Of course, only in hindsight do we know that as people slowly began to recover from the turmoil of the depression, the horrors of World War II waited just on the horizon. The following photos show life in Virginia during the year 1940, just before the nation was unwittingly headed to war.
We’re aware that these uncertain times are limiting many aspects of life as we all practice social and physical distancing. While we’re continuing to feature destinations that make our state wonderful, we don’t expect or encourage you to go check them out immediately. We believe that supporting local attractions is important now more than ever and we hope our articles inspire your future adventures! And on that note, please nominate your favorite local business that could use some love right now:
1. President Franklin D. Roosevelt visits Langley Field in Hampton, July 1940.
Now known as the Joint Base Langley–Eustis, Langley Field was one of 32 of Air Service training camps created at the start of World War I. In the 1930s, Langley Field served as a key part of the U.S. Army’s efforts to build the U.S. Air Force. By 1940, just before America’s entrance into World War II, the small field in Hampton became a major airfield of the United States Army Air Corps and many of the buildings that still exist today were constructed at this time.
2. The Curtiss XSO3C-1 Seamew in a wind tunnel at the NACA Langley Research Center, October 1940.
Considering that Orville Wright flew the first military test flight in United States’ history at Fort Myer in Arlington in 1908, the progress of airplanes, particularly military planes, was significant. Planes like this one would soon be in service as part of the United States’ air service in World War II.
3. A Winchester movie house displays Confederate flags on February 12, 1940.
Although 75 years had passed since the end of the Civil War, sentiments still ran high in the South, including Virginia. This movie house in Winchester was showing “Gone With The Wind” in February 1940, and chose to “recognize” former President Abraham Lincoln with Confederate flags on his birthday.
4. Proud fishermen show off their catch at Bear Creek Lake State Park in Cumberland County, 1940.
Bear Creek Lake is a manmade lake in the heart of the Cumberland State Forest. Constructed in 1938 at the close of the Great Depression, the lake was part of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and State Forestry Division’s efforts to create public recreation areas throughout the state. The lake was built by 100 men, but unlike many of the workers constructing parks at this time, they were not members of the Civilian Conservation Corps, rather construction workers and laborers desperately in need of work. The park officially opened as a day-use recreation area and state park in 1940.
5. Radford Main Street in 1940.
The year 1940 marked big changes for the small Southwest Virginia town of Radford as thousands of workers came to town seeking work at the "powder plant." The Radford “powder plant” or Arsenal opened in 1940 just before the start of WWII. It supplied thousands of jobs and served as a major war time supplier of gunpowder and associated products.
6. A row of rooming houses in Radford, 1940.
The influx of people was so great during this time that nearly every private home, and even some businesses, served as boarding houses.
7. These men shared a room with three other men at "Mrs. Jones'" boardinghouse, 1940.
At Mrs. Jones' boarding house, these men slept six to a room in three beds, paying between $8 - $10 a week in rent. Many of the workers came from areas like Bluefield, West Virginia; Bristol, Tennessee; or High Point, North Carolina and left families behind. They worked as carpenters, carpenters' assistants, riggers and laborers making between 60 cents and $1.25 per hour.
8. Men wait outside a local sandwich shop for the shift change at the powder plant, 1940.
At the height of war time production, the plant employed more than 20,000 workers from Virginia and around the country.
9. Out-of-towners sleep at the train station after arriving in Radford looking for work, 1940.
If rooms couldn’t be found, as was often the case in the early days of the powder plant, men would sleep where they could.
10. A fortune teller sets up shop in Radford, 1940.
Like the old west towns that grew around gold miners seeking their fortunes, the influx of laborers to Radford brought new businesses hoping to capitalize on entertainment.
11. This farm near Marion shows a bountiful harvest by October of 1940.
In rural areas like Smyth County, farming had begun to improve following the depression as evidenced by these well-kept, bountiful corn fields.
12. But, not everyone was as fortunate. Here, a Pittsylvania farmer examines the less than ideal conditions of his tobacco fields, May 1940.
While things were improving, there was still much to overcome following the devastation of the depression. Many farmers couldn’t afford a poor crop yield as all of their financial reserves had been depleted in the previous decade. This farmer shows soil that has turned hard and cracked after a hot, dry spell in the late spring of 1940.
