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The Crossroads of The American Adventure

By: Kendall Foreman

A photograph showing the set pieces and audio-animatronics in the Great Depression scene of The American Adventure.  It shows the storefront of a general store with four men gathered on the porch.

“We tried to [distill] each scene down to its, sort of its, elemental form. Capture the essence of what that scene was really trying to say about America.”

– Randy Bright

This quote from Randy Bright, the show writer and producer of The American Adventure, is perhaps best evidenced in the portion of the attraction depicting the Great Depression. As a storefront rises from the depths of the stage, the audience is met with the solitary twangs of a banjo accompanying the lyric, “Brother, can you spare a dime?” Four men sit on the porch without a customer in sight and lament the struggles brought on by the economic disaster.

Perhaps the reason this scene is such a perfect encapsulation of that moment in history is because it is based on a photograph that was taken for the purpose of conveying the hardship of the Great Depression. While there are possibly several visitors to EPCOT who do not know the name Dorothea Lange, it is quite likely they have seen her work.

In the 1920s, Lange was working as a portrait photographer in San Francisco, California, but in the 1930s, as California began to see an influx of individuals traveling west looking for work, she ventured out to document the effects of the extreme recession. Lange took on a job with the Resettlement Administration (RA) and was tasked with bringing public attention to the struggles of farmers due to the twin catastrophes of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. On a visit to the pea pickers camp in Nipomo, California, she took what would become one of the most iconic photographs of the time period. It was of a 32-year-old woman named Florence Owens Thompson. The portrait of Thompson with her children tucked on either shoulder would come to be known as Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California.

Lange’s job with the RA took her throughout California, the Southwest, and the South. While on a trip to Gordonton, North Carolina in 1939, she photographed a clapboard general store known as Baynes Store. In the foreground was a gas pump and a number of signs advertising everything from Coca-Cola to cigarettes littered the storefront. Four men were sitting on the porch and the brother of the store owner was leaning in the doorway. Of this photograph titled Crossroads General Store, North Carolina, Lange said, “That store is where all business is done, where everything is transacted, where all loans are given, where they’re kept in hock forever. That store is everything.”

Baynes Store was the crossroads of the town, serving as a square of sorts where neighbors could gather to discuss life, both good and bad. This was likely the case among the five men when Lange captured that moment on a Sunday afternoon in July. The sense of community that was present there makes Lange’s photo an incredibly apt vignette to serve as inspiration for the tone of the scene in The American Adventure.

The similarities between the attraction and the image are obvious, but there are a few interesting changes that were made in the adaptation. The large unfinished timber posts that are supporting the porch roof in the photograph were removed for the show scene, likely to allow for a better focus on the audio-animatronics. Another interesting difference is that the Coca-Cola advertisement took on a much larger prominence in the show. This is perhaps due to the fact that Coca-Cola originally held a joint sponsorship of the pavilion with American Express. While alterations were made, no detail was overlooked as research was done to accurately recreate period specific advertisements and costuming.

Today, a little over 40 years since the attraction’s opening, this scene in The American Adventure remains virtually unchanged, serving a purpose similar to Lange’s work – to bring awareness to the reality of the Great Depression. While it may not be in quite the same condition as it was in 1939, Baynes Store still stands today as well. In the community of Hurdle Mills, North Carolina, at 1026 Wheelers Church Rd (also known as Gordonton Crossroads), the building that was erected over one hundred years ago can be seen just off the road on what is now private property.

The aged boards call back to an era when gathering with your neighbors at the general store was a time of encouragement in the midst of hardship. Crossroads General Store, North Carolina and its feeling of community perseverance certainly captured the essence of America in the late 1930s, and for this reason, it serves as a fitting piece of inspiration for The American Adventure.

Photo from the author’s personal collection.

Kendall has been a member of the WDW Radio Team since 2013. Today, you can read her work on the WDW Radio Blog or hear her join Lou for a number of WDW Radio podcast episodes. Kendall’s affection for Walt Disney World began with her very first family visit in the 1990s and has continued with each magical vacation since. Follow her on Twitter @kl_foreman.