Online Exhibits

Rural Relief in 1930s Newton County

Relief Workers in Newton County
Katie McCoy Collection (S-95-181-152)


Pilgrims Landing in Plymouth

Over the Hills and far away
A case worker sticks in the creek one day.
And without a sign of hose or shoe
She struggles away with an end in view
Of listening to clients’ tales of grief
And doing her best to give relief
Of the good this all will do some day
Over the Hills and far away.

—Ernest and Opal Nicholson

In the mid 1930s Ernest and Opal Nicholson served as county administrators of a Works Progress Administration (WPA) rural relief program in Newton County.  During the Great Depression Newton County was one of the most isolated, rugged, and poorest counties in Arkansas. The timber industry was playing out, jobs were becoming scarce, and a regional drought severely affected farming.

As part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program to combat the Depression, the WPA was created in 1935 to assist the unemployed and boost the economy. Comprehensive programs allowed for a variety of public works including road construction, reforestation, the painting of post office murals, and rural relief.

The Nicholsons worked with several case workers to administer to the needs of their clients, many of whom were widows or people with disabilities who had no way to generate income. Help came in many forms. Some clients were issued beef or canned goods, provided with reading material, supplied with clothing and household necessities, or received funds to purchase windows and screening materials. 

A few clients were found jobs driving trucks or at sawmills. Others received encouragement and advice from the case workers. One child was told “how nice she would look with her face washed nice and clean” while a woman was encouraged to plant flowers “because of the social value to [the] home.” Case workers were said to “have accomplished some desirable results by mentioning the nice things which the clients had done and suggesting other improvements.”

We know about this rural relief program because of a photo album that the Nicholsons made to document the people they worked with and the places in which  they lived. Next to each image the couple wrote poignant—and sometimes pointed—comments about their clients’ struggles and progress. Through this album we learn a little bit about their clients, but who were the Nicholsons?

Ernest Nicholson (1903-1970) was born in Harrison (Boone County). As a child he worked in his father’s mercantile store while attending school. At age 18 he received his teaching license and began his career at nearby Cottonwood School, riding the 20 miles to and from the school weekly on horseback. In 1923 Ernest enrolled in the College of the Ozarks in Clarksville, Arkansas. It was there that he met Opal Morton (1903-1980) of Prairie Grove (Washington County). Ernest majored in English while Opal studied home economics and education. 

In 1932 the two married and taught public school at Western Grove near Harrison. Following their rural relief work in the mid-1930s, Ernest became superintendent of Western Grove, serving at time when the state’s school equalization fund (which assessed and distributed a community’s taxes fairly) was failing and his district’s regular revenue went to paying down debt rather than funding school necessities. Because of this experience, Ernest ran as the Democratic state senator for the 7th district. He served two terms beginning in 1947, eventually enacting legislation to reform school equalization. During this time Opal opened the Ozark Beauty College and Beauty Shop in Harrison and worked as a beautician. Ernest later went into real estate and home construction.

Through the Nicholson’s album, we gain a glimpse of the Newton County that was, at a time when it was struggling with the devastating effects of drought and economic depression. Today’s Newton County still faces challenges. It has one of the sparsest county populations in the state with under 8,500 residents in 2005. The government owns six of every ten acres of forest land. Job scarcity means that many residents work in neighboring counties. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2003 the median household income was just under $26,000 with almost 20% of the population below the poverty line. But the Buffalo River flows through Newton County, making it a favorite destination for outdoor enthusiasts and tourists.

Why Were These Photos Taken?

Opal and Ernest Nicholson’s photo album containing nearly 100 captioned snapshots was found in an attic by a relative after the couple’s death. Unfortunately not much is known about the Nicholsons’ work during the Depression or why this album was made.

Dr. Patsy G. Watkins, Chair of the Lemke Department of Journalism at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, has conducted some research on this collection and the Nicholsons. In an unpublished paper, “The Nicholson Photographs: A Federal Relief Caseworker’s Visual Record of Rural Clients in the South During the Depression” (April 2007) Dr. Watkins surmises that these images may have been taken to meet regional, rather than federal needs.

During the Great Depression, the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) began an ambitious program to document and humanize impoverished people as a way to impress upon the public the need for relief programs. Photographers Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and Ben Shahn traveled the nation, including the Arkansas Ozarks, taking pictures and capturing history.

The directors in some regions (including Region VI, of which Arkansas was a part) believed the FSA photos to be too artistic and loaded with social commentary for their needs. They wanted to produce their own photos. Caseworkers were provided with inexpensive cameras and asked to document their work, either as a record of their progress or to provide newspaper editors with local images that they would be more likely to run. It’s possible that the Nicholsons’ photos were taken to meet these humbler needs.

Newton County and the Federal Writers Project

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