Sports helped divert attention from doldrums of Depression
(This column is the 21st in a series on the Great Depression in the Hamilton area.)
By Jim Blount
Sports in the 1930s helped Hamiltonians, momentarily at least, forget lost jobs, foreclosures, business failures, vanished savings, hunger and the other hardships of the Great Depression decade.
Butler County's first Ohio high school tournament championship was earned by Hamilton High School in 1937 when Coach Lew Hirt's team won the Class A basketball title for large schools.
Two years earlier, Oxford Stewart came close in Class B. Coach Delbert P. (Curley) Walton's team was runnerup in the small school basketball playoff, losing the 1935 final game to the legendary Waterloo Wonders.
There were no high school football playoffs when Hamilton won 25 of 27 games in three years, 1937-1939. Coach Ray Tilton's unbeaten 1939 team, led by Paul Sarringhaus, claimed the state title.
May 24, 1934, by flipping a switch in Washington, President Franklin D. Roosevelt turned on lights at Cincinnati's Crosley Field. The first night game in major league baseball was watched by 22,422 fans as the Reds played the Philadelphia Phillies.
Later that year -- Sept. 15, 1934 -- Hamilton’s first night football game was played. Hamilton High beat Terrace Park, 45-0, under the lights at the Athletic Field at Fair Avenue and Dayton Street.
Local fans of the Cincinnati Reds delighted when Johnny Vander Meer pitched consecutive no-hit games, beating the Boston Bees, 3-0, in Cincinnati June 11, 1938, and the Dodgers, 6-0, in Brooklyn June 15. He remains the only major league pitcher to achieve that feat.
At the end of the decade, three Reds were the National League most valuable player in consecutive seasons -- catcher Ernie Lombardi, 1938, pitcher Bucky Walters, 1939; and first baseman Frank McCormick, 1940.
The Reds won the 1939 National League pennant, but lost four straight games to the New York Yankees in the World Series. The Yankees won six series titles in the '30s with the 1939 victory their fourth straight.
In the 1930s, three Ohio cities had National Football League teams -- the Portsmouth Spartans until 1934; the Cleveland Indians in 1931; the Cleveland Rams, 1937 to 1945; and the Cincinnati Reds, 1933-34. The Portsmouth franchise moved to Detroit and became the Lions. The Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles in 1946 and to St. Louis in 1980.
Cincinnati also fielded a pro team called the Bengals in 1937, 1938 and 1939, playing mostly as an independent or in the American Football League in addition to some games against NFL teams.
College football was more popular than the pro game in the '30s and a Butler County native coached one of the leading teams. Southern California won four of the decade's 10 Rose Bowl games, 1930, 1932, 1933 and 1939.
Hall of fame Coach Howard Jones, a native of Excello and graduate of Middletown High School, guided the USC Trojans from 1925 until his death in 1941. He was 5-0 in Rose Bowl games. His teams were national champions four times --Yale, 1909, and USC, 1928, 1931 and 1932.
It wasn't popular enought to be called "March Madness" in 1939 when the first NCAA basketball tournament was played. Ohio State advanced to the championship game, losing to Oregon, 46-33.
Ohio State's Jesse Owens won four gold medals for the U. S. in track in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin (100 and 200 meter dashes, broad jump and as a member of the 400-meter relay team).
A writer used the term Triple Crown for the first time in 1930 when Gallant Fox won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. Other Triple Crown winners in the '30s were Omaha, 1935, and War Admiral, 1937. (There have been 11 Triple Crown winners, the last was Affirmed in 1978.)
Seabiscuit – subject of a popular book and a 2003 movie – has been called "one of the most remarkable thoroughbred race horses in history," attracting thousands of people to race tracks from 1936 to 1940. Born in 1934, Seabiscuit lost 50 races before his first win Sept. 7, 1936. Seabiscuit raced twice at River Downs, east of Cincinnati, in October 1936, finishing third both times.
Radio provided a new way to enjoy sports in the '30s. An example was Nov. 1, 1938, when Seabiscuit won a match race with War Admiral. It was heard by about 40 million radio listeners.
Horse racing was illegal in most states when the '30s started. Fifteen states legalized it during the Depression because gambling licenses and taxes were a new source of state revenue. It was legal in 21 states by end of decade. In 1931 the Ohio Racing Commission began regulating pari-mutuel betting in the state, giving the sport more credibility.
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Mothballed road plan revived by Depression relief efforts
(This column is the 22nd in a series on the Great Depression in the Hamilton area.)
