Great Depression

By: Ben H. Procter

Revised by: Brian A. Cervantez

Type: General Entry

Published: October 1, 1995

Updated: June 28, 2021

Texans were optimistic about the future in January 1929. Over the past decade the state population had increased to 5,824,715, representing a gain of more than one million people, or almost 25 percent. Although geared to one crop—"Cotton is King"—the economy was somewhat diversified. In East Texas the Piney Woods accounted for a substantial lumber industry; in the lower Rio Grande valley, with the introduction of irrigation, both truck and citrus farming had proved extremely profitable; on the Edwards Plateau and in West Texas, livestock had established the state as the nation's number-one producer of hides and wool and mohair; and at many oftentimes isolated sites such as Desdemona and Wink, wildcatters pursued the legacy of the Spindletop oilfield by producing vast amounts of oil and gas. In fact, Texans prided themselves on their situation, in being the largest state—indeed more spacious in area than any western European nation—and in maintaining the American frontier traits of rugged individualism, of fierce competitiveness, of unblushing patriotism. At the same time they had solidified and strengthened their economic position through political action. On the state level in 1928 they had reelected Dan Moody as governor, a brilliant lawyer versed in administrative efficiency and dedicated to "wiping out debts and lowering taxes," while on the national front they had for the first time voted for a Republican for the presidency. Herbert Clark Hoover of Iowa, with a strong belief in future prosperity for the country, had touched their wallets and won their purse-string allegiance. In addition to the prosperity factor was the issue of controversial Democratic nominee Alfred E. Smith. Catholic, urban-born, progressive in policies, yet educated politically by boss-dominated Tammany Hall, Smith was anathema to a majority of Texans, who were Protestant, agrarian conservatives and who openly embraced the return of morality and traditional American values nominally espoused by the Ku Klux Klan.

But on "Black Tuesday," October 29, 1929, all such optimism ended, as 16,000,000 shares of stock changed hands and the New York Times industrial average plunged nearly forty points, thus marking the worst day in Wall Street history to that point. Over the next few weeks stocks on the New York exchange fell by 40 percent, a loss of $26 billion. Concerned and apprehensive, President Hoover reasoned that since the stock market was responsible for the collapse, the way to recovery was to correct the weaknesses within that institution. Having fashioned United States domestic policy over the past nine years, both as secretary of commerce and as president, he could not conceive that the entire economy was unsound. He therefore inundated the news media with expressions of confidence, with continual testimonials by cabinet members and business leaders. For instance, on November 4, 1929, Henry Ford announced that "things are better today than they were yesterday." To keep up the prevailing tempo Hoover also resorted to numerous meetings and conferences at the White House and time and again predicted that the depression was at an end or soon would be. Almost to a person Texans agreed. Through 1930 they persisted in their optimism, in their belief that the depression affected only those moneyed "gamblers" in the stock market, and in their denunciation of greedy Easterners who tried to undermine the sound United States economy. They therefore readily supported Hoover's morale crusade. After all, they relied upon the land of their forefathers as well as cattle and oil—and fortunately the 1929 cotton crop had already been harvested and sold at a healthy price. Besides, New York and financial chaos were far away; and, if need be, Texans could always produce enough from their farms to keep from going hungry.

