New Deal boosted Haywood sharecropper’s family
by Rob Neufeld
PHOTO CAPTION: Dan Cochran poses with his family—his wife, Ila; Howard, Pansy, and Chester; and Peggy Brock’s and Kaye Minchew’s mother, Mabel Jean, c.1927. Ila was a good seamstress; and the families would have been ready for having their pictures made by having their best clothing clean and pressed and ready for photographer to arrive. Photographers did sometimes provide clothing for folks to pose in.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt started going to Warm Springs, Georgia in 1924 to cure his polio, and it not only affected his health, it affected his outlook on agriculture.
Something about the South moved his heart. He made many car trips to small towns.
In Americus, Ga., he told a Chamber of Commerce audience in February 1928, “I would rather tackle new things in Georgia than attempt to rehash things in New York.” He was running for governor of New York at the time.
Cotton had caused the depletion and erosion of much soil in the South, and Roosevelt advocated reforestation. When he found out that the train awakening him at Warm Springs at night was carrying milk from Wisconsin, he proposed that dairy and beef cattle be raised on depleted cotton lands.
Southerners were not putting their hands out when they thought financial help might be coming their way.
In the fall of 1932, when Roosevelt, on the verge of winning his first term as President, drove out to Georgia farms, “residents of Warm Springs,” Kaye Lanning Minchew writes in her new book, “A President in Our Midst,” moved their “scrawny cows away from roadside fields when they expected (him) to be driving by since they wanted him to see only fat cows.”
The Haywood connection
“FDR came through Canton,” Rolland says. “My mother took me to see him. There was a big crowd. I was five. A big fellow picked me up and out me on his shoulders so I could see the President.”
Rolland’s father, George Eph Rolland, and uncle, Dan Cochran, had been working at the Smokemont saw mill when Champion closed it down in the late 1928 in a deal with the National Park Service.
George was a blacksmith and mechanic, and got a job at Champion Fibre Company in Canton. Dan had been a laborer at the lumber camp, and did not. But many former Smokemont men got jobs with the WPA, which began in 1935; and two of the family’s young men—Minchew’s uncles, Howard and Chet—went off with the Civilian Conservation Corps, a program that had begun in 1933.
Bill Rolland recalls sitting around the Zenith radio in his parents’ home in Fibreville, Champion’s mill village. His father was more well off than others— because of his job and because he had a farm on the Pigeon River—and cousins and friends would often be over, listening to Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats.”
“We must begin now to make provision for the future,” Roosevelt said in a April 28, 1935 broadcast. He was introducing the Social Security Act as well as unemployment insurance and a works relief program that would put to work “3½ million employable persons, men and women, who are now on the relief rolls.”
Dan Cochran had become a sharecropper. He was not interested in Social Security, though he would be grandfathered in with people who’d never had deductions taken from paychecks.
He did not benefit from work relief; he was an independent farmer, so poor, his granddaughter, Peggy Brock remembers her mother saying, his children had “gathered chestnuts in the fall to pay for shoes.”
When the Farm Security Administration was established in 1937, Cochran did turn to the New Deal for loans.
“Records in the county FSA office,” a 1939 issue of the “Waynesville Mountaineer” reported in a feature on Cochran, “show he was worth $229 in the spring of 1936.”
“First Cochran worked as a farm laborer,” the “Mountaineer” began their feature. “During the winter he cut pulp wood and saved enough to buy a $65 mule. The FSA lent him money to buy another. Then he sold the mules and bought two brood mares.”
By raising and selling colts, Cochran paid off his loans. Consequently, the FSA, “upon advice of the Haywood County Tenant-Purchase committee, decided he was worthy and able to take a further step up the ladder—that of farm ownership.”
Minchew, a professional archivist, found and got a copy of her grandfather’s farm loan application form from the National Archives. His wife, Ila Woody Cochran, had helped him sign it, for Dan, a man of multiple talents—he could also play a banjo by ear—was illiterate.
With the loan, Cochran bought 50-acres of bottomland between the East and West Forks of the Pigeon River, and went about making many improvements and repairs to the buildings.
The proof of New Deal effectiveness resonates within Cochran’s extended family with faith in being tenacious, a belief in the dignity of poor people, and support of government boosts to those who need opportunity and relief.
“My mother was the first in her family to finish high school,” Brock says. “My cousin Jerry, who was Dan’s first grandchild, was the first to finish college. In my own family, we all have graduate degrees...and Grandpa signed his name with an X and was never able to attend school.”
Bill Rolland got a Ph.D. in physics from Duke. “Then I decided to teach and be poor, and I’m successful at that,” he said. He taught ten years at King College in Bristol; and then 45 at St. Andrews Presbyterian College (now University) in Laurinburg, N.C.
Grandpa Dan was amazed at the turn in family fortune. “I sure am thankful for this chance that has been given me,” he’d told the “Mountaineer” reporter.
“Grandpa never drove a car,” Brock chimes in. “One time he was going to the store with Uncle Chet, and they picked up a hitchhiker. Grandpa told him, ‘That’s okay, we were once poor, too.’”
“Grandpa always called me Billy,” Rolland relates. “He kind of growled. ‘Billy, come here,’ he said, ‘I’ll show you my bank book.’ He was so proud.”
Cochran’s vigor was legendary. “I remember going to see him when he was maybe 92,” Rolland says. “We were out on his front porch, which was two feet off the ground. There was something he had to do in the yard, and he just jumped off the porch.”
“When he died at age 95,” Minchew noted, “he’d never been in a hospital a day in his life. He went down to the mailbox to get the mail to bring to Chet, and his ducks were following him, and he just fell down on the way back.”
“The only photo in Grandpa’s house,” Minchew says, “was one of Roosevelt.” And now she has written a book that includes many photos of the President and accounts all of the good he did for Georgians and people with leg ailments.
THE BOOK & AUTHOR
Cover of “A President in Our Midst: Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Georgia” by Kaye Lanning Minchew (U. of Georgia Pr., 2016). Kaye Lanning Minchew presents her book of photographs and history, at Blue Ridge Books, 152 S Main St., Waynesville, 3 p.m., Sat., Aug. 6. 828-456-6000.