The Warner Files: ‘I Need Work’

Photo of unemployed man during the Great Depression: Dorothea Lange/National Archives

The Great Depression was one of the worst calamities to hit the United States. Poor economic planning, coupled with non-existent federal safety nets, conspired to through the U.S., and much of the rest of the world, into economic chaos.

The worst part was in 1932, when unemployment stood at an unprecedented 25 percent. The many acronymed agencies of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal alleviated some of the trauma and put millions to work, but didn’t bring the country out of the Depression. By the late 1930s, a lightening of government spending, combined with a decision to balance the budget, had pushed unemployment back to 17 percent in 1939.

“[D]espite the New Deal’s exertions and innovations, and contrary to much later mythology, in no subsequent year in the 1930s would the unemployment rate fall below 14 percent,” the historian David M. Kennedy wrote in his 1998 book Freedom from Fear. “The average for the decade as a whole was 17.1 percent.”

In Orange County, Willis Warner got elected to the OC Board of Supervisors during the later part of the Depression, in 1938. The day before he was to be sworn in, a Huntington Beach resident named J. H. Nankervis wrote to him.  A number of people wrote to Warner during his first year in office, all asking for the same thing. I’m focusing on Nakervis’s letter because it’s quite representative of the anxiety of the time, though also because I could find no response from Warner.

Here’s the text of the card Nankervis sent to Warner, exactly as originally written:


Mr. Warner –

Have made several attempts to see you, and each time you were out on business.

I dont like to bother you Mr. Warner, but you are the only man I know in Huntington Beach that could do anything for me.

Mr. Warner, I need work, and need it very bad; I have many references towards all kinds of high-way work, including all kinds of tractor, truck and grading.

Have worked on many jobs with Mr. James Morgan of Westminster, also Mr. Charles Murdy.

All the ranchers I know in Huntington Beach, Smeltzer and Westminster District are in favor of me working on the county road department.

Can you please help me.

Yours truly

J. H. Nankervis

407 6th St.

Huntington Beach

The Warner Files is an occasional history feature based on the papers of former Orange County Supervisor Willis Warner, which are currently housed at UC Irvine’s Department of Special Collections and Archives.

Previous Warner Files installments:

Ancient Bridge Demolition Scandal Exposed!

Fortune Tellers Banned!

Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.

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