The Ancestors Of George & Hazel Mullins

by Philip Mullins

Chapter 17 - The Depression Years


Summary: G.N. Mullins worked as a carpenter in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi before the Great Depression. During the Depression, he found work with the WPA (Works Progress Administration) in Mississippi until he was able to return to house building in 1936. He continued to work as a builder until the beginning of World War Two.

Irene Simmons

After Irene Simmons and G.N. were married they moved to a house in the country about six miles east of Brookhaven. This was in Copiah County where G.N's father had grown up. Their rented house was near that of one of G. N's cousins, Pearl Mullins and his wife Matty. G.N. continued to work at the refinery in Baton Rouge and Irene and the two boys were alone in this house in the woods during the week. My father started school while he was boarding at the George Simmons place and so he was probably six years old when he moved to Copiah County. His younger brother Robert was five years old.

One night in the fall of that year Irene had made a fire in the fireplace and had forgotten to close the shutter to the wood pile. At 1 or 2 AM two men tried to get into the house. Irene heard them at the window and shouted loudly to her six-year old son, "George, hand me that gun!" The family had no gun but, without waiting for my father's reply, the men ran off. When Irene talked to her neighbors the next day, she learned that the men were wanted for breaking into the nearby country store and that the sheriff already had them in custody.

After that incident Irene and the boys moved to another house on the other side of Pearl Mullins. This second house was considered to be safer because it was on the road. The first house had been back in the middle of some woods. G.N. continued to work in Baton Rouge, coming home by train on the weekends. The family did not have a car and Irene had to depend upon her neighbors for rides to town. My father remembers that they felt isolated in these houses in the country some 40 miles from Irene's parents and with no friends and none of Irene's relative nearby.

Irene and the boys lived in Copiah County for two or three years while G.N. worked at the Standard Oil Refinery in Baton Rouge. G.N. seemed to prefer that his wife and children not live in Baton Rouge. He was a famous "womanizer" and my father believes that G.N. did not want his family too near because it would have "cramped his style." Junior would not be surprised to learn that G.N. had another woman in Baton Rouge during the early years of his second marriage. During this time G.N. was boarding at 1835 Ellerslie Place near the State Capital in Baton Rouge.

When my father was about nine years old the family moved to Pasadena, near Houston, Texas. G.N. and his nephew, Henry Mel Hardin, were hired to build scaffolding at a refinery. While in Pasadena Irene's first child, Julio, was born. My father remembers only a few incidents of their life in Texas. He remembers that one day a pair of G.N's long-handle underpants disappeared from the clothes line. The next day while he and his brother were walking to school, the two boys saw the legs of the underpants handing out of the rear of a cow. There were no laws requiring that stock be fenced and so the cattle roamed at will. One of them had gotten into the yard and had eaten G.N's underpants. Naturally the boys thought that this was hilarious and that the joke was at their father's expense. The winter they lived in Pasadena was so cold that some of these free-ranging cattle died. The prairie was blanketed with a foot of snow and there was nothing for the cows to eat. Some of them froze to death. This was unusual weather for east Texas.

While they were in Pasadena Henry Mel Hardin lived with the Mullins family and G.N. saved enough to buy his first car, a Model A Ford. When the scaffolding job was finished, the Mullins family returned to Osyka in the Model A, traveling on US Highway 190 through Beaumont and Baton Rouge. Henry Mel Harden went up to Jasper County, Texas, to visit his relatives.

In 1931 G.N. was hired to be a foreman on a construction job at the Standard Oil Refinery in Baton Rouge. This was the scaffolding job I have already talked about in the story of Cecil Turner. After this job was finished, G.N. began to work as a contractor rather than as a hired carpenter. He became self-employed. He bid for construction jobs and then hired other men to help him complete the work. At first he built wooden bridges and other structural work. After the Depression, he built residential buildings on a steady basis. He was an excellent finish carpenter and an able administrator. When he built a house he did the cabinets and the trim while his crew finished the outside. He worked hard and well and expected his employees to do likewise. He was a perfectionist and could be abusive to anyone who did not meet his standards. Those who worked with him admired his skill and intelligence. Those who had occasion to disagree with him disliked his arrogance and his intolerance.

