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Originally published: 2012-04-29 13:24:06
Last modified: 2012-04-29 13:26:40

Digging in the 1940 census

Michael Hardy / (

With great fanfare, the United States Census Bureau released the 1940 United States Census on April 2, 2012. Within 10 days, more than 134 million pages had been downloaded. There were only 136 million people in the United States when the census was taken.

Back when the United States Constitution was adopted, it stated that there must be a general census every 10 years. The purposes of the census were the apportioning of seats in the House of Representatives and the assessing of direct federal taxes. The census began on Aug. 2, 1790, and, while scheduled to be finished by May 1, 1791, was not actually completed until March 1792. 

Every 10 years after that, census enumerators have combed the mountains, valleys and creek sides, looking for the people.

Avery County first appeared on the Federal census in 1920. According to the population census taken that year, there were 10,335 people who lived here. The population had grown in 1930 to 11,803. In 1940, the overall population in Avery County had grown to 13,561. The Linville Township, which included Newland, was the largest township with 3,710 people. The smallest township was Wilson’s Creek, with just 405 people, down from 504 people in 1930. 

There were problems in setting up the 1940 census process. The legislation to fund and conduct the census did not pass until August 1939, and the census was not slated to begin until April 1, 1940. The United States, historically speaking, was between the Great Depression and the country’s entrance into World War II when the census was taken. 

The census taker was charged with visiting each household. If no one was home, he would return. Those who, as of the week of March 24 to 30, 1940, were working for the WPA, NYA or the CCC were also asked to report that on the census. 

Since Newland celebrates its centennial next year, it will serve as a good example. In 1940, the population of Newland was 471, up from 328 in 1930. Newland was the largest town in Avery County. Taking the census that year was Mary G. Walls. Ms. Walls began her count on April 2, 1940, and did not finish chasing down the last loose end until April 26. She began her count on Cranberry Street, at the home of Harland W. Biggs, a 29-year-old Maryland native who taught agriculture in the public school. 

Twenty percent (93 people) of the population of Newland was not from North Carolina. They came from Tennessee, West Virginia, Illinois, Washington, Oregon, even Oklahoma, Vermont and Alabama. However, there were no foreign-born people living within the confines of Newland at that time. Neither were there any minorities. 

Eighty-four-year-old Maggie Henley, living on the Old Cranberry Road, was the oldest town-resident. Of course, at the other end of the spectrum, there were many babies listed throughout the census. 

The Works Progress Administration was the largest and most ambitious part of the New Deal Program, employing millions of unskilled workers across the United States in the construction of public buildings, roads, and other enterprises. The WPA was the largest employer in Newland in 1940. Thirty Newland residents listed the WPA as their employer. These included Emmie Jones, a seamstress; Thomas M. Ray, a timekeeper; Aaron Townsend who worked on the road crew; and Stella Fields, a matron. 

There were, obviously, plenty of common jobs listed on the census. A small sampling includes Ethel Vance, the cook at the Avery County Jail; George Banner, who made shoes; Daniel Yates, Newland’s only barber; and Kelly Haga, the newspaper editor. Kathleen Deaton, Willie Lyle and Kathleen Calhoun all worked as telephone operators. Of special interest are E. Franklin Camp and his wife Betty: they are listed as home missionaries in Newland. 

It would appear that most of the teachers for the public school lived at the Shady Lawn Hotel, including Fletcher Ferguson, Betty Bryant, Mabel Banner, Leslie Ramsey and Alfred Mapen. The last two were from Vermont and Illinois, respectively. 

There is much to be learned by sifting through the 1940 United States Census for Avery County. It will just take time and patience to do it. Some of the names and columns of information are extremely hard to read (forgiveness is sought for any misspellings above). However, by taking the time to go through the census, we can get a better understanding of the county in which we live. 

The 1940 United States Census is available online, for free, through the Library of Congress. It is not name searchable at this point in time. Avery County’s enumeration district is ED 6-1 through 6-15. It takes a little time to learn how to navigate the web pages, but the rewards can be great. To access archives through the LOC website, click to Happy hunting.