The coming of the Great Depression brought major economic and political changes to the county, as poverty and unemployment became more oppressive and pervasive, creating a situation which led some of the unemployed and their supporters to organize and protect.
The problems of the coal industry, the major business and the leading employer in the county, illustrated general conditions. Many mines which had operated through the lean years of the 1920s had closed by 1932. County residents also suffered when the unemployment rate reached 25.4 percent in 1932. In that year the county fair was canceled for the first time in the twenty-five year history, because of the state of the economy. Other indicators of the county’s economic plight included more than twenty-five thousand property liens issued by the tax collector in 1932, and more than nine hundred children unable to attend school because of a lack of clothing.
The Depression created great hardships, and county residents searched for new solutions to their problems. The unemployed responded to this economic crisis by affiliating with national and state activities and groups and by establishing their own organizations. When the national Bonus Army passed through Indiana County in the spring of 1932, local people gathered to cheer them on. Father Cox’s Hunger March received a warm reception in Blairsville as they marched from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. On the local level, the Worker’s Unemployment Council of Indiana County emerged in 1933. The Workers Federation of Pennsylvania was also becoming active at this time. Both groups held meetings and conducted protests highlighted by a giant action at the County Relief Board held by the Workers Federation in July 1933. County and local unemployed groups had a diverse membership and leadership. Socialists, including women such as Marie Widdowson and Florence McNutt, played prominent roles, through their activities. Yet this along with the growing presence of the United Mine Workers and the Democratic Party failed to dislodge the Republican Party and the business elite from their dominant roles in Indiana County.
The Republican Party dominated politics in Indiana County prior to the mid-1930s. This dominance reflected the realities of the state and the political power of the business community in the county. Socialists failed to threaten this supremacy even with the opportunities provided by the Depression of the 1930s. However, a different story unfolded in a small enclave around Black Lick and Socialville, a community named after the Socialists who lived there. This enclave contributed many socialist candidates, hosted numerous speakers and provided a sense of community for participants in socialist activities. Although socialist men contributed to these achievements, it was socialist women who played the pivotal roles.
Prior to 1930, Indiana County socialists engaged in a number of political contests. In the election of 1912, Eugene Debs, the presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, polled 6% of the countywide vote, but did much better in the Black Lick and Socialville areas. Reuben Einstein, a prominent Blairsville merchant, entered several local races, and in 1917 won 45% of the vote in a race for burgess of Blairsville. Davis A. Palmer, a leading Black Lick merchant, ran several races for state and national offices on the Socialist Party ticket in the 1920s.
Socialists continued to run for office in the 1930s, with women joining men as candidates. Marie Widdowson, a prominent Black Lick socialist, ran for a seat in the Pennsylvania General Assembly in the 1932, 1934, and 1936 elections. In the latter year, Florence McNutt, another key Black Lick socialist, also ran for a Pennsylvania General Assembly seat. While they won negligible proportions of the total vote, usually 2-3% in these races, in the races for local offices they achieved more impressive results. Florence McNutt was elected as inspector of elections in Black Lick, and Marie Widdowson became the township auditor.
Black Lick and Socialville socialists maintained contact with the Socialist Party and other progressive causes by attending state and national conferences. Florence McNutt attended socialist conferences held in Reading and Harrisburg, while Mrs. Eugene Morton of Socialville attended a socialist conference in Reading and Marie Widdowson and Rhoda Lowman of Socialville attended a state socialist convention in Harrisburg. Mrs. Widdowson also attended a meeting of the Worker’s Federation held in Harrisburg and a meeting of the Continental Congress of Workers and Farmers for Economic Reconstruction held in Washington, D.C. In addition, she represented Indiana County as a delegate to a meeting of the Women’s International League for Peace held in Pittsburgh. Florence McNutt served as a delegate to the 1932 Milwaukee Convention of the Socialist Party which nominated Norman Thomas for President.
Socialists also hosted a variety of local activities which attracted large audiences and brought outsiders to the area. Campbell’s Mill Park, in Black Lick Township, provided the site for outdoor activities, particularly the very popular annual Labor Day basket picnics. In 1932, party members and friends from Indiana County and surrounding counties, including Allegheny County, attended the event. The celebration featured athletic events, speakers and a supper served to over 300 persons. Mrs. Mary Bennett (“Grandma Bennett”) won a special prize for being the oldest person at the picnic. On a smaller scale, the enclave received some attention when Mrs. Eugene Morton hosted a meeting of the Young People’s Socialist League’s State Executive Committee at her home in Socialville.
