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Journal-News, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2009

WPA sewing center produced clothing for needy families

(This column is the 32nd in a series on the Great Depression in the Hamilton area.)

By Jim Blount

Constructing roads, bridges and public facilities -- work assigned to unemployed men -- weren't the only tasks completed by Hamilton residents who received pay checks from the Works Progress Administration. The WPA -- created in 1935 to provide immediate relief for jobless people -- also hired women for several local projects.

A sewing center -- not publicized as much as big construction projects -- operated for more than five years at several locations in Hamilton, employing as many as 300 women.

In the early 1930s -- before creation of the federally-funded WPA -- Hamilton women volunteered to collect used clothing, shoes and other personal needs. The donations were mended, cleaned and distributed to needy families in the city.

The WPA didn't rely on volunteers. It provided paying jobs for the unemployed. WPA regulations permitted only one person in a family to be employed on government-funded projects. That was the head of the household, unless that person was disabled. In late 1935, for example, Hamilton's unemployed numbered 2,510 men and 650 women who had been screened and certified as heads of households.

The WPA sewing center opened in 1935. As needs increased, more space was required. In July 1937 the center moved to the first floor of the former post office at the southwest corner of S. Third and Ludlow streets.

The work had also changed by 1937. The women no longer repaired old clothing. Instead, a report said, "the workers make clothing for men, women and children and also household articles. The finished articles are distributed among relief clients" in the city and county. There were 97 women employed at the center, operating 70 sewing machines.

After the 1938 election, Congress began changing WPA procedures and eligibility, and tightened funding. Some workers lost WPA employment because they became eligible for other federal relief benefits.  In January 1939 a total of 125 women were dismissed from Hamilton WPA work because they were eligible for Aid to Dependent Children. Some filed appeals and regained their jobs.

In September 1939, men and women in Butler County lost WPA work because of a clause in a federal appropriations act. It said WPA workers couldn't work more than 18 months in succession. However, after being idle one month, they could apply to be recertified for relief work.

The political wrangling in Washington didn't have an immediate impact on the Hamilton sewing center. In April 1940, the center reported it had distributed more than 10,500 garments and other household items to indigent families in Butler County in the last month.

The Journal-News said "each garment is styled from federal patterns before it is cut, and every effort is made to individualize the clothing." The center employed 300 women then. They had received two months training before being allowed to work 130 hours a month.

Two weeks later, at the end of April, federal budget cuts for the WPA trickled down to the sewing center. It was ordered to limit supply purchases to $1,000 a month. It had spent $1,700 and $1,500 in two previous months.

WPA funding reduction hit again in August 1940. Butler County was limited to 1,282 WPA workers, causing 50 women to be released from jobs at the Hamilton sewing center,

Unemployed women also were hired for two other local WPA programs. In March 1940 WPA housekeeping aid employed 50 women. Its services included housekeepers for needy families during illness or other family emergencies, and teaching cooking, child care and other household tasks. It also created household necessities from cheap materials. Discarded chairs, barrels, boxes, etc., were cleaned and converted into furnishings.

Also in 1940, the WPA nursery school at Van Buren Elementary School served indigent children, ages two to five, at no charge.

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(Note: No column was published Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2009.)

Journal-News, Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009

Depression conditions increased high school attendance

(This column is the 33rd in a series on the Great Depression in the Hamilton area.)

By Jim Blount

Education didn't escape the ravages of the Great Depression. There were 26 public school districts in Butler County in the early 1930s, all forced to find ways to operate without their usual funding. Some chopped days, even a month, off the school year as budgets were trimmed. When local businesses and industries slowed down or closed, and people lost jobs and their homes, the sources of school finances also declined.

Some local districts took advantage of federal relief programs, although none of them paid operating costs. At first, it was small amounts of money to hire unemployed residents to make minor repairs and clean and paint schools and furnishings. Later, federal funds helped built additions and some new buildings.

As the Depression was ending, the Works Progress Administration found another way to assist local schools. A May 1940 report said eight workers paid by the WPA had repaired and rebound more than 25,000 textbooks for county schools since March 1938. The program extended the useful life of the books at a time when school districts couldn't afford to buy new texts.

On the positive side, the scarcity of menial jobs during the 1930s kept more teenagers in the classrooms.

"The custom of youth quitting school in their late teens is becoming the exception rather than the rule," said D. R. Baker, superintendent of the Hamilton public schools, as he reviewed not only recent enrollment trends, but education progress for more than three decades.

In his January 1938 report, Baker said Hamilton was experiencing its highest enrollment in 1937-38.

He traced the system's steady growth since 1901. He emphasized "the percentage of increase in school enrollment exceeds by a large margin the increase in population, indicating the growing interest of Hamiltonians in taking advantage of educational facilities."  Hamilton's total enrollment was up about 171 percent since 1901, Baker said.

There were 3,262 students enrolled in all grades in 1901-02. The 1937-38 total was 8,856, an increase of 5,594. Baker said Hamilton was employing 253 teachers. The staff was responsible for an average of 36 students per teacher.