Even in urban Texas this mind-set prevailed, with both community leaders and news media indulging in unrealistic logic and provincial pride. In Fort Worth the Record-Telegram and Star-Telegram, until the spring of 1931, pointed to increased construction, railroad traffic, oil production, and cattle and poultry sales as stabilizing, if not propitious, influences. "As a matter of fact, in America, we don't know what hard times are," a 1930 Star-Telegram editorial asserted. In Austin both university expenditures and state government employment bolstered the economy, while the political activities of the Forty-first Texas Legislature occupied much of the newspaper space. Even though swarms of insects had devastated a bumper crop and the stock market crash had the sobering effect of sweeping away "paper profits and some cash," local merchants, fearing that pessimistic headlines might have deleterious consequences in the economy, boomed the city through advertisements. Typical of their rhetoric was a paid plea to "talk Austin, write about Austin, work for Austin, and live for Austin." In Dallas, business in construction was flourishing in 1930; recent arrivals the year before had seen to that. The East Texas oil boom, centering around Kilgore, lessened thoughts of depression until the summer of 1931, when overproduction and falling prices affected the city economy. Oil prices plummeted so precipitously by this point that Governor Ross Sterling declared martial law and temporarily shut down the East Texas oilfield, a widely-criticized move that was followed by Texas Railroad Commission rule regulating oil production. In Houston, optimism was initially equally high at the beginning of the depression. Although fear of depression was widespread during the first months following the crash, the Post-Dispatch offered a continual salve. "More and more it appears," the editor asserted on November 17, 1929, that "the changes in stock prices are purely an affair of and for stock speculators." Again in March 1930, after the mayor had dismissed a number of city employees and 600 demonstrators had marched in protest, the Post-Dispatch announced that "Houston is comparatively free of discontent due to economic conditions." Besides, with proceeds from a busy port massaging the local economy, with oil refineries being constructed to meet increasing needs of production, and with financier-banker Jesse H. Jones as their leader, Houstonians temporarily ignored harsh realities. And in San Antonio, business leaders seemed afraid to admit depression, especially in the Express, even though unemployment and bleak economic conditions were omnipresent. An October 1930 front-page article in the Express reported that San Antonio was "one of five which men of billions...[were] looking to invest their money"; another on October 5 debunked the "talk of `depression' and `money shortage'"; and still another on September 28 noted that economists were predicting "better store for San Antonio and the rest of the United States."

As depression worsened across the United States in 1931 and 1932 Texans eventually had to recognize its existence, then attempt to combat its devastating effects. Since the Hoover administration seemed incapable of meeting the people's needs, private charities shouldered the burdens of the poor and desperate until funds were exhausted, whereupon city governments and community leaders intervened. At Temple in Bell County, after two banks folded in 1931 and cotton dropped between five and six cents a pound, the Retail Merchants Association issued scrip—as did the San Antonio School Board—in denominations of twenty-five cents, fifty cents, and one dollar. In Midland, Dallas, and Fort Worth the chambers of commerce sponsored gardening projects, either donating land and seed or encouraging people to plant vegetables. In turn, businessmen in Fort Worth and San Antonio pledged to hire laborers on a part-time or weekly basis but at the same time passed ordinances not to hire transients; hobo jungles, soon to be called "Hoovervilles," alarmed Texans. To obtain more money for relief, to provide soup kitchens and breadlines as well as shelter for the hapless, any number of cities—Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin—sponsored plays or musicals, the proceeds of which went to charity. In rural Texas economic conditions during 1931 and 1932 also deteriorated. But farmers, many of whom were sharecroppers and tenants, were already accustomed to some poverty and therefore did not always realize the degrees of hardship. Yet, as prices plummeted, as drought exacerbated their plight, as debts rose and foreclosures mounted alarmingly, they sought relief from their worsening situation. For example, noted celebrity Will Rogers, with the backing of Star-Telegram publisher Amon Carter, mounted a fundraising tour through Central and West Texas to raise funds for drought-stricken farmers in 1931. Yet neither Governor Ross Sterling of Texas nor the Hoover administration, although funneling some funds to farmers through the RFC (Reconstruction Finance Corporation), reversed this dire trend. The depression had indeed overwhelmed them.