In addition to these special features, local socialists organized many ongoing services and activities. Some of these activities were directly related to socialism while others were of a general progressive nature. The socialists established a reading room on Main Street in Black Lick for the benefit of the community. While it housed some socialist literature, it also included a wide variety of reading materials, especially those which covered current events. Regular meetings of the Black Lick local, often held in conjunction with an active Young People’s Socialist League branch, attracted approximately forty-five participants from both Black Lick and Socialville. At these meetings members received pamphlets from the national office and discussed national and local issues. The Young People’s Socialist League published The Rising Sun, a newspaper which contained articles about local and national history, and political commentary often written by Florence McNutt, as well as a page of ads for local businesses. Local socialists also devoted much of their efforts to aiding the unemployed. Several socialists played leadership roles in unemployed groups. For example, Florence McNutt and Marie Widdowson served on a local committee to provide relief work for the unemployed.
Socialists also participated in more informal activities which included paying one another frequent visits and periodic bingo parties. Socialville socialists, especially Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Morton, hosted most of the bingo parties, but Black Lick socialists also held parties. These events raised funds for the Young People’s Socialist’s League and provided entertainment for guests who often numbered from twenty-five to forty-five. Local socialists often exchanged visits and socialized and traveled together. A few items from the many examples in the Blairsville Dispatch illustrate some of the personal connections which linked enclave socialists. Florene and Darius McNutt and their children and Mrs. Widdowson were guests of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Morton in June 1932. Later that month Mrs. Morton was a guest of the Widdowson family. The McNutt’s, the Widdowson’s and Mrs. Morton attended a meeting sponsored by the Saltsburg socialists held the following month. In February 1933, Mrs. McNutt and Mrs. Widdowson were guests at the Morton’s, and later that month they attended a meeting of the Federated Council of Churches in Pittsburgh. In November 1934, the Widdowson’s were guests of the Forest T. Lowman’s of Socialville.
These activities reflected and reinforced a strong sense of community which resulted from ideological affinities and connections based on family and friendship ties. Florence McNutt was a cousin of Marie Widdowson who was the wife of Dr. Widdowson and the daughter of Jessie Palmer, both prominent Black Lick socialists. Mary Jane Bennett (“Grandma Bennett”) played the pivotal role in Socialville both as a co-founder of the Socialist Party in Indiana County and as a mother whose daughters helped to spearhead enclave socialism in the 1930s. For example, one of her daughters married Forest T. Lowman, a Nash dealer in Blairsville, and both of them became prominent local socialists. Bonds of friendship helped to form ties between Reverend Theodore Miner, the leading Socialist in Saltsburg, and Black Lick and Socialville Socialists. He joined the Black Lick socialists when they attended major meetings in Pittsburgh, and he came to many meetings in the Black Lick area. He and his family were guests of the Forest T. Lowman family of Socialville in July 1933. The following month Mrs. Lowman joined Reverend Miner and his family for an evening at Campbell’s Mill Park. In November, Reverend Miner and his family were guests of the Widdowson family. Furthermore, a strong friendship formed between Florence McNutt and Mrs. Miner.
In the Black Lick-Socialville enclave, women served as political candidates, convention and meeting participants and organizers of social events. More crucial, however, was their role as initiators and catalysts. Mary Jane Bennett played that role in Socialville and Marie Widdowson in Black Lick. She brought Dr. Widdowson and Florence McNutt into the Socialist Party. Under her tutelage his politics shifted from a conservative Republic stance. Florence McNutt also experienced a political awakening through discussions with Mrs. Widdowson.
A small corps of women supported by men built a movement which produced annual picnics, a reading room, an ephemeral newspaper and frequent meetings. They attended events in other locales, and attracted speakers and spectators to their local activities. They saw the plight of people and worked through their own channels, unemployment organizations and government agencies to alleviate their problems. They built a sense of community which sustained and nourished them. They offered some residents of the area a temporary alternative or supplement to mainstream politics, information and entertainment. Even after the demise of the local Socialist Party some of the women found other outlets for their civic-mindedness, with Florence McNutt playing a crucial role in the development of the community center and the park in Black Lick.