By Jim Blount
A road project delayed for almost 12 years by litigation got new life in 1931 as local officials sought productive work for the increasing number of unemployed men in the Hamilton area. Building the 2.5-mile North Third extension provided paychecks for more than 16 months before the road opened Jan. 14, 1934.
County voters had approved $390,000 to fund the extension in 1920. It passed because of strong support from residents of Hamilton, New Miami, Seven Mile and Overpeck. A Middletown taxpayer's suit, which took four years to work through the courts, blocked the improvement and the plan was shelved.
In January 1931 -- as the second full year of the Great Depression began -- several factors led to its revival. A prime reason was the promise of providing local jobs for the unemployed.
Another was the poor condition of the only existing Hamilton-New Miami connection. That was over Seven Mile Pike (now North B Street in Hamilton and Seven Mile Avenue in New Miami), along the west bank of the Great Miami River.
That narrow right-of-way between a steep hill and the river was shared with an interurban line, the Cincinnati & Lake Erie. There wasn't enough room to widen the road. The traction company proposed relocating its tracks along a more secure route on the east side of the river on land owned by the county. There was plenty of room for both the new road and the electric-powered C&LE tracks east of the river.
The Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, the Butler County Farm Bureau, granges in the county, the Butler County Automobile Club and other civic groups combined to boost the extension.. They formed a committee to solicit state and federal funds.
In April 1931, the Ohio Highway Department said the extension would be part of its 1932 building plan. The interurban company said it would spend about $500,000 to relocate its tracks beside the new road.
In 1920, the $390,000 bond issue would have paid all road costs. By 1931, the price rose to $600,000. A cost-sharing plan included $250,000 in federal money, $200,000 from the state and a $150,000 local contribution. About $50,000 of the local portion came from the Miami Conservancy District in the form of gravel it was dredging from the river channel. The gravel was used as fill to raise the road surface.
Work began in August 1932. The contractor followed federal rules that reserved jobs for the unemployed, estimated at about a fourth of the Hamilton work force. Laborers on the road were not to work more than 30 hours a week. Hourly pay ranged from a minimum of 40 cents for unskilled labor to a maximum of 60 cents for skilled workers. Hand labor was to be "used whenever practical to increase employment."
Federal relief programs would underwrite other road improvements during the remainder of the 1930s. A key legislative action was the Emergency Appropriations Relief Act, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt April 8, 1935.
The act outlined the function of the Works Progress Administration, or WPA. In the last half of the 1930s, the WPA is reported to have hired more than 8.5 million unemployed people in 3,000 counties to improve or build highways, bridges, airports and other public facilities. Butler County obtained its share of WPA assistance.
The WPA and other federal assistance programs received a major boost April 8, 1935, with approval of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act.
That act provided $4.8 billion to be distributed to state and local governments for public improvements. Allowing for inflation, that would be more than $73.3 billion in 2009 dollars.
By mid August 1935 -- four months after passage of the ERA Act -- Ohio had about 67,000 WPA workers employed on highway, road and street projects, a state total topped only by almost 143,000 in Pennsylvania.
Congress continued to provide additional relief funds for the next three years. Lawmakers began reducing appropriations in 1939.
By then more money was being directed to stockpiling U. S. military materials and to American industries supplying British defense needs. World War II began for the British Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland.
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County commission saved money by eliminating crow bounty
(This column is the 23rd in a series on the Great Depression in the Hamilton area.)
By Jim Blount
Crows prowling Butler County benefited from the Great Depression in late 1934 when county commissioners searched for ways to reduce expenses. In November, the commission canceled the crow bounty of 25 cents a head and said no money for that purpose would be in the 1935 county budget.
In 11 months in 1934, the county had paid $460 in bounties with $206 going to one person. Hunters could submit crow heads to township trustees who certified payments due to the commissioners. The bounty was meant to reduce crow damage to crops in rural areas.
Weather -- not crows -- was a major blow to local agriculture in 1934. Several extended dry periods during the 1930s remain among the most difficult times for local farmers. From January through December 1934, the county measured only 26.69 inches of precipitation, including rain and snow. From April 1930 through March 1931 the total had been 21.93 inches.
Part of the western Dust Bowl covered Butler County May 10, 1934. A "Black Blizzard" struck for several hours, powered by 50-mile-an-hour wind. The dirt and grit descended on the 15th day of a local drought. The afternoon sun was described as having "a moonlight appearance."
June through August 1934 is considered one of the Hamilton area's worst summers. It included a severe drought, 14 days with temperatures in the 100s and at least 16 heat-related deaths. There were no estimates of livestock and crop losses, or the number of farmers financially ruined by the hot, dry summer.