Also overwhelmed by the ravages of depression were those Texans whose economic position was already tenuous. Not surprisingly, African-Americans found themselves hardest hit as the average Black family’s earnings fell as well from $978 in 1928 to a low of $874 in 1933. In rural areas, plummeting farm prices and the continuing trend of mechanization of agriculture combined to take their toll on Black Texans, forcing many of them either off the land or into lower status as farm laborers. By 1935 an estimated 90 percent of African American farm laborers were unable to find gainful employment. Urban Black Texans were not any better off than their rural counterparts. For example, even though Black Austinites were just 18.5 percent of the population, 35.6 percent of the city’s unemployed population was Black. And while urban Texas was not spared the worst of the depression, conditions in the countryside encouraged migration to the cities especially by Black Texans. As a matter of fact, the state’s African American urban population grew by more than 180,000 during the decade, thus creating tighter competition for the shrinking blue-collar jobs typically reserved for Black Texans at the time. And while legal efforts in Texas to undermine Jim Crow accelerated during the depression in spite of low funding, any gains made through the courts were negligible, and Black Texans would have to wait several more years before rulings such as Smith v. Allwright (1944) began to weaken the structure.

Mexican Americans did not fare much better, as both migrants and urban dwellers entered the depression decade already in a tenuous socioeconomic position. Rural Tejanos, generally paid lower wages than their White counterparts, found themselves the target of the ire of their White neighbors who struggled to find work. One Fort Bend County White tenant farmer grumbled, “This county is literally overrun with Mexicans. … I am an up-to-date cotton and truck farmer and a good gang foreman, but as I am not a Mexican, there is no work for me.” Such attitudes were not rare across agricultural regions of the state. The United States Immigration Service targeted Mexican Americans of both legal and undocumented status for deportation, and between 1929 and 1939, around 250,000 returned to Mexico from Texas either as result of said deportation or voluntary repatriation (see MEXICAN AMERICANS AND REPATRIATION). Of course, many of them remained. Yet, Mexican Texans refused to accept a position of passive victimhood. On the eve of the depression, delegates representing several fraternal societies met to create the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), an organization which saw its membership expand during the 1930s. In San Antonio, Tejanas such as Emma Tenayuca organized a number of strikes protesting low wages and unhealthy working conditions in the cigar and pecan industries with varying degrees of success (see PECAN-SHELLERS’ STRIKE).

The fact that women organized and led these strikes reflected the growing number of women in the urban workforce. Granted, Texas women of all ethnicities and races discovered that the depression amplified already existing challenges, and many were criticized for seeking employment during the depression on the grounds that they took jobs from well-deserving men. Yet, more than half a million Texas women worked for wages. Many more, especially Black women, would have worked if the opportunity was available. One should not ignore the fact that many other Texas women who did not work for wages continued to toil daily on the family farm, especially as falling cotton prices in the early years of the depression led many farmers to grow more cotton and thus require more field labor. One woman, Wilma Edwards, recounted how her mother stood “over that hot stove all day long. . .pregnant with my brother, prepar[ing] hundreds of cans of beef and everything in the year of 1931 and ’32, all kinds of vegetables, and preserve[ing] all kinds of fruits.”

Consequently, Texans sought new solutions to their problems. President Hoover, whom they had ardently supported for more than two years, was now a villain of huge proportions, a betrayer of capitalism and democracy, the man who was responsible for their economic calamity. With grim satisfaction they readily endorsed the debunking of their hero by calling—sometimes laughingly, sometimes savagely—armadillos "Hoover hogs," tent and tar-paper hobo jungles "Hoovervilles," and pants pockets turned inside out "Hoover flags." So when Democrats nominated Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt of New York for president and John Nance (Cactus Jack) Garner of Uvalde for vice president in the summer of 1932, the election choice was evident. Texans agreed that a "New Deal for the forgotten man" required their backing; the Democratic ticket garnered 88.6 percent of the state vote. Residents of the state, hoping for immediate returns on their political decision, were not disappointed. The state representation in Washington was powerful and influential. Besides Garner, who performed the "role as liaison man between the administration and Congress" until 1937 and who was considered by some to be "the most powerful Vice President in history," Sam Rayburn of Bonham figured prominently. In the House he chaired the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee; and, as Garner's acknowledged protégé, he was in line for majority leader and, eventually, speaker. Six other Texans also held House chairmanships, including James P. Buchanan of Brenham on Appropriations, Hatton W. Sumners of Dallas on Judiciary, and Marvin Jones of Amarillo on Agriculture; while in the upper house Morris Sheppard headed the Military Affairs Committee and Tom (Thomas T.) Connally chaired Public Buildings and Grounds. Equally if not more impressive was the position of Jesse H. Jones. As head of the RFC he managed an economic empire within the government. By 1938 he had disbursed $10 billion to financial institutions, agriculture, railroads, and public works—and, remarkably, practically all of the money was later repaid.

