The Great Depression staggered the Albemarle economy. The declining need and prices for farm, forest, and manufactured goods, forced lower wages and raised unemployment. Building activity all but ceased for several years, idling thousands of workers in regional lumber mills. Hundreds of farmers lost their farms, with statewide farm income in 1932 falling to just one-third of what it has been four years earlier. As individual incomes fell and farms failed, consumer businesses also failed at an alarming rate, including groceries, farm supply stores, general mercantile stores, and banks.
With the Great Depression at its lowest point in 1932, the voters elected Franklin D. Roosevelt as President and Elizabeth City native John Christopher Blucher Ehringhaus (1882-1949) as Governor. The state’s crushing economic condition fell to Ehringhaus to resolve, which was accomplished largely by instituting the state’s first sales tax. Though the tax was not popular, it enabled the state to survive the Great Depression and lay the groundwork for uniform statewide schools and superior roads and highways.
Federal assistance to the Albemarle took many forms. Perhaps the most widespread were employment endeavors of the Works Projects administrations (WPA) that provided funds for public construction projects. These included school additions, courthouse additions and annexes, post office, sidewalks, National Guard armories, and even a baseball field. The Lost Colony, the nation’s oldest continuing outdoor symphonic drama, began in 1937 under the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project. The largest WPA project in the Albemarle region was assistance in the construction in the United States Coast Guard Air Base just south of Elizabeth City. With the assistance of $411,000 from the WPA, the base was completed in 1939.
One of the first federal programs was the Civilian Conservation Corps, begun in April 1933 to train single, needy, and jobless teenage boys and young men for work in conservation areas. Among the first of these camps—where many a boy experienced electricity and indoor plumbing for the first time---was Camp #424, which opened in June 1933 at Bells Island in Hyde County; other regional camps were at Manteo and Hatteras in Dare County.