As an independent contractor G.N. was constantly in search of work. He worked around Osyka whenever he could and his family lived in various rental houses in and around that small town. Among the jobs that G.N. contracted was a cedar water tank at the county work farm north of Osyka on old Highway 51. The tank was elevated on a tall tower to provide pressurized water to the prison. He built several wooden highway bridges for St. Helena Parish in Louisiana and at least one home on the Osyka-Holmesville Road before the Depression. The house was built for O. J. Spears and cost $300.

The Depression

Unlike the Simmons, who operated on the margins of the money economy, the Mullins were very dependent on a healthy regional economy. Unlike the Stricklands and the Simmons, both the Mullins and the Turner families were caught up in the Great Depression. My father remembers that at one point the family was absolutely broke. He and his brother, Robert, had saved $16.00 from cutting firewood for a retired railroad man. This old man received a check from the railroad and so unlike most of his neighbors had a cash income. The boys gave their savings to G.N. and he used it to buy a carload of groceries from the Fortenberry store in Osyka.

This was the worst of the Depression for the family. It must have been in the spring of 1933 when the banks were beginning to close. That spring the entire nation was in a state of crisis. It was described as "a strange and numbing crisis that ate at the hearts of wage earning men who had no land on which to grow food, who lived in rented houses and who suddenly had no job". It was "a crisis of fear". The year before an unemployed man could go on relief and his family would not starve. Now relief organizations were all but out of funds and the government's could not or would not help. Indeed in many agricultural areas, such as Pike County and the entire State of Mississippi, local government had no money. In Pike Count as early as 1931 school teachers were paid with script or warrants because there was no money to give them. Only a minority of farmers could pay their taxes, the banks had no money to lend and, even if a crop were grown, the prices of all agricultural commodities had collapsed in 1931. No one understood exactly what was happening and no one seemed to know what needed to be done to begin to recover from the Depression.

The New Deal

If there was to be any hope it had to come from the federal government. The state governments were already insolvent or nearly so. Yet the President of the United States, a Republican named Herbert Hoover, had refused to acknowledge that a real crisis existed. When asked why so many unemployed men were selling apples on street corners, he said: "Many people have left their jobs for the more profitable one of selling apples." The people, the electorate, knew that there were no jobs for these men. In the election of 1932 as Hoover's campaign trains traveled across the country, it was pelted with eggs and tomatoes. In the election of 1928 Hoover had carried 40 states. In 1932 he won in six. The new President of the United States, Franklin Delanor Roosevelt, had promised the American people a "New Deal" and he gave them one. He was inaugurated on March 4, 1933, and on March 12 broadcast on the radio his first "Fireside Chat'. He explained his legislation to end the bank crisis. The next day when the banks reopened for business the long lines of depositors waiting to withdraw their savings, were gone. People were no longer afraid that the banks would go broke and that they would lose their money.

On March 16 Roosevelt sent his first farm legislation to Congress and on May 12 he signed into law an omnibus Farm Relief Act that offered relief to the farmers of the South. Farm mortgages were refinanced for longer periods of time and at lower interest rates. Many farmers had already lost their land but for many hard-pressed farmers of Mississippi, this law restored to them the hope that they would keep their farms. Their farms had been put up as collateral for seed, implements and food and now the lien holders, the merchants and the bankers, were seeking to foreclose on the farms to recover their costs. The new Federal Land Bank got the farmers out of this situation, stretched out amortization payments from five to fifteen years and reduced interest rates from eight to four percent. The same law provided for stable prices of commodities such as cotton and corn. This was done by withdrawing acreage from production. Farmers received checks from the Agricultural Adjustment Administration if they agree to plow under some of their cotton.