13. In 1940, the Little Creek – Cape Charles Ferry was known as the “Gateway to the South.”
The Little Creek-Cape Charles Ferry operated as a vehicle and passenger ferry from the 1930s until 1964, connecting Virginia Beach (then known as Princess Anne County) with Cape Charles on the Eastern Shore.
14. A young migrant worker waits to cross on the Little Creek Ferry, 1940.
The ferry carried thousands of migrant workers from other parts of the country into Virginia where they worked as farm and agricultural laborers following the depression.
15. Migrant workers grade cabbages at the Webster Canning Company in Cheriton, 1940.
As agricultural production increased in Virginia, workers came from all over to work on farms, in canning plants and as unskilled laborers. The Webster Canning Company was the largest of its kind in the state of Virginia and employed hundreds of these workers in Northampton County.
16. Many of the workers were African Americans from Florida. They were given “barracks” to live in, closely resembling work camps.
Here, a migrant work camp is surrounded by barbed wire, making it resemble a prison more than comfortable living quarters.
17. Young children of migrant families stand outside within the confines of the migrant barracks, 1940.
The barracks housed the workers, offering sleeping quarters, common areas and cookhouses.
18. Migrant workers gather onions in a field near Onley in Accomack County.
During the 1940s, Accomack County, along with Northampton, was a large agricultural producer, also attracting many agricultural workers from other parts other country.
19. Migrant workers arrive at their new home in Onley.
Like the workers in Northampton, migrant workers in Accomack survived in less than ideal conditions. This farm house has no store for provisions and the only drinking water is on the next farm over.
20. Sleeping quarters for migrant workers at a farm in Accomack, 1940.
Families would often share spaces with other families, making for very cramped quarters. As many as 35 people would share common spaces for cooking and other everyday necessities.
21. Horses graze on a Fauquier County farm near Warrenton, 1940.
While the landscape of Northwest Virginia has changed drastically in recent decades, Fauquier County is still known as some of Virginia’s richest and most picturesque horse country.
22. Spring planting in Rockingham County, 1940.
The Shenandoah Valley has long been known for its fertile soil. Here a farmer plows the soil for spring planting. Many of the farms that suffered so greatly during the depression survived, but much of the labor was still done with manual or horse-driven power as machinery was still financially out of reach.
23. Apple orchards in bloom in Rockingham County, 1940.
Apple and other fruit orchards continue to be one of the premier crops of the Shenandoah Valley.
24. U.S. Route 50 cutting through Frederick County near Winchester in 1940.
The portion of U.S. Route 50 that cuts through Virginia is also known as the John Mosby Highway and the Lee-Jackson Highway. This historic roadway began centuries ago as a Native American migratory path from the Potomac River to the Shenandoah Valley. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it served as a trade route for travelers from Alexandria and Georgetown to Winchester. Today, it continues to serve as a major east-west highway across the northern portion of the state.
25. Loudoun County farm near Sterling in 1940.
Over the past decade, Loudoun County has been recognized as the fastest growing county, not just in Virginia, but in the United States. However, in the early parts of 20th century, Loudoun County was rural farmland.
26. This farmer owned 25-acres in Loudoun where he raised corn and wheat.
After retiring from a career as a railroad engineer, this farmer came to Loudoun where he owned and worked 25-acres.
27. Two young boys walk home from school in Loudoun.
Today, you wouldn’t be likely to find young children walking alone along the streets of Sterling. But in the 1940s, the land was farmland and children like these boys would walk miles to reach school.
28. A “Grange” meeting at a Fairfax County schoolhouse, 1940.
It’s little surprise that Fairfax County has always been a place of prevalent activism given its rich political history and proximity to the capital at Washington, D.C. In this photo, local members of The Grange gather at a schoolhouse. The Grange, officially known as “The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry,” is a fraternal organization that promotes economic and agricultural well-being through community engagement. Founded in 1867 after the Civil War, The Grange has a national scope and serves as the oldest American agricultural advocacy group.
29. Three young Grange members represent Flora, Ceres and Pamona in Fairfax, 1940.
Flora, Ceres and Pamona appeared in both Roman and Greek mythology as the the patron goddesses of flowers, grain and fruit.
As always, we want to hear your thoughts and contributions. If you lived through this period of history, share with us the stories of life just after the depression. And stay tuned, we will will be bringing you a look at World War II in the near future! In the meantime, let us know your thoughts in the comments below.