Conservative and mostly from rural areas, the Texas delegation members were, Congressman George H. Mahon candidly stated, "Democrats first and New Dealers second." But more than anything else they were Texans interested in economic recovery for the United States, hence for their state. Philosophically most of them agreed during Roosevelt's first term with Jones, who bluntly told a convention of resentful bankers in 1933 to be smart, for once, and take the government into partnership. They therefore figured prominently in New Deal legislation. In banking, Garner and Jones—over Roosevelt's opposition—helped incorporate the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation into the Glass-Steagall Banking Act. To correct many weaknesses in the stock market, Rayburn was instrumental in passing the Truth in Securities Act and the Securities Exchange Act. He was also important in such legislation as the Emergency Railroad Transportation Act, the Federal Communications Act, the Rural Electrification Act, and the Public Utility Holding Company Act. In Agriculture, Marvin Jones helped restructure the agrarian economy in 1933 by aiding passage of the Emergency Farm Mortgage Act, the Farm Credit Act, and the Agricultural Adjustment Act as well as providing drought-relief funds for the Panhandle and West Texas. In 1934 he aided Texas ranchers with the Jones-Connally Act and sugar producers with the Jones-Costigan Sugar Act. The Texas delegation, overall, supported the National Industrial Recovery Act and emergency unemployment, ever mindful that a good deal of federal aid would find its way to Texas.

Officials on the state level during FDR's first term were not nearly as effective. In November 1932 former governor Miriam A. (Ma) Ferguson defeated incumbent governor Ross Sterling, who was a victim of depression politics as well as election fraud in East Texas. After her inauguration in January, she, with the help of her husband, former governor James E. (Pa) Ferguson (who had been impeached in 1917), tried to deal with the state's pressing economic problems. To avert a financial panic, she boldly—and with questionable constitutional authority—declared a bank moratorium on March 2; then, rather fortunately, three days later Roosevelt sustained her decree by proclaiming a national bank holiday and promising to reopen all suspended banks within a short time, but under federal guidelines. At the same time, with estimates that the state debt was in the $14 million range, Governor Ferguson repeatedly but unsuccessfully proposed to the legislature both state sales and income taxes. Except for the passage of a two-cent-a-barrel tax on oil, she could reduce deficits only by cutting appropriations. An even more important issue for the Ferguson administration was unemployment and relief—a problematic matter that led to scandal. When late in 1932 the RFC made substantial funds available to the governor, who, in turn, was to dispense money to counties through three regional chambers of commerce, the Fergusons were delighted. Here was an excellent opportunity to build an even more powerful political machine with federal money. By executive order, therefore, Mrs. Ferguson established the Texas Relief Commission and selected Lawrence Westbrook as director. Immediately she and Pa and Westbrook brought local relief administrations into their organization and placed the funds in pet banks. Then in May 1933, after Congress passed the Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA), they had an even greater windfall to administer, with the Texas Rehabilitation and Relief Commission specifically created by the legislature to oversee and distribute federal money through a system of county boards. Jim Ferguson, at the behest of his wife, became the commission chairman, although without a legal right to do so. Together with Westbrook and several appointees, he filled county boards with constituents and friends.

