By Jeff Shultz
In 1931 America was in the thick of the early years of the Great Depression.
The plight of the nation was never more demonstrated when in January of that year 500 local tenant farmers in England, Arkansas, marched in protest, demanding food for their families.
The incident was termed as a “riot” by the press and brought national attention to the dilemma of many farmers during the Depression.
One American touched by the protest was Oklahoma’s Will Rogers.
The England, Ark., protest and Rogers’ subsequent tour through southern Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas to raise money for drought relief will be the subject of this Saturday’s special presentation on Rogers, sponsored by the Pauls Valley Arts Council and the PV Historical Society.
“Breakfast with Will” will take place Saturday, June 17, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. at Stark Art Studio and Gallery and will feature a multi-media presentation by Steve Gragert, assistant director of the Will Rogers Museum in Claremore.
Gragert has titled his presentation "Will Rogers and the Great Depression: Lifting Spirits, Lifting Hopes."
“We will view the story through the life and emotions of Will Rogers,” Gragert told the Daily Democrat. “We will examine how he used the culture of entertainment to convey hope and to lift the spirits of the American people.”
Gragert’s production will focus on Rogers’ writings, radio broadcasts and stage presentations to raise not only money to help with drought relief but also raise the consciousness of the nation.
“We will strive to understand more clearly how one man, one of our most significant figures of the 20th century, reacted and changed during arguably the nation’s most trying years,” Gragert said.
The 22-day tour Rogers undertook in January and February in 1931, took the humorist and noted personality to several stops in the region, sometimes four-stops per day.
“At each (stop), Rogers took the stage in the largest venue available and delivered one of his much beloved, down-home humorous monologues about politics and current events,” Gragert said.
His performances generated more than $200,000 for hunger relief, a huge amount of money during the depression era.
The tour took Rogers to England, Ark., to address the very farmers who had protested just weeks earlier.
Before arriving there, Gragert says, he used his daily syndicated newspaper column of January 6, 1931, to highlight the people’s plight.
“Paul Revere just woke up Concord. These birds woke up America,” Rogers wrote.
“We got a powerful government, brainy men, great organizations, many commissions, but it took a little band of five hundred simple country people (who had no idea they were doing anything historical) to come to a country town store and demand food for their wives and children, they hit the hearts of the American people, more than all your Senatorial pleas, and government investigations.”
Gragert’s presentation will include photos of Rogers on the tour, exerts from his writings and audio clips from his radio broadcasts.
“Breakfast with Will” is free to the public. A sampling of tasty breakfast and brunch items will be provided by the PV Historical Society, beginning at 10 a.m. with Gragert’s presentation beginning at 10:30.