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Historian speaks on Florida during The Depression

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By Mark Scohier

If Joe Knetsch knows one thing about history, it’s that people often don’t learn from it.

“The Great Depression is a great example of that, folks,” Knetsch told a crowd of about 30 people gathered at the Cedar Key Community Center Thursday morning.

Land speculation, coupled with easy-to-get credit, is almost always the culprit leading toward hard economic times, he said. It was true in the 1920s and 30s, and it was true just a few years ago.

Knetsch, author of several books, including works about the Seminole Wars and frontier life in Florida, gave a lecture called “Central Florida in the Great Depression,” based on a recently published book he coauthored named “Florida in the Great Depression: Desperation and Defiance.” The event was sponsored by the Cedar Key Historical Society.

Florida was the first hit by The Depression back then, Knetsch said. The Boll Weevil killed cotton. Fruit flies hit the citrus and cattle tick fever decimated the cattle industry. People started to turn toward other sources, such as the cedar trees in Cedar Key that were wiped out by the pencil factory. People assumed the trees were an unlimited resource. “Wrong assumption.”

And while the poor economy, based in part on the land boom that went land bust, got worse, corruption in government got stronger, he said.

“I can’t comment on the current administration, but think about it,” Knetsch said laughing, again bringing the discussion around to lessons not learned.

Many of the politicians back then made sure their friends were taken care of, while the rest of us “got the bite.”

The labor force was important, too, he said, but Florida then, as now, didn’t pay much, and so people would leave, often bound for northern states where unions helped push wages for workers.

And then there were the natural disasters, hurricanes in 1926 and 1928. The latter caused a damn to break at Lake Okeechobee resulting in the deaths of 3,000 people. “They’re still finding parts of bodies to this day.”

All of this was leading up to the Great Depression. When it was in full swing, nobody stepped in. Private industry couldn’t and government at that time wouldn’t, until, that is, people voted in David Shultz as governor, he said.

Shultz ran against well-known senators. “He wins because he backs the New Deal. Within two years, during The Depression, the state is running in the black. He backed FDR (President Franklin Delano Roosevelt), and the feds backed him. Per capita, Florida received more money than any other state. If you don’t want to play along, you’re not going to get a whole lot … and that has not changed.”

Find Knetsch’s book, coauthored by Nick Wynn, for sale on Amazon.com.