It’s a Wonderful Town

Original Bank of Commerce building, just behind the light pole, Market Street, 1906. Notice unfinished courthouse tower in the background, behind Henderson Baird building. Photo courtesy of Donny Whitehead, aboutgreenwoodms.com.

“The Depression had hit the country the year we moved to Jackson, and even though I did not understand what a depression was, I knew that lots people were out of work and were having a hard time because we would hear the grownups talking about it. In December, 1930, Big called one day to tell Mama that five of the banks in Greenwood had closed their doors, all except the Bank of Commerce. This meant that no one could get their money out or write a check. I can remember Mama saying that Big could not pay the woman who worked for her and could not go to buy groceries. Bama had what small funds she possessed in one of the banks which closed and was terribly upset on hearing the news. They finally got some of their money back but never did get all of it.

“We were fortunate that Daddy’s bosses, who lived in Shreveport, Louisiana, were very wealthy, and his salary was never cut. We were not feeling the effects of the Depression like so many people. During the Depression years you would see men and women on the streets selling apples or pencils, and the Salvation Army band would stand on the street corner in Jackson to raise money for the poor. There were bread lines and soup lines for hungry people, and some raided garbage cans.

“The average doctor in 1932 made less than $4000 a year, lawyers around $4000, and Congressmen less than $9000. The average school teacher made $1227 (much less in Mississippi) and a waitress $500. Farm laborers made less than $300 a year. There were a lot of suicides. I remember one prominent Greenwood man was killed when his car stalled on the railroad track, and Mama and Big said everyone felt sure it was a suicide because he was having trouble feeding his family.

“Cars at that time were selling for $600 for a smaller model to $2000 for a larger car. A mink coat was less than $600, and a cloth coat less than $10. Shoes were $2 a pair and a dress less than $5. Cigarettes sold for fifteen cents a pack, a typewriter $30, gasoline 18 cents a gallon, a gas stove $24, a bicycle $10.95, a pound of sirloin steak 29 cents.

Depression-era Christmas ad

“Bread was five cents a loaf and until the late ’20s could only be bought unsliced. I remember when we first got a loaf that was sliced and thought it was wonderful. Eggs were 29 cents a dozen, milk 10 cents a quart, and you could buy a six-room house for $2000. A tour of Europe for sixty days to eleven countries was listed at $495. Most of the magazines were five to fifteen cents a copy and were larger than those we get today. At a restaurant you could get a full meal, including drink and dessert, for fifty cents.”

Sara was in every way a child of the Depression. She may not have felt the impact of deprivation that so many did during those dark years, but she took the economic lessons of that era into adulthood and never let go. The woman never got a new car loan (she always drove one of Daddy’s old company cars or bought used), kept cash in an accordian file in the desk drawer and considered a credit card to be the spawn of the devil. I tried unsuccessfully to interest her in safe, predictable stocks or mutual funds, and she practically ran me out of the house. So every six months or so, we would go through the routine of calling every bank in town, checking on their prevailing CD rates as her old ones matured. She would finagle an extra quarter of a percentage point out of some poor young banker, leaving him scratching his head at whatever deal she’d just swung. She wasn’t a miser, just someone who had seen what bad financial decisions could do to a family. My generation should be forever indebted to hers for fiscal sensibility.

Ed. note: She mentions that Howard Evans’ salary was never cut during the Depression, and that his bosses lived in Shreveport. According to some of his papers which I have, he was actually a part-owner of Delta Oil Mill, along with S. G. Sample and S.J. Harman of that city.

The Bank of Commerce was the only one of six Greenwood banks still in business at the end of the day, December 20, 1930. Dr. T. R. Henderson had founded the bank twenty-six years before, as described in an August, 1904, Greenwood Commonwealth item: “The new bank will begin business next Monday morning in Dr. Henderson’s office on North Howard Street, where temporary quarters have been provided. The new building now under construction [the Market Street building, whose facade still exists at the entrance of Staplcotn] on West Market Street, opposite the Commonwealth office, will be one of the handsomest bank buildings in the state. It will be ready for occupancy in about six weeks.” T. R. Henderson was a community stalwart, husband of Lizzie George and president of the Chamber of Commerce, board member of Greenwood Light and Water Plant and owner of Tallahatchie Compress and Storage. On Saturday morning, December 20, 1930, bank examiners from Jackson locked the doors of the Wilson Banking Company [building most recently occupied by Planters’ Bank, northwest corner of Market and Howard Street] due to the death of founder G.A.Wilson, Sr. This was standard practice after such a death, but it set in motion a citywide panic, exacerbated by the crowds downtown on a pre-Christmas Saturday, and the run on the banks accelerated into a full-scale panic. Customers cleared their accounts out of Greenwood Bank and Trust Company, First National Bank, Greenwood Savings Bank, and Security and Trust Company, leaving their vaults empty and their balance sheets worthless. Only Bank of Commerce survived, as Dr. Henderson piled the contents of the vault on the counter, stepped outside and shouted, “Folks, if you want your money, come and get it.” He also claimed that he had a private plane gassed and waiting at the Greenwood airfield, poised to fly him to Memphis, where he could instantly lay his hands on even more funds to keep the bank functioning. Such was his reputation and standing in the community that his depositors left the money on the counter and Bank of Commerce closed that day with “deposits exceed[ing] withdrawals by 100 percent.” Does this sound like It’s a Wonderful Life? Yes, Virginia, there really was a George Bailey, and he lived in Greenwood, Mississippi. What a town.

Wilson Banking Company(foreground), Bank of Commerce 1904 facade (background), 2010. Infrared photo courtesy of Mary Rose Carter.

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About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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