In the summer of 1933 tens of millions of acres of cotton were laboriously plowed under by mules that had been trained not to step on the plants. Now they had to be whipped to make them pull the plows over the rows of standing cotton. Cotton rose to ten cents a pound but at harvest time the price fell again. In October Roosevelt passed another law that paid farmers ten cents a pound in advance if they agreed to participate in the 1934 crop-reduction program. This finally shored up prices and ended the long slide in cotton prices that had plagued Mississippi farmers since the end of the War Between the States. As far as the owner-operator was concerned, the agricultural crisis had been dwelt with. Farmers were no longer afraid that they would lose their farms and the price of their major cash crops had been stabilized.

G.N. Mullins was not a farmer and he received no direct benefits from the New Deal's agricultural programs. Nor was he young and single. Neither the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was created during Roosevelt's first Hundred Days, nor the National Youth Administration, could help men in G.N.'s situation. He needed and probably would not accept less that a real job. Roosevelt provided that too, through the WPA, the Works Progress Administration. The WPA undertook to build roads, dams and bridges on a massive scale. Federal Highway 51 connecting New Orleans and Memphis and points north was completely rebuilt during 1933 and 1934. G.N. was hired to build forms for the concrete bridges on this new highway. He built forms for the bridges between Magnolia and Osyka and for the concrete bridge across the Tangipahoa River at Magnolia. For this work he received the minimum wage of $1.00 per day. Like the hundreds of other men working on this project, he was glad to have a job at all.

The work on the highway was scheduled around the clock to employ as many men as possible. Lights were strung up and crews of men worked day and night. My father lived on a hill above the road and he recalls watching the men with mule-drawn scoop buckets make the massive cuts in the red clay hills. At night they worked by the light of incandescent bulbs. The objective of the WPA was to employ men so no attempt was made to use heavy equipment. The worker's themselves hired their mules to the WPA by the day. In 1934 the WPA remodeled the high school in Osyka. The second floor of the old school was removed and two ground-floor wings were added. G.N. was hired on the job as a supervisor. He was paid a salary somewhat better than the $27.00 monthly wage that the WPA tradesmen earned. Cecil Turner worked on this job as a carpenter.

After the high school was completed the local economy had improved significantly and G.N. went back to building houses. He, Cecil Turner and Henry Mel Hardin often worked together. Henry Mel had a Model T flat-bed truck with a windshield but no cab. The three of them used it to commute back and forth to work. In the mid-1930s a tornado went through the town of Liberty in Amite County and destroyed a number of homes. The Red Cross contracted with G.N. to build 32 houses in 34 working day for families who had lost their homes to the tornado. All the house were two-bedroom houses with indoor plumbing. G.N. went from house to house supervising the construction while Cecil Turner and Henry Mel worked as carpenters. The three of them continued to work in Amite County for quite a while after that. In the late 1930s they were still working together. Mostly they built houses around Osyka.

In 1937 or 1938 G.N. finally bought a place of his own. The family had always been renters who often moved from one house to another, many times for no apparent reason. They lived in at least 15 houses over a 20-year period. They lived in three houses in Osyka, two in Magnolia and three near the George Simmons farm. G.N. usually worked away from home and he came home only on weekends. He seemed to have little patience for either his wife or his children. He sometimes threw stove wood at Irene and he once broke one of his son's arms during a spanking. G.N. slept late on Saturday and the boys tried to be out of the house when he awoke. On Sunday they were sent to either the Methodist or the Baptist Church in Osyka. They were glad to get away from the house. Irene did not go to church. She stayed home and prepared a Sunday dinner for her husband.

The property G.N. and Irene bought in 1937 was a farm west of Osyka. They bought the farm from a druggist in Osyka. It came complete with a team of mules and some plows. The family lived there for two or three years. The boys walked a mile to the high school in Osyka, ran home for lunch, and ran back again in time to place ball during recess. My father enjoyed living on this farm and growing up in Osyka. He enjoyed the free movies in the park next to the railroad tracks. The movies were sponsored by the merchants of Osyka and, although they were frequently interrupted by the roaring passage of a freight train in high gear, were a favorite pasttime for the teenagers. He also enjoyed swimming in the Tangipahoa River, a mile east of town, and playing on the sports teams at Osyka High School. The boys were expected to work the farm but even that was not burdensome.