To keep their political machine well oiled, the Fergusons needed money—and lots of it. Consequently they pressured the legislature to approve a $20 million relief bond issue in the form of a constitutional amendment upon which the electorate would vote. Then they used every possible maneuver to get it adopted. They padded payrolls with supporters, paid poll taxes for "their voters," and financed the campaign, oftentimes with federal funds. The situation in Bexar County exemplified their tactics. Bexar County had 252 people on its payroll with monthly salaries as large as $300, whereas the average county had about fifty employees and sometimes paid them very little. Of course, the Fergusons also appealed to basic greed as well as human compassion. "We told them [social workers] if they wanted more money to give out that they had better vote with us," Bexar County relief administrator Tex Alsbury testified, "and we got them to get the precinct vote. The people...were out of work and money. They were hungry and they lined up to vote." As a final coup de grâce, the Fergusons persuaded FERA administrator Harry Hopkins to join the campaign. In a radio address three days before the election he announced that "the federal government has no intention of continuing to pay 95 percent of the Texas relief bill after the bond election on Saturday." Hence on August 26, 1933, Texans approved of relief for the unemployed. But the Fergusons' ambitious tactics brought questions of corruption, and both legislative chambers called for an investigation. During the fall of 1933 a Senate investigating committee heard conflicting testimony. Yet the issue was soon resolved after Westbrook, director of the Texas Relief Commission, admitted under oath, "I know that in some instances outright fraud has been committed, forgeries, misapplication of funds." As a result, A. R. Johnson, the Austin city manager, replaced Westbrook on February 12, 1934, thus destroying the Ferguson relief machine.

Still another issue during the Ferguson years was the lack of law and order, a problem involving the Texas Rangers, who, during the Democratic primary late in July 1932 supported Governor Ross Sterling—a grave error politically, especially in the Ferguson stronghold of East Texas. In January 1933 the new governor fired every ranger for such partisanship—forty-four in all. The results were disastrous. The legislature reduced new ranger salaries, eliminated longevity pay, slashed travel budgets, and limited force personnel to thirty-two men. Mrs. Ferguson then appointed new officers, many of whom "by any standard," historian Steve Schuster candidly asserted, "were a contemptible lot." In less than a year one private was convicted of murder; several others in Company D, after having raided a gambling hall in Duval County, were found to have set up their own establishment with the confiscated equipment; and still another, a captain, was arrested for theft and embezzlement. But even worse, the governor began using special ranger commissions as a source of political patronage. Within two years she enlarged the group of special rangers to 2,344 men, thus prompting the Austin American to comment that "about all the requirements a person be a Special Ranger was to be a human being." The effects of the rangers' becoming a source of patronage, corruption, and ridicule directed toward state law enforcement were, of course, catastrophic. During the Ferguson years crime and violence became widespread, bank holdups and murder commonplace. Soon few states could claim a more vicious assortment of gangsters or provide a safer sanctuary for the criminal element. For instance, residents in the Dallas-Fort Worth area alone included George "Machine-Gun" Kelly, Raymond Hamilton, and "mad-dog killers" Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Who besides Ma Ferguson was responsible for this breakdown in the public defense? To most Texans the answer was obvious. As one newspaper sarcastically remarked, "A Ranger commission and a nickel will get...a cup of coffee anywhere in Texas."

Since Mrs. Ferguson decided not to seek reelection in 1934 (she honored the two-term tradition, having first served as governor from 1925 to 1927), the Democratic primary was wide open. Then James (Jimmie) Allred stepped into the breach. Clean-cut looking and personable, the thirty-five-year-old Allred was easily the front runner in the lackluster gubernatorial campaign. As Texas attorney general for the past four years, he had the greatest name recognition of the candidates; he received powerful support from such men as Vice President Garner, Jesse Jones, and former governor Ross Sterling; and he had a well-financed campaign to help him tout the virtues of the New Deal as well as stricter enforcement of the law. Allred led the field of six candidates in the Democratic primary and then defeated wealthy oilman Tom Hunter of Wichita Falls by 40,000 votes in the primary runoff. In November he was the victor over Republican D. E. Wagonner. Once elected, Allred ensured his tenure as governor for four years by bringing New Deal money to Texas. He immediately sought permission to issue the remaining $3.5 million from the $20 million relief bonds passed in August 1933 and hinted that the federal government might give matching funds for old-age pensions. He next decided to replace the dole to the unemployed with direct work relief. Hence, he focused on the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Work Projects Administration (WPA), National Youth Administration, and Public Works Administration (PWA). As a consequence Texas received, one report stated, more than $166 million by August 31, 1936, of which Washington proffered more than $96 million; another source estimated the total to be $350 million by the end of the year.

