By Ashley Rader
The Great Depression was one of the most trying times this country has ever faced. Millions of people found themselves without a job and without a home. In an effort to make the best of what they had and provide for their immediate needs, approximately two million people lived in shanty towns called Hoovervilles.
Hooverville communities sprang up all across the United States. They could be found on any vacant land and were made up of either tents or shacks that were constructed with whatever materials the families could find. Occasionally, families who had managed to keep their cars would incorporate their automobile into their Hooverville home as a way to have more space and better shelter while sleeping.
Photo by Brandon Hicks - Students in Alex Campbell’s American History class at Elizabethton High School were asked to cook a food item that would have been common in the Great Depression, such as soup beans or corn pone, for a class project.
As part of a lesson on the Great Depression, students in Alex Campbell’s American history classes at Elizabethton High School constructed a full-size Hooverville-style shack in the open air atrium area just inside the entrance to the school.
Photo by Brandon Hicks - Students in Alex Campbell’s American history classes built a Hooverville shack for their lesson on the Great Depression.
The shack was made only of materials that the students found or had given to them. They did not spend any money while constructing the shack. The shack, which was roughly 8 foot by 12 foot, had a wooden frame. The walls were covered with newspaper and tarpaper. The roof was covered with plastic sheeting.
Photo by Brandon Hicks - Adrienne Penland and Clarissa Ceffalo enjoy some soup beans in their Hooverville shack. Their class had to cook common Great Depression era foods and build a Hooverville shack as part of their lesson on the Great Depression.
There was a bed made from a sheet of plywood and tires and a small wooden table constructed in the corner. There was also a cardboard door with a window cutout. There were also decorations like flowerpots, clothing on a clothesline and a fire with tree stumps for seats.
Campbell said they studied pictures of Hooverville shacks to get an idea of what their’s should ideally look like. While looking at the pictures they learned that the Hooverville communities could have sprung up anywhere. He noted there were many pictures that showed Hoovervilles built right behind suburban communities.
This is the second time in three years that Campbell has had his classes build a Hooverville shack. He said he chose to do a different project last year to keep the lesson plans fresh for the students. Another teacher told him that all the students could talk about after doing the project was that they built the shack and that others were looking forward to it so he brought the project back this year with some changes.
A difference this year is that the shack was moved outside. This was partly because there is limited space near his classroom to allow for a shack to be built in the hall like before.
Another reason was because he wanted to test the students to see if they could build a shack that could stand up to the elements, like the real Hooverville shacks did. The shack is part of a two-week lesson and the goal is for it to remain standing the entire time. At two days into the project, the shack had already weathered a few rain showers and was standing steady.
Another new component of the lesson is that students were asked to cook a food item that would have been common during the Great Depression, such as soup beans, corn pone or Depression cakes. A Depression cake is cake that has no milk, butter or eggs because dairy products and eggs were hard to get during the Depression.
Campbell said he likes to use hands-on activities to help make history lessons a more personal experience for the students. The activities also allow students who may not be the best test takers to shine in an event that displays their hands-on learning skills.
“It gives the kids a chance to show what they can do,” he said. “If they are good with hands-on activities it gives them a turn to be the stars of the class. All of the students have different abilities and I like to include different projects that give them a chance to show them.”
Campbell likes to plan at least one special project for each different lessons the students have. While studying World War I, students had to make their own gas masks. When Campbell called out gas attack during class, the students had 10 seconds to put the gas mask over their face or they were declared dead. The lesson taught students that anyone involved in the war could have fallen victim to a gas attack if they had forgotten their gas masks.
“They understood a little better what the pressure and the strain would have been like dealing with the uncertainty of when death might come during WWI,” he said.
He said for WWII, he was thinking of asking the students to ration something that is important to them. Examples would be the number of minutes they talk on the phone each week with their boyfriend or girlfriend, the amount of time they spend on the internet or snack foods they enjoy. At the end of the lesson they will be asked to write what it was like to want something but not be able to have it because of rationing and how the experience went; if it got harder or easier to not have the item as time went on.
For the lesson on the Vietnam War, Campbell said he was going to have students take part in the Thank a Vet program. This is a national program where students, or anyone, thanks the veterans they come across.
“A lot of the veterans from Vietnam did not get a thank you for their service,” Campbell said. “A lot of the World War II veterans didn’t get a thank you either but that was because it was expected of them to go into the service.”
Another part of the Vietnam lesson includes bringing in the local veterans’ stories. Campbell gives each of the students a bookmark with the name, age and branch of a local soldier who was killed in action in Vietnam. By doing this they are able to connect a name and a face to the statistics of all the lives that were lost in the war.
“You can say a number but when you can put a face to it that is when the students remember,” he said.
Hooverville was a popular name for shack towns that were built around the country during the Great Depression. The shacks were named for President Herbert Hoover, who was blamed for letting the country slide into the depression.
The shacks were usually made from box wood, cardboard or scraps of metal. Some builders who had the skill made their shacks from stone.
The largest Hooverville was found in St. Louis, Mo. It had four districts, an unofficial mayor, churches and various social institutions. It was in place from 1930 to 1936.
Other Hoover items included a Hoover blanket which was an old newspaper used as a blanket. A Hoover flag was an empty pocket turned inside out. Hoover leather described cardboard placed in the sole of a worn out shoe. A Hoover wagon was an automobile with horses tied to it because the owner couldn’t afford the gasoline for the car.