Hamilton completed water system upgrades in 1930s
(This column is the 30th in a series on the Great Depression in the Hamilton area.)
By Jim Blount
Before the symbolic stock market crash in 1929, Hamilton had started several utilities and sewer improvements without expecting federal assistance. By the late 1920s, population and business growth threatened to exceed Hamilton's ability to supply water. The city's highest priority was obtaining new sources, expanding facilities and upgrading the existing water system.
Failure to act would eventually require water rationing for residential and business users and stop extension of water service to recently-created housing subdivisions and industrial tracts.
Hamilton's 1930 population was 52,176 people. That was a healthy 31.5 percent increase (12,501) since 39,675 were counted in 1920. The entire county grew at the same rate (31.5 percent), increasing to 114,084 from 87,025 inhabitants in 1920.
Until the full impact of the Great Depression was realized, local growth was expected to continue at the same rate, if not higher, during the 1930s. Instead, by 1940 the city had dropped 3 percent to 50,592 people while the county realized a modest 5.4 percent gain to 120,249.
Progress toward expansion began in the early 1930s.
Some land between Hamilton and New Miami, totaling about 95 acres, was purchased as the site for a new well field and water treatment plant. A tract northeast of the city, on Headgates Road, was obtained as the location for a new reservoir. The city paid $47,000 and $8,356, respectively, for real estate.
When the Great Depression depleted the city treasury and its ability to finance bond issues, expansion of the municipal water system was in doubt. Plans developed before the economic crash appeared headed to collecting dust on shelves.
Relief came in October 1933 when the newly-formed Public Works Administration (PWA) provided $241,221 for water systems improvements. The city paid the remaining $938,575.
Jan. 3, 1934, city council approved the finance agreement with PWA. Aug. 2, 1934, construction started on about seven miles of pipeline in conjunction with the new water treatment plant. A few weeks later, Sept. 24, the six-million gallon Headgates reservoir was completed.
"The water is soft, compared to the hard water which formerly limed up the pipes in Hamilton's homes and buildings and caused extensive damage at times when pipes burst," said a 1936 Journal-News report after Hamilton survived one of its hottest and driest summers. "During the drought of last summer," the newspaper noted, "there was no warning from Hamilton officials to use water sparingly."
Instead of rationing, the city shared its water with rural areas that summer as farmers struggled to salvage at least part of their crops and save their animals.
Thanks to federal Depression relief programs -- mostly from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) -- civic improvements continued in Hamilton. Most of the unskilled labor was performed by previously unemployed men who had to demonstrate need and be certified for federal work by local relief officials.
As existing streets were upgraded and new streets opened in the mid to late 1930s, Hamilton's water system continued to expand. Water mains and faucets gradually replaced wells and pumps on property that had been beyond the limits of municipal service at the start of the decade.
By 1936, other federal financial aid had enabled the city to start or complete projects in parks, playgrounds and at Potter Park, the municipal golf course
"Permanent improvements have come to Hamilton within the last three years, which ordinarily might not have been expected in a quarter of century," said the Journal-News in 1936. "The total cost is near $3 million" (more than $44.4 million in current dollars).
"This has been due directly to the expenditures by the federal government in an effort to alleviate distress caused by the Depression, and in further effort to prime the economic pump of the country so that prosperity in private industry and business might follow," the newspaper said.
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Social Security legislation enacted in 1935
(This column is the 31st in a series on the Great Depression in the Hamilton area.)
By Jim Blount
What is regarded as one of the most important and most controversial actions of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration became law Aug. 14, 1935. That's when he signed the Social Security Act, creating pensions for the elderly, the handicapped and others. Unlike most New Deal programs, it was not aimed at quick relief during the Great Depression. Its initial impact was enacting a payroll tax to finance future benefits.
The Washington event had to share newspaper space and radio news time with an Aug. 15 tragedy -- the death of popular humorist Will Rogers and his pilot in an Alaska plane crash.
In the long term, FDR signing the law is "one of the major turning points of American history," according to historian Kenneth S. Davis.
"No longer could 'rugged individualism' convincingly insist that government, though obliged to provide a climate favorable for the growth of business profits, had no responsibility whatever for the welfare of the human beings who did the work from which the profit was reaped," said Davis, who is quoted on a PBS web site.
Social Security's intent was to help the elderly avoid poverty in the future. The law set retirement age at 65, when most people weren't living that long. Life expectancy in 1930 had been 59.7 years. By 1940, it had increased to 64.2. By 2001, it was 77.2 years -- 17.5 years higher than 1935, a 29.3 percent increase.
Not covered in the 1935 law were domestic servants and farm laborers, who were added later.
The SS system collected one percent of workers' wages and an equal amount from businesses. Deductions from pay checks and employer contributions began Jan. 1, 1937.
Monthly payments were supposed to start in 1942. Instead, the first monthly checks ($22.54) were issued in January 1940.
As an extension of the Social Security Act, the 48 states were required to establish other assistance programs that were effective within a year or two. This included unemployment insurance and aid for the disabled, the blind and dependent children.
In mid 1936, for example, aid to dependent children in Butler County reached $100,000.
Later that year, the volume of people registering for Social Security helped increase employment in Hamilton. Several part-time postal clerks were transferred to full-time status in the Social Security office, which was located in the post office at Court and S. Front streets. That switch made the part-time postal jobs available to previously unemployed men.
The local SS office registered 15,866 people between Dec. 15, 1936, and Jan. 7, 1937. That unusual volume was attributed to increased employment in the city. "Most of the applicants [are] apparently going to work in Hamilton's heavy industries," the Journal-News reported.