The CCC, a nationwide program for young men that focused on natural resources from 1933 to 1942, was very active in Texas. At its peak in 1935 the corps had twenty-seven camps in Texas constructing recreational parks and an additional seventy camps for work in forest and soil conservation. Because assignment to states was random, many Texans participated in other states' CCC camps, joining some 2,500,000 men across the country. Most men earned thirty dollars a month and were required to send at least twenty-five dollars of that to their families. In addition to this economic aid, the CCC left an architectural legacy in Texas, seen today in buildings in thirty-one state parks and several city and county parks. The NYA also greatly benefited Texans, specifically those of ages sixteen to twenty-five. Under the leadership of twenty-seven-year-old Lyndon Baines Johnson, the state program provided support for high school students in 248 counties as well as for young people in eighty-three colleges and universities. For two years, beginning in the summer of 1935, Johnson employed 10,000 to 18,000 students a month "at various part-time clerical or maintenance jobs earning a maximum $6.00 per month in high school and $15.00 in college." In out-of-school work programs he hired more than 12,000 young Texans who, in turn, constructed 250 roadside parks, graveled the shoulders of 2,000 miles of highway, improved or built recreational facilities in seventy-six state parks, and refurbished the playgrounds of public schools. But the emergency public employment programs of the PWA and WPA were equally if not more helpful to the state economy. In Fort Worth, for example, these federal agencies expended $15 million on a variety of projects. From 1935 to 1938 they "completely modernized the entire school system," historian John McClung asserted, "making it one of the best in the state." The PWA constructed thirteen school buildings and made additions to thirteen more, while rehabilitating most of the existing structures. In conjunction with these projects, the agency "landscaped and beautified fifty-four of the existing sixty-three school grounds." These agencies also provided funds for red-brick roads, some of which are still in existence; the 12,000-seat concrete high school stadium named Farrington Field; Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum and Auditorium; John Peter Smith City-County Hospital; a new city hall and jail; a new public library; and the famous Fort Worth Rose Garden. Together with the Federal Writers' Project (see TEXAS WRITERS’ PROJECT), whereby scholars were hired to index newspapers and record local history, the Federal Theater Project and the Federal Art Project provided money for artists and thespians to develop their crafts.

Not all Texans enjoyed full access to the benefits of the New Deal, though some racial and ethnic minorities were recipients of New Deal largess. Some, especially Tejanas, found employment in WPA-sponsored sewing rooms. Not all who were eligible for federal programs enrolled however, as fears of deportation kept many Tejanos from seeking these benefits. As with Tejanas, Black women discovered that the New Deal provided limited benefits. For example, only 3 percent of WPA workers in Texas were Black women, and those that were employed faced persistent discrimination. In the words of San Antonio residents B. E. Bone and I. M. Howard, “They treated us very bad at the WPA office.” At the same time, however, through Lyndon Johnson’s efforts, NYA programs helped 19,000 young African Americans, the primary requisite for selection being that of "need."

Another aid to the state's economy at this time was the Texas Centennial celebration in 1936. Despite the depression, the Texas Centennial Commission was formed in September 1934 to plan the celebration; the legislature passed an appropriations bill for the effort in April 1935. With additional federal assistance, the state centered its activities on Dallas, where a $25 million effort was put into transforming Fair Park into a world's fair with permanent buildings. Work proceeded quickly, and with a very positive effect on the local economy, and in June 1936 President Roosevelt joined Governor Allred, who was campaigning for his second term, in visiting the grounds. In addition to the Dallas festivities, the celebration included a program of permanent monuments, markers, museums, and restorations, as well as a highly successful publicity and advertising campaign.

