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Manatee History Matters: How families survived the Great Depression

Families got water at migrant camps during the Great Depression.
Families got water at migrant camps during the Great Depression. Provided photo

Florida had already been in a depression of its own by the October 1929 crash that began the Great Depression. During that time, it wasn’t unusual for Florida families to have to live on $5 a week, or around $70 in today’s value, and sometimes even less. This would include feeding your family of four, rent, gas, electricity and many more everyday items that are often taken for granted. Do you think you could do it?

Unemployment had skyrocketed, tourism had left the state, the citrus industry was hurting, and many farmers had lost their land when the banks failed. For those who were able to keep their jobs, their wages were significantly decreased. In the case of the commercial fishermen in Cortez, not only did their main catch — mullet — seem to vanish for a period of time, but when the fish did return they were only worth ¾ of a cent a pound and at the peak, 3 cents. Farmers who had managed to keep their farms were in a similar situation where their crops were worth pennies in comparison to their previous worth. Rates were so low that these industries were no longer able to provide a living wage for families.

So how did families in Manatee County manage during those years?

One way was with relief payments from the federal government. Given that the Depression had affected more than 90,000 families in Florida alone, many Manatee County residents accepted aid to make it through the economic downturn. The people of the fishing village of Cortez, however, will proudly tell you that they were one of the only locations in Florida not to accept these payments.

Even with government assistance, strong communities were essential to survival. Whether it was passing along leftovers to cook with, like soup bones, or fishermen trading fish for fruits and vegetables, it was neighbors lending a hand that made life bearable during those rough years. It also helped that many homes had their own gardens, further supplementing the decreased income.

Women also shared in the responsibility of supporting their families. In the village of Cortez, women would do laundry and rent out rooms in their homes to provide additional income.

This continued until the beginning of the job boom at the start of World War II in 1939, and for some, much longer. Hope began to take hold of the hearts of Floridians when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933. A new president brought new hope via the New Deal. Over time, Roosevelt was able to convey a sense of security to the people of America. According to Rebecca Edwards, author of “How the Great Depression Saved Florida,” he is said to have “portrayed himself as a leader; he commanded; he educated; he held your hand and was father-like” and a very important way in which he communicated was via “fireside chats over the radio.” He was able to reach the people of America in their homes in a very intimate way, thereby instilling faith in the programs of the New Deal that would help bring America out of economic depression and lead the people back to the American dream.

Stay tuned for the final article in this series featuring the benefits, which can still be seen today, of the New Deal in Manatee County and Florida.

Visit the Florida Maritime Museum 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Admission is free but donations are appreciated. The Florida Maritime Museum is located at 4415 119th St. W. Cortez. For more information please visit or call 941-708-6120.

Kristin Sweeting, visitor services coordinator for The Florida Maritime Museum, is passionate about anthropology and the environment. Email: Phone: 941-708-6120