The local high school graduation improvement was more dramatic -- up 581 percent in 35 years. In June 1902, diplomas were awarded to 36 graduates at Central High School (1892-1915, formerly at the northwest corner of S. Second and Ludlow streets).

The diploma total rose to 88 by 1912 and 110 in 1922. In 1936, there were 300 in the graduating class at Hamilton High School (1915-1959, formerly at the southeast corner of N. Sixth and Dayton streets).

There were only 239 graduates in the HHS Class of 1937, but the superintendent said the decline was a reflection of the death toll of the extended 1918 Spanish flu epidemic in the area.

As the decade of the Great Depression ended, the 1940 federal census said 21.7 percent of Butler County residents age 25 and older had a high school diploma or higher. Only 4.3 percent had a bachelor degree or higher. In 2000, the most recent census, the respective figures were 83.3 percent and 23.5 percent.

The superintendent's statement that school enrollment increases were exceeding city population growth was verified by the 1940 census.

After a 31.5 percent increase (12,501 people) during the 1920s, Hamilton's 1930 population was 52,176. The 1940 enumeration showed a loss of 1,584 inhabitants (minus 0.3 percent) to 50,592.

Hamilton had opened three new elementary schools -- Buchanan, Fillmore and Pierce -- in 1929. The city's first junior high schools, Roosevelt at South 12th and Walnut streets, and Wilson on Eaton Avenue, were opened in 1931 and 1934, respectively.

No new schools were built in Hamilton for the next 17 years. Nine new elementary schools, plus additions to some existing ones, were constructed in the 1950s. At the end of that decade, Garfield and Taft high schools replaced HHS, which was converted to Harding Junior High School.

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Journal-News, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009

Traffic No. 1 problem for police in late 1930s

(This column is the 34th in a series on the Great Depression in the Hamilton area.)

By Jim Blount

Hamiltonians and city officials were becoming traffic conscious during the last years of the 1930s. Despite the Great Depression, there were more cars and trucks on Hamilton streets, most of which had been improved with generous funding from the Works Progress Administration.

"The traffic problem has grown to such proportions within the last several years that it now probably represents the most important phase of the entire police problem," City Manager R. P. Price reported in January 1938. "The economic loss due to motor vehicle accidents far exceeds any other incident of crime."
Later that year, the WPA approved $21,582 for a Hamilton traffic survey, including traffic counts, accident statistics, parking trends and other data.

The WPA information would be useful to city leaders in considering changes in existing traffic and parking regulations and in planning street improvements.
The WPA paid the wages of trained surveyors. The city was responsible for supplying office space and other essentials. There were 32 workers on the job when partial results were announced in December 1938.

Hamilton's three busiest locations, the survey indicated, were 15,908 average daily traffic at Third and High streets; 15,501 vehicles daily at Main and B streets; and 15,129 at Second and High streets.

Exact comparisons from 1938 to 2009 are complicated by street changes and additions and shifts in numbered state and federal highways during the 71-year period. Erie Highway, for example, had been open for less than two years in 1938. It was new road built over the former right-of-way of the Miami-Erie Canal.

Average weekday traffic counts compiled in 2003 by the Ohio Kentucky Indiana Regional Council of Governments indicate recent high-volume areas within the city.  They are: 52,400 vehicles at High Street at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard; 47,600 at Erie Boulevard at High Street; 41,200 at B Street at the Columbia Bridge/New London Road/Pyramid Hill Boulevard; and 35,900 at B and Main streets.

Driving conditions in the city continued to improve in the final years of the depression with the gradual removal of streetcar and interurban tracks. The rails posed danger and also caused damage to vehicles. When wet, they caused skidding that was blamed for several traffic accidents. Electric-powered streetcar service ended July 23, 1933, in Hamilton, but the interurban system, connecting the city to points north and south, continued for almost six years.

In June 1938, about 75 WPA workers were covering ruts in the streets caused by removal of streetcar rails. The WPA paid $167,000 and the city $40,000 in the last of several contracts to extract 11.4 miles of steel rails from 10 Hamilton streets. Previous projects had hired as many as 125 WPA-paid workers.

The last rails were removed from Benninghofen Avenue between Williams and Symmes avenues. Work ended July 22, 1938.

Gradual demise of the Cincinnati & Lake Erie interurban system had started the previous month. June 17, 1938, C&LE switched to buses between Cincinnati and Mount Healthy. Almost six months later, the last northbound interurban car from Mount Healthy arrived in Hamilton Saturday, Jan. 7, 1939, leaving only service north to Middletown, Dayton and other cities. The last C&LE interurban (also called "the traction") left Hamilton and Middletown the night of Saturday-Sunday, May 13-14, 1939.
Removal of interurban rails in the city began July 23, 1940. The $385,532 WPA job included new concrete foundations and street resurfacing, plus, where needed, replacing curbs, gutters and sidewalks. The city share was $80,000. In November, the city received $18.06 a ton for abut 800 tons of rail. As many as 250 WPA workers were employed.

June 3, 1941, WPA workers on North B Street removed the last interurban rails in the city. The Journal-News said completion meant "that Hamilton streets are entirely free of rails, the most dangerous traffic hazard known in Hamilton"

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