Allred was a willing conduit for massive amounts of federal funds. At the same time, however, he dealt with a number of state problems that greatly affected his constituency. In both regular and several special sessions the legislators, at his behest, authorized a state planning board, appropriated $11 million for higher education, and set aside $10 million for rural relief. Allred also established the Texas Department of Public Safety, which brought the famed Texas Rangers and the uniformed Highway Patrol under one aegis, thereby fulfilling one of his major campaign promises—better law enforcement. After Congress passed the National Social Security Act in August 1935, he pushed through complementary legislation having to do with old-age pensions, unemployment compensation, teacher retirement, and aid for needy children and the blind. At the same time he increased the state deficit to $19 million. Because he made needed reforms and provided governmental service, Jimmie Allred, as the New Deal governor of Texas, governed popularly—and reasonably well.

Yet in 1937–38, despite great political influence in Washington, ready access to federal money, and Allred's leadership, a number of Texans began to harbor grave reservations about the New Deal and, particularly, the power of the president. After the November elections of 1936, in which Roosevelt carried all but two states (the electoral vote was 523 to 8), Vice President Garner appeared to be more and more alienated. With increasing frequency he openly criticized New Deal spending programs, while abhorring labor's newest tactic against management, the sit-down strike. Texans were further distanced from the president when, on February 5, 1937, he announced his plan to reorganize the judiciary, including a proposal to increase the membership of the United States Supreme Court. This controversial recommendation, which would allow the president to add a justice (up to six) to the court each time an incumbent member turned seventy but did not retire, was Roosevelt's attempt to overcome the high court's rulings against various New Deal laws. Garner, together with Sam Rayburn, Hatton Sumners, Tom Connally, and most of the Texas delegation, was firmly opposed. The plan ultimately failed in Congress (see COURT-PACKING PLAN OF 1937). Then, in the mid-year elections of 1938, Roosevelt committed the ultimate political sin, as far as they were concerned; he tried to purge the Democratic party of those who had opposed New Deal programs. On his hit list were eight Texas congressmen—Martin Dies, Richard M. Kleberg, Fritz (Frederick G.) Lanham, Joseph J. Mansfield, Milton H. West, Clyde L. Garrett, Nat Patton, and Sumners—all of whom won against Roosevelt men in the primaries, while New Deal incumbents Fontaine Maury Maverick and W. D. McFarlane lost. These political events, coupled with the formation of a vitriolic anti-Roosevelt group who called themselves Jeffersonian Democrats (led by J. Evetts Haley, Joseph W. Bailey, Jr., and J. M. West), nurtured dissent and unrest throughout the state against the New Deal.

But in the spring of 1938 a political phenomenon took place in Texas that overshadowed these party struggles and allowed Texans to focus upon one central figure—Wilbert Lee ("Please pass the biscuits, Pappy") O'Daniel. A Fort Worth businessman and radio personality who sold Hillbilly Flour with an accompanying band known as the Hillbilly Boys, Pappy O'Daniel announced his candidacy for governor on May 1, 1938, after receiving more than 54,000 letters in one week "begging" him to run. He then proceeded to dumbfound political analysts and stun his opponents. Using campaign techniques that resembled the old-fashioned revivalism of camp meetings, he stumped the state in a bus and played traditional songs and gospel music before passing collection plates in the form of barrels labeled "Flour-not Pork." Texans had not seen anything like him, not even Jim Ferguson. For what could opponents say about a man whose platform was the Ten Commandments and motto the Golden Rule, who pledged a pension of thirty dollars a month for every Texan over sixty-five, and who recited to attentive, enraptured audiences such poems as "The Boy Who Never Got Too Old To Comb His Mother's Hair"? When newsmen and opponents pointed out that O'Daniel had not been civic-minded enough to pay a $1.75 poll tax in order to vote, he damned the professional politicians and declared that "no politician in Texas is worth $1.75." In a field of thirteen, which included Attorney General William McCraw of Dallas, Railroad Commissioner Ernest O. Thompson of Amarillo, and Tom Hunter of Wichita Falls, O'Daniel soon became the front runner; and in the July Democratic primary he won by a majority of 30,000 votes.