One year G.N. leased some additional land and made an arrangement with Solomon Simmons, one of Irene's brothers, to share-crop it. The arrangement did not last more than one season. Unlike his father Solomon Simmons was not known as a hardworking man. He allowed grass to get up in the cornfield. G.N. had the habit of making periodic inspections of his land and he expected Solomon to follow his orders. He ordered Solomon to get rid of the grass. He and Solomon got into an argument over Solomon's farming methods. Both men went home for their shotguns. Solomon's younger brother, G.J., took G.N.'s side and he and G.N. got their guns, sat on a log and waited for Solomon to return. Solomon was possibly the wisest of the three. He did not return and so avoided bloodshed.

The Mullins move to Baton Rouge

Sometime in 1939 G.N. sold this farm and moved his family to Baton Rouge. By then he had purchased a Model B Ford automobile. In Baton Rouge he contracted houses, building 10 to 20 at a time. My father did not want to leave high school in Osyka when the rest of the family moved to Baton Rouge. He boarded with the Cutrer family for two or three months until he finished the 10th grade. After school was out he joined his parents in Baton Rouge.

(My father was nicknamed Junior and this is the name that will be used throughout this story to distinguish him from his father,his son and his grandson, all named George Mullins.)

Junior finished his schooling at Baton Rouge High School in 1939. He was a football player and had been the star of the Osyka team. When he transferred to Baton Rouge High School, the football coach sought him out and put him on the team. Junior stayed at Baton Rouge High until the end of the football season. One night G. N. gave him a whipping with a piece of stove wood and Junior decided that he had taken enough abuse. He decided to leave home. The next morning, instead of going to school, he walked to the Greyhound Bus Station and took a bus to Houston, Texas. The Spears family of Osyka had relatives in Houston who owned the Spears Dairy. Both G.N. and Junior knew this family. Junior boarded with the Spears family and they gave him a job delivering milk in downtown Houston. He did not have a driver's license and had never driven a truck before, yet he found himself maneuvering a milk van through Houston traffic. Junior was paid about $100 a month. His parents wrote frequently and, after three months, Junior returned to Baton Rouge. He did not return to high school. Instead he worked full-time with G.N. as a carpenter.

One night, on New Year's Day 1940, Junior heard the whistles of the boats on the Mississippi River for what seemed the first time. He decided that it would be nice to work on a riverboat. He approached a man his father knew at the Standard Oil Refinery about a job but was told that he was underage. The company could not hire him. However the man found him a job on a boat owned by one of Standard Oil's contractors. He was hired to work on the stern wheeler "Joseph Chotin" out of New Orleans. This tug pushed barges up and down the river between New Orleans and up to Memphis, Nashville and Pittsburgh. Junior worked as a deck hand on the Joseph Chotin for a year. He traveled on the tug as far as the city of Chicago.

One time he was left to guard a barge while the tug pushed the remaining barges upriver. He camped out in a tent until the tug returned some days later. On another occasion the fog on the river was so think that the river pilot could not see to steer. They stopped and tied the barges to some trees on the shore. The next morning the crew discovered that they were in the middle of a little town and that the trees they had wrapped their mooring cables around were in some one's backyard. Naturally, the cables had rubbed a lot of the bark off the trees. The crew hastened to cast off and be away before the householders woke up. After a year on the river Junior quit this job and once again worked as a carpenter with G.N. in Baton Rouge.

World War II


G.N. and Junior were building homes in Baton Rouge when the US government put a freeze on building materials. G.N. was left with several unfinished houses for which he would not get materials. The US Army had just started to build new camps in response to the troubles in Europe. One of the new camps was Fort Polk near Leesville in western Louisiana. Since they could do nothing without building materials, both G.N. and Junior went to the employment office in Baton Rouge to apply for work at Fork Polk. Junior got in a line with hundreds of other men while G.N. went directly into the office. G.N. was well known as a meticulous and well organized contractor and he was hired on the spot to supervise the construction of 15 or 20 buildings at Fort Polk. He was assigned a crew of about 40 men. G.N. asked that Junior be assigned to his crew and Junior was called out of the line. He was hired on his father's word without having to take the carpenter's test.

