Press "Enter" to skip to content

Trials and Triumphs, by Stephen J. Leonard

Review by Ed Quillen

Colorado History – December 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

Trials and Triumphs – A Colorado Portrait of the Great Depression With FSA Photographs
by Stephen J. Leonard
Published in 1993 by University Press of Colorado
ISBN 0-87081-311-0

In much of Colorado, the Great Depression did not arrive when the stock market crashed on Oct. 29, 1929. The rural economy had been depressed since mineral and crop prices fell in 1921.

Nonetheless, the great Wall Street crash soon hit Main Street. As Stephen Leonard points out at the beginning of this excellent history, “Leadville’s zinc and molybdenum miners, Routt County’s ranchers, Denver’s meat packers, Eaton’s sugar processors, and Pueblo’s steel workers produced for a national market. Little of the state’s agricultural bounty and only a small fraction of its mineral output stayed at home. If demand for sugar or silver slackened, if prices for potatoes or lead fell, Colorado would suffer.”

Suffer it did. Industrial production fell from $306 million in 1929 to $184 million in 1931. Farm income dropped from $213 million in 1929 to $82 million in 1932. Suicides rose from 169 in 1929 to 257 in 1932, including a sawmill worker who dynamited himself.

Drought hit farmers, and those who had water found low prices; San Luis Valley potatoes sold for only 25 cents per hundredweight, far less than the cost of production. Elsewhere farmers contended with lethal dust storms and plagues of locusts.

Towns closed libraries and public-transit system; teachers, if they even kept their jobs, were paid in IOUs; to reduce prison costs, the state released several hundred felons. Leadville went broke and quit paying its employees at all in 1932.

There were the bank failures, wiping out thousands of hard-saved nest eggs, and there was embezzlement from public accounts. When advised to get a lawyer to defend himself after such a charge, Chaffee County Treasurer Howard K. Frey responded “No, by God, I am guilty, guilty as hell.”

Leonard starts with a detailed portrait of the collapse in Colorado, and then pursues the tangled relationship of local, state, and federal government responses — the New Deal — before concluding with a Colorado ready to produce whatever it took to win World War II.

The notion of building a fence around Colorado is not new. They tried it in 1936 along the New Mexico border. Colorado National Guard troops were stationed to turn away paupers who might sneak in and take jobs from Coloradans. New Mexico responded by boycotting Colorado potatoes, and within a fortnight, the border was open again.

That was a peculiarity of the times, as was the occupation of the state capitol by self-proclaimed Communists in 1934. The lasting effect was the growing prominence of federal spending, dispersed throughout the state; some projects, denounced as boondoggles or worse, endure to this day.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (its first camp opened on May 9, 1933 near Buena Vista) built spreader dams along Trout Creek Pass to discourage further erosion, and the Rainbow Trail along the Sangres is another Corps effort. Salida’s swimming pool was a WPA project. So was the community building in the Saguache town park, and, for that matter, the first Monarch ski lifts. Towns got new schools, roads were upgraded, water systems improved, all in the name of the New Deal.

Part of that New Deal make-work was the employment of photographers through the Farm Security Administration (whose Salida office, a photographer noted, was on the same block as the Laura Evans bordello) to document both the suffering and the efforts to alleviate it.

Trials and Triumphs presents page after page of magnificent black-and-white photos, reminiscent of Life magazine in its salad days. Some come from central Colorado: ranches and ranchers, sheep and children, near Nathrop, and several Leadville shots, including one downtown with two idlers in front of the cigar store.

If this book has a weak spot, I didn’t find it. Even though it’s authoritative and well-documented, like work from an academic historian, the text flows smoothly like good popular prose. All parts of our state get due attention; Leonard doesn’t focus only on the cities, or just the mountains, or merely the Dust Bowl plains. He pays close attention to national trends and numbers, as well as the antics of bankers and politicians, but the also tells the down-home human side of the story.

This book filled in many blanks for me. I grew up hearing Depression stories from parents and grand-parents (usually accompanied by dark words concerning Franklin or Eleanor Roosevelt), but until I read Trials and Triumphs, it was hard to connect their reminisces with the bigger scene presented by standard history texts.

If you’re looking for a present for an old-timer, you need look no further, because you can be sure this will be appreciated. But after you give it, borrow it back and read it yourself for an understanding of a time that transformed Colorado in ways that are still being felt. Leonard has taken many disparate threads and woven them into a superb and informative tapestry.

— Ed Quillen