For almost three years the O'Daniel aura held sway in state politics, although having little legislative impact. After his inauguration in January 1939, at which 100,000 people jammed into Memorial Stadium at the University of Texas, the new governor quickly demonstrated his inability to lead, his ineptness in dealing with the legislature, and his lack of understanding of the art of government. To support his pension plan and provide money for a state budget, O'Daniel proposed a 1.6 percent tax on business transactions, actually a well-concealed multiple sales tax, which the legislature promptly rejected. He then campaigned for a constitutional amendment whereby the electorate would vote upon the merits of a state sales tax; however, a militant minority in the House—the "56 Club"—prevented its passage. Consequently, to cut costs as well as retaliate against hostile legislators, he line-item-vetoed a number of appropriations that were important to the well-being of Texans: new buildings for state hospitals; beds for epileptics, orphans, and the feeble-minded; the funds for the Texas Department of Public Safety and State Highway Department. This last economy resulted in the Texas Rangers having, at times, "to borrow ammunition from highway patrolmen." Equally inappropriate, if not laughable, were many of his appointments. For example, as state labor commissioner he selected a desk worker at Southwestern Bell Telephone Company who was not even an officer in his own union and whose only qualification was a letter he wrote praising one of O'Daniel's radio addresses. For the state highway commission O'Daniel chose oil man J. M. West of Houston, a leading Jeffersonian Democrat; the Senate, fearing the possible loss of federal road funds, immediately rejected this nomination.

Despite this carnival in Austin and his lack of accomplishment, O'Daniel remained strong with the people. In the Democratic primary of 1940 he proved that his first election was not a fluke, that his vote-getting powers were a reality. Against a fairly strong field, including Ma Ferguson, Railroad Commissioner Jerry Sadler, Highway Commissioner Harry Hines, and Ernest O. Thompson, he polled a majority of a little more than 102,000 votes. In the spring of 1941 the stalemate between the governor and the legislature therefore continued—that is, until circumstances dictated a political realignment—and O'Daniel staged an accompanying farce. On April 9 United States senator Morris Sheppard died, and O'Daniel, although himself desiring the position, had to appoint a "suitable and qualified" interim replacement. So on San Jacinto Day, April 21, he selected someone who would never be a threat to his own candidacy, eighty-seven-year-old Andrew Jackson Houston, the only surviving son of Sam Houston. One veteran politician observed that he was already "in his dotage," or, putting it less charitably, he stated, "That old man probably couldn't tell you whether the sun was up or had gone down." At any rate, Houston was sworn in on June 2 and filled this prestigious position until his death later in the month. In the meantime O'Daniel geared himself for the June special election to fill Sheppard's seat. The competition was formidable. Besides Congressman Martin Dies and Attorney General Gerald Mann, the young congressman Lyndon Baines Johnson, who received the support of FDR as well as most of the moneyed people in Texas, announced against him. A number of people actually wanted to get O'Daniel out of Texas, however, by sending him to Washington. Reputedly Jim Ferguson, who "had been very friendly with the liquor interests for close to three decades," feared that the governor would appoint "good clean honest Christian dry citizens" to the state Liquor Control Board and was thus campaigning for his election. But more important for O'Daniel was the tremendous support from the friends of Lieutenant Governor Coke Stevenson, who would inherit the governorship if O'Daniel went to the Senate. After a hard-fought, expensive campaign O'Daniel once again proved his resiliency by receiving a plurality of votes over LBJ of 175,590 to 174,279. In August 1941, with O'Daniel's resignation, Stevenson became governor. The turbulent rivalry between the executive and legislative branches subsided—and none too soon. Within four months, on December 7, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II.


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Time Periods:
  • Great Depression

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Ben H. Procter Revised by Brian A. Cervantez, “Great Depression,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 28, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

October 1, 1995
June 28, 2021