Farmers faced hardships as Depression began
(This column is the fourth in a series on the Great Depression in the Hamilton area.)
By Jim Blount
In June 1930, historians have noted, a group met with President Herbert Hoover to encourage federal action to rescue a declining economy and halt increasing unemployment. "You have come 60 days too late," Hoover is reputed to have replied. "The depression is over," he said. If it was over, more than 2,400 Butler County farmers didn't know it.
Agriculture production and prices were declining, drought was a continuing complication and farmers were facing financial hardships in the first year of the Great Depression, which is commonly dated from the October 1929 stock market crash. For farmers, their depression had started in the mid 1920s, or earlier, without the fanfare that followed the Wall Street collapse.
Histories of the 1930s spotlight the devastating drought that helped create the Dust Bowl in at least a dozen states in the Great Plains. Lack of rain also plagued Butler County farmers during the decade.
As harvesting began in 1930, the Butler County Committee on Farm Relief (BCCFR) reported the local wheat crop that year would be only 58 percent of the normal yield.
According to the BCCFR, it was worse for other crops. For local farmers, corn harvested would be 35.5 percent, hay 31 percent and oats 24 percent, respectively, of the normal production.
Feed for livestock and poultry and seed for next year's planting had to be transported into the county.
The committee said hay importation in 1930 would more than double the 1929 total. "Hay will be needed in greater quantity than other feed crops," BCCFR said, because only two farms in the county had hay to sell.. "Last year, hay was imported into the county at 1.21 tons per farm," but the 1930 average would increase to 2.88 tons per farm.
Because production had declined, more than half of Butler County's 2,480 farmers were in need of loans to pay existing debts and acquire hay, feed and seed to continue operating. In September 1930, Butler County banks were expected to be able to extend the necessary credit. It was estimated farms would need an average of $151.71 in credit, or $376,265 for the county, to survive the crisis. (Allowing for inflation, the 1930 average would equal more than $1,870 in current dollars.)
Another setback was the presence of Hessian flies in the area. "The Hessian fly, one of the worst enemies to growing wheat, abounds in Butler County," the Journal reported. A July survey found 34 percent of the county wheat crop infested by the parasite -- the highest rate among Ohio's 88 counties.
In August 1930, President Hoover held a series of White House conferences on agriculture problems, most focusing on the drought, called by Time magazine "the worst since the Civil War." In cooperation with governors of hard-hit states, Hoover created the National Drought Commission, charged with unifying relief efforts.
"The American people will proudly take care of the necessities of their countrymen in time of stress or difficulty," Hoover said.
The president asked and railroad executives agreed to cut freight rates temporarily for hauling hay, water and other necessities to suffering areas. Reduced rail rates on feed and water had been requested by Butler County's farm relief committee.
As U. S. businesses and industries curtailed operations or closed because of the depression, Americans with and without jobs had little to spend or were frugal with food expenditures.
Some Hamilton families without income -- who had lost their homes or were facing foreclosure -- became small scale farmers. They moved to rural areas where they could raise vegetables and chickens to provide food. It wasn't uncommon for relatives to combine households into one house or farm in an effort to survive. Others -- without relatives to provide assistance and shelter -- became homeless.
In Hamilton, the city hired jobless men to clear the route of the abandoned Miami-Erie Canal. The drained canal, other suitable city-owned tracts and donated private lots were converted into gardens. "These were turned over to the unemployed," a newspaper explained, "and hundreds of them were able to provide the table with produce."
Excess production from the city gardens was canned by women volunteers and stored by local relief agencies for distribution to families of the unemployed during the winter.
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Housing and clothing needs increased during 1930
(This column is the fifth in a series on the Great Depression in the Hamilton area.)
By Jim Blount
As the presence of a depression -- later called the Great Depression -- was recognized in 1930, the savings account average for Butler County families was $407, not much of a security cushion as businesses closed and people lost their jobs in the aftershock of the 1929 stock market calamity.
That $407 savings account average -- about $5,000 in current dollars -- was a statistic produced by the 1930 federal census that showed 114,084 county inhabitants, including 52,176 in Hamilton..
According to the census, 53 percent of Butler County families owned their homes; 56 percent of the homes had telephones; 63 percent had electric light and power; and there were 101 automobiles for every 100 households. In Hamilton, the census reported 633 businesses and 109 manufacturing plants.
Despite the positive data, Hamiltonians were beginning to suffer in the winter of 1929-1930.
One of the first signs was a campaign to collect used clothes and shoes for local families without an income. It was organized by women's groups with assistance from Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. The Beckett Paper Co. provided storage space. The effort included mending, patching and cleaning before distribution to indigent families.
The urgency was renewed in the fall of 1930 when schools opened. Teachers greeted students with tattered clothes and worn out shoes, leading to another plea for donations of used items.
