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Owen County Historical Society News: Some good things came from Depression

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By Bonnie Strassell

Owen countians who lived during the Great Depression leave us a legacy of memorable stories to share with future generations. Generations of citizens who seem to have an over-abundance of material wealth, might find it difficult to imagine the great economic changes wrought by this devastating time in American history.
People living in the country fared a bit better than those in the cities, where long bread lines formed daily on thousands of street corners. Families disintegrated as unemployment took its toll. Because most in Owen County were farmers, they were able to provide food for their families and willingly shared what they had with others in their communities who were less fortunate.
A major development in the 1930s, in part because of the Depression, was the construction of improved roads, giving Owen countians a better opportunity to travel beyond the county’s borders. U.S. Hwy. 227, known as the William Howard Taft Highway, stretched from Michigan to Ft. Myers, Fla., and 23 miles of that highway wound its way through Owen County. Today U.S. 227 is no longer a federal road but rather is Kentucky State Route 227. It begins just south of Carrollton and continues to Route 460 by way of Owenton and ends just west of Georgetown.
In 1933 when banks shut their doors, the system of bartering became popular. And from 1933-1938, reforms for recovery were instituted. Though the economic depression did not end until WWII, conditions did improve with President Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” and government began to play an unprecedented part in the lives of the people.
Among the government programs that made the biggest impact on the county’s residents was the limitation of tobacco acreage, which led to the rise of tobacco prices.
One of the most successful of the New Deal’s federal agencies was the W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration), which gave work to millions. Owen County benefited when the Owen County Courthouse was reconditioned and refurbished through the efforts of these workers.
The year 1937 is not easily forgotten by Owen countians. It rained or snowed all of January and floods inundated the region. Frankfort was under water, as were many of Owen’s river villages. Jan. 24 was dubbed “Black Sunday” because most of Louisville was flooded. Aid quickly arrived in the area when gas and electric facilities shut down, and drinking water became almost non existent. The year 1937 also brought some good memories.  The Owen County Rural Electric Co-op was given  a loan to construct  lines to provide electricity for 600 customers. Commenting on the new electric lines, an editorial in the News-Herald stated: “It is impossible  to enumerate now the many advantages and uses to which electricity may be put in our rural homes. ... far beyond the dreams of our most imaginative citizen four or five years ago.”
Lela Maude (Karsner) Hawkins of Monterey remembers well the night Gov. A.B. “Happy” Chandler threw the switch to light up Owen County. Lela Maude’s family had purchased an electric iron and a toaster for her mother at Christmas, and the whole family was sitting around the parlor waiting for the big moment. They had turned all the lights to the “on” position; and when the electricity lit up the whole house, the Karsners thought their home had blown up. Quickly adjusting to the new invention, the Karsner family spent the next few hours toasting a whole loaf of bread in their new toaster.
    The 1930s was a time of hunger and unemployment. But it also was a decade of promise for many in communities like those of Owen County who shared their food, their labor, and their time to build upon the history of the past and preserve it for the future.
    The Owen County Historical Society would like to welcome several new members. As the society grows, so do the  opportunities to preserve our history and share it with others.