Some indication of the losses was apparent a year later when the Butler County farm census was released. The census measured local agriculture trends from 1930 to 1935.
The county lost 433 farms in five years -- from 2,469 to 2,902 -- down 17.5 percent. The average value of Butler County farms declined $4,904 -- or 40 percent -- from $12,348 to $7,444. The value of all county farms dropped from $30,486,423 to $21,603.285. The average value per acre fell from $116.85 in 1930 to $80.86 in 1935.
Livestock changes included an increase in cattle from 19,606 to 25,641 and decreases in sheep and lambs from 17,455 to 13,197, and in hogs and pigs from 54,909 to 40,561. Acreage in corn, barley, rye and potatoes increased. Decreases were noted in wheat, oats and tobacco between 1930 and 1935.
Congress and the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt were active in 1934 and 1935 in continuing efforts to bolster agriculture across the nation. Several laws were enacted in reaction to problems faced by U. S. farmers during the Great Depression.
In January 1934 the Farm Mortgage Refinancing Act authorized the Federal Farm Mortgage Corp. to issue up to $2 billion in bonds to refinance farm debts. (That would equate to about $30.7 billion in 2009 dollars.)
A month later the Crop Loan Act passed, permitting the Farm Credit Administration to extend loans in 1934 for crop production and harvesting.
In April the Jones-Connally Farm Relief Act expanded the list of farm products under the control of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA).
The Farm Mortgage Foreclosure Act enacted in June authorized the extension of farm loans to enable farmers to recover properties owned by them before foreclosure.
Also in June, the Federal Farm Bankruptcy Act allowed federal courts to reduce a farmer's debt to the level of the existing property value and, in some cases, permit courts to grant a five-year moratorium on payments. A year later the act was nullified unanimously by the U. S. Supreme Court.
A modified version of the bankruptcy law -- which reduced the moratorium section to three years -- was enacted in August 1935 and survived legal tests.
In April 1935, the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act allowed the government to pay farmers to reduce production to conserve soil and prevent erosion. The act created the Soil Conservation Service, under the control of the Department of Agriculture, to conduct surveys and develop preventative measures to limit further soil erosion.
Farmers were among those who would benefit from the August 1935 announcement that money from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) would enable County Engineer Fred Hammerle to complete 90 miles of road work in rural areas.
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WPA funds enabled Main Street improvements
(This column is the 24th in a series on the Great Depression in the Hamilton area.)
By Jim Blount
"We Are Proud of Our Work" proclaimed the banner preceding about 300 men marching in the Main Street parade July 8, 1936. The procession -- that began shortly after the temperature had reached the day's high of 106 degrees -- celebrated completion of long-awaited improvements along seven blocks of Main Street between the bridge and its intersection with Millville and Eaton avenues.
The 300 men had been among Hamilton's unemployed. They worked part of that year, thanks to $132,834 provided by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal Depression program aimed at stimulating construction industries and providing jobs.
They were responsible for upgrades at street level and below and above Main Street, the principal artery for Hamilton's West Side. Improvements included repaving and widening the street, installing new sidewalks, replacing storm sewers and utilities, removing abandoned streetcar tracks and erecting a new street lighting system.
The 300 proud WPA workers were joined by more than 250 decorated vehicles, two bands and other marchers that hot evening.
The westbound parade started at Fifth and High streets. When it reached the High-Main Bridge, a female bicycle group broke a ribbon, symbolic of the formal opening of the improved thoroughfare.
"It was a gala evening," the Journal-News said with the street "bedecked in red, white and blue bunting, stores were 'dressed up' for the occasion, and everyone was in a jovial mood" as "thousands of Hamiltonians from all parts of the city" attended and participated.
After the parade, festivities continued from a temporary stand built at Main and D streets.
The pavement, curbs, sidewalks and unseen underground infrastructure were in deplorable shape when Main Street work started Feb. 21, 1936. At first, only 60 men paid by WPA funds were on the job. They were divided into two shifts, each working six hours a day, six days a week.
When authorized by the federal government in October 1935, the project was to employ 285 men for six months. The Main Street crews were to be hired from 2,510 unemployed Hamilton men.
They reported Monday morning, Nov. 4, but were sent home because materials ordered by the WPA had not arrived in Hamilton. The men were still idle more than a week later.
One of their toughest tasks was rerouting a walled-up creek that paralleled Main Street In about 1840, the newspaper said, Main Street property owners "joined in walling up the creek [with stone] and constructing an arch over it, leaving the bottom nothing but earth."