Arrival of severe weather spotlighted the problem again. With low temperatures of one above and four above zero on consecutive mornings Nov. 27-28, there were increased calls for food, fuel and clothing for Hamilton's needy.
Dec. 31, as the year ended, representatives from more than 20 women's organizations formally organized a committee to supervise collection and distribution of clothing and shoes to needy families. Their action followed increased demand as more people joined the jobless ranks. The group's first action was to open a used clothes store in an abandoned city firehouse on North Third Street.
In addition, Hamilton's Christmas in Every Home Committee delivered 1,800 baskets of clothes, food and toys, thanks to local donations of $4,467.44. In nine previous years combined the committee had used $17,651 in donations to assist 2,994 families.
In the Oxford area 41 families benefited from assistance collected by Hi-Y boys and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.
In a year-end report, the Hamilton Salvation Army said it had supplied 3,129 nights of lodging for homeless men. "That was more than social service," a newspaper said. "It was also social security. Had the Salvation Army not stood between these homeless men and the streets, many of them might have been tempted to commit crime in their desperation."
In 1930, the Salvation Army also distributed 12,214 garments, 751 pairs of shoes and 3,314 free meals.
The local campaigns -- plus the work of the Hamilton Unemployment Committee (HUC) to raise money to create a payroll pool to hire the unemployed for part time work that benefited the public -- were in line with President Herbert Hoover's philosophy for the recovery program.
Hoover, a self-made millionaire, believed American success had been based on "rugged individualism" and "self-reliance," not government assistance. As the economy declined, he urged local "voluntary organization and community service" to combat unemployment and increasing poverty.
Hoover made some insensitive comments in June 1930. He said "nobody is actually starving" and that "the hoboes . . . are better fed than they have ever been." The vendors selling apples on street corners, he added, had "left their jobs for the more profitable one of selling apples." Newspapers estimated about 6,000 unemployed in New York City were selling apples for five cents apiece.
Despite such statements, Hoover had authorized $635 million for public works construction in January 1930.
Among the optimists at the end of 1930 was Charles R. Hook, president of the American Rolling Mill Co. (Armco) in Middletown. "The present depression is a cloud," he said. "I believe we are scratching the bottom and that the sunshine will soon break through, but just how soon is problematical. It may begin with the coming of the new year. It will probably be gradual." Hook also said the company payroll had decreased 18 percent during the year.
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Unemployment relief remained local burden in 1931
(This column is the sixth in a series on the Great Depression in the Hamilton area.)
By Jim Blount
"The one thing of which Hamilton can be justly proud is the manner in which during 1931 it has handled the unemployment situation," a Journal editorial said as the second full year of the Great Depression ended. "This displayed a wonderful spirit -- the real spirit of Hamilton," the newspaper said. "Practically every deserving man, willing to work, was provided with employment."
The editorial noted that "Hamilton has had no bread lines, no soup houses." It also could have said in some other cities there had been food riots and violent protests by the unemployed.
In August, the President’s Organization on Unemployment Relief (POUR) was created to stimulate and coordinate employment and relief activities. It succeeded the President’s Emergency Committee for Employment (PECE), formed in October 1930 to encourage business and industry create jobs.
PECE and POUR promoted unemployment aid as a responsibility of state and local governments with funds from private sources -- not from Washington. That system was in effect in Hamilton several months before the president admitted there was a serious unemployment problem.
A Hamilton citizens committee -- with city government support -- had asked residents with income to donate 2.5 percent of their wages for local unemployment relief. The money was used to provide part time jobs for the neediest of the unemployed.
For example, for two months during the winter of 1930-1931 -- thanks to the Hamilton Citizens Employment Committee -- 1,172 men were hired one to five days a week and 53 women worked 1,636 hours. Their employment supported 5,121 dependents, or a total of 6,346 residents. The program cost $9,477.77, all for labor, except $34.20 for compensation insurance.
In a year end editorial, the Journal said "the outstanding public service of the [Hamilton] department of public works was the work of executives supervising the army of unemployed laborers who were paid from a fund subscribed to by all citizens."
"Throughout the year," the editorial said, "735 men and 114 women, who had a total of 6,496 dependents, were given jobs. City executives laid out the work and supervised it. Among the major improvements brought about through the work of the unemployed forces was the cleaning of the Miami-Erie Canal bed, which was converted from a rubbish hole into hundreds of garden lots."
To bolster the amount available to hire the jobless, Hamilton City Council placed a special levy on the November 1931 ballot. It proposed raising $175,000 for unemployment relief, but 62 percent of city voters were against it. Instead, funds were raised in numerous ways during the final two months of 1931.
