the era both in its moment and in American memory.”

One of the documentary photography program’s road-tripping stars was Russell Werner Lee, an Illinois-born chemical engineer who quit a stable job at a Kansas City manufacturing plant in 1929 to pursue a new life in the big city. He moved to San Francisco and then to an artists colony in Woodstock, N.Y. with his wife, a painter and printmaker named Doris Emrick Lee. Russell Lee began dabbling in photography, a calling that intensified with each project he undertook.

Lee first won professional notice in 1935 with a series of empathetic but unflinching photos he took of outlaw coal miners in Pennsylvania. He landed freelance work with the FSA-OWI and joined the agency full-time as soon as a position became vacant.

By the time he embarked on the 1939-1940 expedition that brought him to San Marcos, Lee had visited 28 states on behalf of the FSA and built an extensive body of work based on depictions of Americans riding out poverty in places like Jersey Homestead, N.J.; Indianola, Iowa; and Antelope, Mont.

Most of Lee’s San Marcos photographs were taken at the Cen-Tex Wool and Mohair Co. where workers — including at least two wiry women caught by Lee’s lens — used heavy machinery to prep wool for textile mills. Of the 27 known photographs he took in San Marcos during visits in January 1939 and March 1940, eighteen are of the wool plant, which opened in 1924 on Uhland Road along the railroad tracks.

The remainder of Lee’s images of San Marcos are an assortment of street scenes: There’s one of an old Hays County jail and its silhouette of an inmate wearing a ball-and-chain displayed prominently above the front door. There’s another of a handyman working outside the front door of State Bank and Trust, the handsome 1891 building on the northwest corner of the courthouse square.

And there’s a photograph of political candidate’s Model A parked outside the courthouse on the downtown square. A hand-lettered sign in the old Ford’s window proclaims: “EDWIN WALLER FOR A BILL TO PREVENT SALE OF HOMESTEAD FOR TAXES.”

RUSSELL WERNER LEE’s constant travel for the Farm Security Administration strained his marriage beyond repair; in 1938, he and Doris Emerick divorced. In 1947, Lee moved to Austin where, in 1965, he became a University of Texas at Austin photography instructor in the arts faculty. Prior to his death in 1986, Lee donated hundreds of his photographs and personal papers to the University of Texas’s Center for American Studies and its Harry Ransom Center. Texas State University’s Wittliff Collections also holds 21 boxes of Lee’s correspondence, awards, artifacts and photographs, 130 of which are rare, vintage Farm Security Administration prints.

I’ve always told the students, you must be honest with this camera. If you find that you have taken a picture which is untrue you must never let it be used. You must kill it.”
RUSSELL WERNER LEE
to biographer F. Jack Hurley

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Between 1924 and 1949, the Cen-Tex Wool and Mohair Co. was an important connection between the Hill Country’s sheep and goat farmers in the market to sell and textile manufacturers in the market to buy. Workers at the plant “scoured” the sheered fleece with a warm alkaline solution as part of a process of cleaning and drying sheep and goat hair. After a decline starting in about 1900, the Texas wool and mohair industry was revived during World War I when a national initiative urged farmers to “Raise More Wool, according to the Handbook of Texas. In 2005, the former plant and its 121-acre grounds were listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Cen-Tex Wool Mill Historic District. PHOTO by RUSSELL WERNER LEE VIA THE U.S. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

I have always believed in keeping my technique as simple as possible in the field. If I had begun to string wires for multiple flash exposures, I would have lost many important pictures. Remember also I was traveling alone in those days so I had to keep it simple.”

RUSSELL WERNER LEE
to biographer F. Jack Hurley

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Some of the downtown buildings photographed by Lee in 1940 are still standing, substantially unchanged. These include the State Bank and Trust Co., built in an Italinate- and Greek-influence Classical Revival style at the corner of northwest corner of Guadalupe and Fort, long since renamed Hopkins. About 15 years before Lee took the picture, the Old State Bank was robbed by the four Newton brothers, who made off with between $20,000 and $30,000 in cash and bonds but left sacks of silver sitting in the vault. Lee also photographed a mural painted on 112. E. Hopkins St. advertising the cotton grower who officed inside; the fourth Hays County Courthouse, designed by architect C.H. Page of Austin and completed in 1909; and a Firestone shop draped with 52 use tires aligned in a grid. PHOTO by RUSSELL WERNER LEE VIA THE U.S. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

I was interested in how people lived … I felt that the inside of a house was a very important part of showing how people lived. … I’d go in a bedroom and maybe I’d see something on a bedside table that would interest me. The things people kept around them could tell you an awful lot about the antecedents of these people.”

RUSSELL WERNER LEE
to biographer F. Jack Hurley

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During his March 1940 visit, Russell Lee apparently crossed paths with perennial candidate Edwin Waller III, at the time seeking a seat in the Texas House of Representatives. Waller, whose grandfather signed the Texas Declaration of Independence and later became the first mayor of Austin, never won elected offices, despite a reported 19 attempts. A year after this photo was taken, Waller shared a ballot with Gov. W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel and then-U.S. Rep. Lyndon Johnson in a special election for a vacant U.S. Senate seat. Johnson lost the election to O’Daniel but fared better than Waller, whose 28 votes placed him 26th out of 27 contenders. PHOTO by RUSSELL WERNER LEE VIA THE U.S. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The San Marcos Mercury’s BEHOLD blog showcases the work of Texas artists and photographers. For information, send us a note.

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    5 thoughts on “Behold: A New Deal photographer’s somber images
    of San Marcos during the Great Depression

    1. Wow. These are something. And the article is nicely written.

      Anyone know where that Firestone station was and if the building still stands? If you follow the yale.edu link to the entire San Marcos photo archive, you can see another view of the same business.

    2. Too bad, though, about the bank. The interior used to be fairly well preserved, though since Hill Country Grill closed, it’s been hollowed out to make room for — you guessed it! — dancing college students.

      I sometimes think San Marcos must feel like my mom did back when she was raising six kids. Poor mom. To this day, I can hear her: “I can never have nice things!”

    3. The service station was at the SW corner of the courthouse square – if you look closely at the second view you can see the courthouse roof. I think the oil company sign, or one just like it – is inside the Showdown bar.

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