Chalfant: Sedalians show their generosity during the Great Depression

July 24, 2013

During the Great Depression, over 700 families were on relief, as government assistance to the poor was then called. After the Works Progress Act was instituted in 1935, many of Sedalia’s unemployed found work canning vegetables, producing wool fabric, sorting donated clothes, and building and repairing roads and public buildings.

Prior to the WPA, however, Sedalia’s poor survived with help from the local churches, service clubs, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and the welfare office, managed by Ruth Barnum and Mrs. A.J.Moserschel.

At Christmas 1932, various groups helped provide dinner for the poor and toys for needy children. In February 1933, many Sedalians were still in need. Exceptionally cold weather and a diphtheria epidemic made the winter particularly difficult for the poor.

The Feb. 8, 1933 edition of the Sedalia Democrat carried two articles related to aid for the needy.

Captain Margaret Callend, of the Sedalia’s Salvation Army unit, asked the public to donate coal, food or clothing in order to help keep the poor from suffering. She provided the Salvation Army’s phone number so residents could donate. Doing without food, clothing, and fuel was a tragedy to the poor, Callend noted, but it was equally a tragedy to Salvation Army volunteers if they could not meet the people’s needs.

That same morning, Sedalia attorney J. T. Montgomery sent a check for $100 (approximately $1770 in today’s purchasing power) to the local Red Cross. He specified the money was to be used to buy coal for poor families with children. Montgomery had arranged with Milton Coal Company to provide the coal. He had also arranged with Barnum to locate needy families to receive the coal.

Albert Wright, who worked at the Milton Coal Company, arranged for the coal to be delivered in city trucks by unemployed men who would be paid for their labor. The savings in delivery charges enabled ten extra families to receive a donation of coal. The wages the workers received helped their families.

Mr. Montgomery had asked that his name not be used in relation to the gift, but Red Cross secretary Mrs. M.D. Norton convinced him that using his name might serve as an example that would encourage others to donate.

The Democrat further encouraged its readers to be charitable by noting that “Many persons may desire to follow Mr. Montgomery’s example by sending a ton or more of coal to some needy person this extremely cold weather.”

The paper suggested readers call Mrs. Norton to contribute.

The Sedalia Rotary Club helped local students and the sick.

The Sedalia high school in the 1930s did not provide textbooks; students were expected to buy their own. This presented a hardship to many families, especially those with several children in school. Rotary had set up a book fund to pay for textbooks for deserving students. On Feb. 13, 1933, Smith-Cotton principal Oscar Erickson reported to Rotary that the fund had helped several students.

During the winter of 1932-33, diphtheria struck Pettis County. Diphtheria is a severe, contagious, bacterial disease that causes severe sore throat, swollen glands, fever and chills. As the disease progresses, the disease causes the growth of a thick, gray membrane that can block the windpipe and cause death. Prior to the development of a serum to treat the disease and a vaccine to prevent it, diphtheria caused many deaths, especially among children, each year.

Jack McLaughlin reported that Rotary donated serum to those who could not afford it. In six cases, administration of the serum enabled the sick to recover more quickly, and in three cases in Sedalia and one in Smithton, the serum saved lives.

Sedalians once again had demonstrated their willingness to help those in need.