It followed a wandering course on the south side of Main Street from Eaton Avenue to C Street. Then it crossed Main Street and flowed east to a river outlet near North B Street and Wayne Avenue. It ranged in size "from three feet wide and two and a half high to eight feet wide and seven feet high, the size dependent upon the individual property owner who paid his share of the cost," the Journal-News explained.
Civic officials emphasized that the Main Street project wouldn't have been possible without $132,834 in federal WPA funds.
If paid by local efforts, by assessing abutting property owners, it would have cost them about $46 per front foot. The city invested only $33,163 in the improvements. In today's dollars, the WPA grant would be equivalent to $1.97 million, the city's share $491,300 and the per-foot assessment $681.
In early 1936 -- in addition to the nearly 300 men involved in the Main Street improvements -- WPA money also was paying about 800 men in Hamilton and about 1,000 in Middletown who were working on other road projects.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed legislation in June 1935 creating the Works Progress Administration. A government publication described the WPA as "a federal agency which cooperates with state and local governments in carrying out needed public improvements and services in order to provide work and wages for the needy able-bodied unemployed. The local governments plan and sponsor the projects and the WPA helps to operate them."
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Government shifted farm policy to soil conservation
(This column is the 25th in a series on the Great Depression in the Hamilton area.)
By Jim Blount
Federal Depression relief for farmers changed course in the 1934-37 period after the U. S. Supreme Court squashed key parts of the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) which had been enacted May 12, 1933.
Under AAA, known as the Farm Relief Act, farmers had been paid not to grow certain crops. In restricting production, AAA aimed to reduce crop surpluses, raise harvest values and restore stability to farmers, enabling them to pay debts and boost their purchasing power. It authorized parity prices based on the pre-World War I period, which had been prosperous years for farmers.
When the Supreme Court ruled AAA unconstitutional Jan. 6, 1936, Congress wrote a new adjustment act.
The shift in federal farm policy was emphasized Feb. 29, 1936, with passage of the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1936. The law supported farm income and reduced surpluses by paying farmers for shifting from crops in excess supply (soil depleting crops) to soil building crops like legumes and grasses.
Butler County farmers in the summer of 1936 paid more attention to the weather than the new federal law. For the second summer in three years, the area suffered through killing heat and frightening drought. Daily high temperatures topped 100 degrees 13 time from June into September -- one short of the 1934 total. There were nine straight days of 100-plus in July. Six deaths were attributed to the heat
Roads buckled, a sidewalk burst and grass fires consumed hundreds of acres in the county. Sunday, Aug. 3, the river was at its lowest level since the Miami Conservancy District started keeping records in 1916.
Local farmers suffered the most. By July 16, crop damage estimates topped $1 million, and half of the 1936 corn crop was believed lost. Cattle were sickened after eating dead grass. Hay and corn intended for winter feedings had to be used. Rural wells and cisterns went dry and no water could be drawn from dusty creeks. By July 23, more than a third of the area's farmers were hauling water from municipal systems in Hamilton, Middletown and Oxford.
In a January 1937 press release, Howard Davison, county agricultural agent, stressed the "change in the fundamental principles underlying the federal farm aid programs." Four years ago, he noted, the original New Deal actions "'were primarily to relieve the desperate plight of the farmer who had lost his working capital and the chance of recuperating it through prices paid for farm products. The chief objective of the first farm programs  was to get money to the farmer as quickly as possible."
The new federal program, he explained, "is based on the principle of aiding the farmer in preserving the fertility of his farm."
"Such [program] shifts entail an immediate loss to the farmers in crop income," Davison said, but "the small  payments made to the individual producer for the changes and for instituting better farm management practices are designed to make up in part for this loss."
"Non-farming persons who believe the taxpayer's money is being handed over to the farmer for failing to produce will come to learn that the plan is in reality designed for the mutual benefit of the nation as a whole, preserving the greatest asset of our country today: the land," Davison said
In 1936, young men stationed at the Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Butler County had started the effort to reduce soil erosion, including strip cropping and terracing. They had worked on at least 58 county farms in the hot summer of 1936. CCC work included repairing 9,334 square miles of stream banks covering 5,834 acres; sloping 19,174 square yards of stream banks; constructing 44 permanent dams; and building and repairing more than 10,000 rods of farm fences. More than 1,270 county farmers had joined the soil conservation program that summer.
There was good news at the start of August as the county wheat harvest reached halfway. A report said wheat farmers could expect a gross of $850,000, "a lot more than they received in the drought year of 1936." With about half the 1937 wheat harvested, county farmers were averaging 22 bushels per acre. A Somerville farmer realized 51 bushels per acre. In the dry 1936 summer, the county average had been 15 bushels.