“It was right here, son. Right here on this mountain top. Thousands of people came up here to see Herbert Hoover the next president of the United States. The people came, they knocked down the fences, and they just ran over everybody and everything to get close to him. It was crazy that day.”
That cool autumn in 1952 my dad and I were standing some 5,000 feet above sea level on a mountaintop in far western Virginia sharing my father’s youthful experience.
My grandfather, Webb Gilley, a lumberman and part-time farmer in Ashe County, North Carolina, and adjacent Virginia counties, took my Dad to a rally to see an enormously popular candidate for president.
The politics of that year, 1928, were very important as that election fundamentally changed my dad’s life forever – and it certainly changed his politics.
His family, though relatively poor, was Lincoln or Appalachian Republicans, and Webb wanted his 15-year-old son to see America’s most popular politician, Herbert Clark Hoover. As history has recorded, Hoover won that 1928 election, beating New Yorker Al Smith in a landslide: 444 Electoral College votes to 87.
A Quaker, Stanford-educated engineer, businessman, international humanitarian, and eight-year Cabinet member in two successful Republican administrations, Hoover towered over all Democratic and Republican candidates in 1928, and some 5,000 people had come to that mountain top in their Model A Fords, buggies and farm wagons to see the next president in person.
My dad had been one of them, and he had taken me back to the same area just after my 15th birthday to explain, among other things, why he, the son of a Lincoln Republican, was now a Democrat.
Hoover was personally popular, but there was more – much more – to the 1928 election. America stood as a giant among nations in 1928, a giant chestnut among shrubs, if you will. America had intervened and won the First World War, the war to end all wars. President Wilson had created the League of Nations, an organization to police the nations so there would never, ever be another such war.
America’s economy was growing at phenomenal rates in what was commonly referred to, then and now, as the “Roaring Twenties.”
People got rich by simply “betting on the stock market” – buying stocks to bet on rising prices rather than corporate profits.
But “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey was fond of saying, is not so great.
Then in 1932 Hoover came back to the same spot. And a total of 168 people turned out to see the president of the United States on that day, according to the newspaper reports. Everything seemed to have changed in four short years.
In those four years, the stock market crashed in 1929 and the Republican administration, with its business-like approach, had made several logical decisions only to find that its basic principles were out of step with a new economic paradigm.
My father’s family plunged into poverty as unemployment rates in Virginia topped 20 percent. They became tenant farmers, scratching out a living on a cabbage and tobacco farm owned by others.
Then in 1934, while the nation was struggling with the Great Depression – “Hoover’s Depression,” as it was popularly known at the time Grandfather Webb died at age 34 leaving my dad responsible for a family of 10 in the middle of a Great Depression.
Like most Americans, Dad held Hoover personally responsible and became forever a Democrat, even to the point of leading a group of “Free Masons for Kennedy” in 1960. Dad drafted me in his cause as a newly minted Free Mason college student. Then he took me to West Virginia in May of 1960 to meet Senator John F. Kennedy.
I am not sure that all the lessons my daddy learned between 1928 and 1952 are applicable today, but I am sure that we do need to pay attention to the lessons of history.
One thing stands out in my mind: Hoover never personally accepted responsibility for what he did or did not do. But the world never cared one way or the other, and most blamed the global depression on him.
Hoover’s Depression ultimately changed the politics and economics of America for half a century.
Wade Gilley is a native of Carroll County, former president at Marshall University and a former Virginia Secretary of Education. He is the author of more than 20 books.