A charity football game between Hamilton and Norwood high schools realized more than $650 for winter relief. All expenses for the game were paid by the schools. After deducting expenses, the annual Miami football at the University of Cincinnati realized about $15,000 to $20,000 for local charities
An "Unemployment Relief Show" at the Paramount Theater -- which had opened March 6, 1931 -- featured a movie and a local talent show. Admission was 50 cents and local streetcar and bus companies provided free transportation. On another date, the Woman's Teachers Club presented a play and donated receipts to unemployment relief.
The Hamilton Chamber of Commerce suggested, as unemployment relief, that instead of using land immediately north of the city for a well field for the water system that the site be made a municipal airport. The chamber urged the city to issue bonds to purchase the land from Henry Ford, extend utilities to the site and hire unemployed men to develop the airport. The location had formerly been the Ford Airport, adjacent to the local Ford plant.
In December, city council urged a special session of the state legislature to renew legislation that enabled cities to issue bonds for poor relief. Renewal is the "best and only possible way out for Hamilton to have funds for food, shelter and hospitalization next year" (1932), said council's request. Under the act -- effective for only one year -- Hamilton had issued bonds for $49,000 in 1931 for poor relief.
On the positive side, the Herring-Hall-Marvin Safe Co. announced receipt of a contract, worth more than $500,000 for a large vault for a New York City bank. The project promised to restore full employment for at least six months in 1932 at the Hamilton plant.
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Clothing donations stressed as depression deepened
(This column is the seventh in a series on the Great Depression in the Hamilton area.)
By Jim Blount
Helping the unemployed wasn't the only problem facing Hamilton and other communities in 1931, the second full year of the Great Depression. Some who retained their jobs also had to survive with income losses as their hours and days were reduced.
In December 1931, the federal government reported the U. S. average weekly wage fell to $17, a 39 percent drop from the 1929 average of $28. It also said more than 1,600 banks had failed that year and nearly 20,000 businesses were in bankruptcy.
Four large projects -- boosts to local employment -- were completed in 1931. They were the YWCA at N. Third and Dayton streets, the Paramount Theater on S. Second Street and two new bank buildings on High Street, the First National Bank and Second National Bank. Some other local improvements -- expected to provide jobs -- were delayed or interrupted.
An example was Hamilton's new downtown post office at Court and S. Front streets. A $171,425 contract was awarded in April, but work stopped in September while it was decided if additional land was needed.
Outside the city, it was a bad year for Butler County farmers. Grain prices, already down in 1930, continued to decline in 1931, "far greater," said a report, "than anyone believed possible a year ago."
The one year Ohio price plunges per bushel included 35 cents for corn, 14 cents for wheat and nine cents for oats. The state report said "prices on wheat are near the lowest ever witnessed with corn and oats below the cost of production."
While efforts continued in Hamilton to raise money to provide at least part time work for the city's neediest unemployed, there was increased emphasis throughout 1931 on collecting donations of clothing, shoes and food for the destitute.
The Women's Emergency Relief Committee headed the campaign to recycle used underwear, clothing, shoes, furniture and other personal and household items.
Before Thanksgiving, struggling families were urged to consider "an economic Thanksgiving dinner" -- without turkey. By substituting roast chicken and emphasizing vegetables, five people could be fed for about $4.30. The same dinner with turkey cost $7 in 1931, down from $9.50 in 1929.
The cost was lower for families that had taken advantage of growing their own vegetables in the city's "municipal gardens." These were free plots offered in April in the abandoned right-of-way of the Miami-Erie Canal in Hamilton.
Hamilton's Community Cupboard placed barrels in stores. Shoppers were encouraged to buy extra food and deposit it in the barrels for distribution to the needy. In the fall, barrels were put in public and parochial schools for donations of used clothing. Women volunteers sewed clothing requiring repairs. Sewing groups met at Mercy and Fort Hamilton hospitals. In December it was announced "there is a great need for underwear for every member of the family."
Hamilton's Christmas in Every Home campaign distributed 2,750 baskets of food, clothing and money to needy families including 6,117 people.
Hamilton electric consumers welcomed two rate decreases in 1931 -- a $44,954 annual saving in January and a $62,112 reduction in November -- as the municipal electric plant continued to operate more efficiently.
In January, a Hoover-appointed federal commission announced that it was almost impossible to enforce prohibition -- effective in Ohio since the end of May 1919. Across the nation, most state and local government leaders welcomed that news. They recognized that legalizing the liquor trade would provide an abundant source of new taxes at a time when other revenues were declining.
Of course, not all 1931 news involved the depression. March 3 President Hoover signed legislation designating "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the national anthem. May 1 New York City's 102-story Empire State Building was dedicated. Oct. 17 Chicago mobster Al Capone was convicted -- not for murder or violating prohibition laws, but for federal income tax evasion. He was sent to prison.