The two of them traveled to Fort Polk and rented a room in an old farmhouse nearby. Junior worked as a carpenter while G.N. managed the buildings that had been assigned to him. He insisted that everything be done properly and sometime had to redo the blueprints to make something fit. After a couple of months the job site was unionized by the carpenter's union. G.N. was a member of the carpenter's local union in McComb, Mississippi, and he was not prepared to condone corrupt practices, especially by his union. The local at Fort Polk began selling journeyman cards for $75.00. This bypassed the requirement for a two year apprenticeship. Many of these so-called journeyman carpenters could not even lay out a common rafter. G.N. found himself providing instruction in what he considered fundamental skills to men holding journeyman cards and receiving journeymen's pay.

G.N. and the other foremen complained but to no avail. His protests served only to make him a number of enemies in the union. He and some of the older men finally quit the job in protest. The superintendent tried to convince G.N. to stay by extending his deadline to complete the buildings and by offering him incentives. However G.N. said he would not accept special privileges. When he left the job, Junior did too. Junior had been assured that he would be fired as soon as his father was over the first hill. The two men drove down to Port Arthur, Texas, to see G.N.'s younger brother, Kenneth.

Kenneth was working as a dock supervisor for the Gulf Oil Company. He found Junior a temporary job as a deck hand on a tug going to New Orleans. Junior was such a good worker that when the man he was substituting for came back from vacation, the man was fired and Junior was given his job. He took the Coast Guard exam and qualified as a Pumpman. Junior was working on this tug when Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941. He stayed on this tug for a year shuttling between Beaumont, Lake Charles and Texas City with loads of crude oil and other petroleum products.

Junior goes to war

In 1942 G.N. decided to go to the Panama Canal Zone in Central America to work in a shipyard. He asked Junior to go with him and both men were offered jobs. For this reason Junior quit his job on the tug. When he got back to Osyka he notified his draft board in Bogalousa of his plans but they refused to continue his draft deferment. Instead they reclassified him 1-A. This meant that he could expect to be drafted at any time. After he was reclassified by the draft board both he and G.N. gave up their plans to go to Panama. His problems with the draft board were not the only reason he gave up his plan to move to Central America. He had been courting a petite brunette from Pike County through the mails while he worked on the tugboat.

In the spring of 1942 he and Hazel Strickland were married. They decided to live on G.N.'s farm near Mt. Hermon. G.N. had bought this farm in 1940. It was near Mt. Hermon in Washington Parish, Louisiana. The farm was some 12 miles east of Osyka and about the same distance south of Progress. G.N. bought the farm from the father-in-law of his brother Kenneth. As usual G.N. worked somewhere and came home only on weekends. Junior and Hazel lived on the farm and Junior worked the farm while waiting to be drafted. G.N.'s wife Irene also lived on the farm. She was Hazel's aunt and the two women got along nicely.

Junior grew 20 acres of corn, watermelons and Irish potatoes. He and Hazel looked forward to visiting relatives in Pike County or just resting on the weekends. However G.N. insisted on inspecting the farm whenever he was home. Junior would have to accompany him on these tours. The inspection tour took all of Sunday morning. Junior had been working in the fields all week and the last thing he wanted to do on a Sunday morning was to listen to G.N.'s comments about the condition of the crop. G.N. had never been a farmer but he insisted that his instructions be followed to the letter. Junior worked the farm until his draft notice came. He went to New Orleans and joined the US Coast Guard without telling his draft board. Three weeks later, when Junior was already in boot camp in New Orleans, the sheriff arrived at the farm to arrest him for failing to show up for induction into the army.

H. and Deliah Strickland with baby (1890)

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