By the end of 1937, the Hamilton office had registered more than 20,500 people. They were among about 36 million enrolled nationally.
For more than three decades, several organizations had implored the federal government to create a national health insurance system and provide pensions for the nation's elderly and disabled. The role of government, if any, was debated in state and national elections for more than 30 years. FDR was the first president to address the problems.
The high unemployment of the Great Depression had highlighted the desperate situation of older Americans. Among the millions of unemployed in the early 1930s, the elderly suffered disproportionately. When troubled businesses laid off or fired their workers, the elderly were among the first discharged.
In 2009, Social Security is financed through a dedicated payroll tax. Employers and employees each pay 6.2 percent of wages up to the taxable maximum of $106,800, while the self-employed pay 12.4 percent.
In 2009, according to the Social Security Administration, "nearly 51 million Americans will receive $650 billion in Social Security benefits." SSA reports that by 2034," there will be almost twice as many older Americans as today -- from 38.6 million today to 74 million. There are currently 3.3 workers for each Social Security beneficiary. By 2034, there will be 2.1 workers for each beneficiary."
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Lincoln refuted popular sovereignty in Hamilton visit
(The 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's only visit to Hamilton will be celebrated tomorrow, Sept. 17, with several exhibits and programs, including the unveiling of an Ohio Historical Society marker commemorating Lincoln's 1859 appearance.)
By Jim Blount
When Abraham Lincoln spoke in Hamilton Sept. 17, 1859, he was still debating Stephen A. Douglas, who had won re-election to an Illinois seat in the U. S. Senate a year earlier. Lincoln, a rising Republican, and Douglas, an established Democratic Party leader, had battled face to face in seven Illinois towns from August to October the previous year.
Some political observers believe the Republican challenger won the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Lincoln's party prevailed in the state election Nov. 2, 1858. At that time, senators were chosen by state legislators, not voters. The Illinois legislature favored Douglas, 54-46.
Newspaper reports of the debates circulated around the nation, bringing Lincoln into the political spotlight. Douglas, who had sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1852 and 1856, was well known and considered a front runner for the party's 1860 nomination.
In September 1859, leaders of both Ohio parties invited the Illinois contestants to the state to campaign on behalf of their respective candidates. Douglas came to the Buckeye state first, supporting Rufus P. Ranney, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. Lincoln followed, speaking in favor of William Dennison Jr., an 1835 Miami University graduate, the Republican hopeful.
Shortly before his Ohio appearance, a national magazine published an article by Douglas. It reprised his argument in favor of popular sovereignty, a central issue in the 1858 Illinois contest. The article set the stage for a renewal of the Lincoln-Doulgas debates in Ohio.
The issue wasn't abolishment of slavery. It was the problem of how to decide if slavery should be practiced in new western states.
Under popular sovereignty -- part of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, introduced by Douglas -- the slavery decision wouldn't be determined until an area moved from territory to statehood. Then a state constitution would be written. The document's position on slavery would be decided by a vote of the citizens in the new state.
Douglas said popular sovereignty placed the decision in the hands of the people, through their votes -- not the federal government, through congressional votes. In theory, the Douglas plan had promise. He contended it would relieve the increasing tension in the sectional debate over slavery's future. That bitter North-South contest had been centered in Congress.
Some historians argue that Douglas believed popular sovereignty would stop the spread of slavery because voters would reject the practice. Its success could propel him to the presidency.
In practice, it failed. As Kansas moved toward statehood, the process turned ugly. Pro-slavery and abolitionist groups from other states tried to influence the vote. Reasoned verbal debate turned into inflammatory rhetoric. David Atchison, a pro-slavery Missouri senator, urged deciding the slavery question "with the bayonet and with blood" if necessary. That's what happened. Innocent people died as the process became known as "Bleeding Kansas."
During the 1858 Illinois debates, Douglas had continued to champion popular sovereignty while Lincoln opposed the extension of slavery to any new states. He said slavery violated the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence.
In their Ohio speeches in September 1859, they renewed their 1858 debate. Although in the state to support rival gubernatorial candidates, "in fact, the contest was not as to who should be governor of Ohio, but the controlling question was whether this nation should be 'half slave and half free,' " said Daniel J. Ryan, an Ohio historian, in analyzing the Douglas and Lincoln appearances.
"I see that my friend Douglas is still in favor of popular sovereignty," Lincoln said in Hamilton Sept. 17, 1859. In Kansas, he explained, "border ruffians from Missouri controlled their election and certified the result in favor of slavery." Lincoln told his local audience, "your sons may desire to locate in the west; you don't want them to settle in a territory like Kansas, with the curse of slavery hanging over it."
Less than 14 months later, Lincoln bested Douglas and two other candidates in the 1860 presidential election.
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Lincoln visit preceded and followed by violent events
By Jim Blount
What was the national political climate when Abraham Lincoln spoke in Hamilton Sept. 17, 1859? Why did he tell his local audience "you don't want them [your children] to settle in a territory like Kansas"?
Lincoln's Kansas reference may seem strange today, but his 1859 listeners understood. For five years, Kansas was the major news story. It was the battle ground for the intensifying slavery debate.
Slavery had been a hot issue since at least 1820, but the heat rapidly increased after May 30, 1854, when President Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Introduced by Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois in 1853, it included his popular sovereignty plan for deciding the "Slavery Question."
The question concerned the complicated debate about the future of slavery -- if it should or should not be permitted in new states and if and how to end it in existing states. It had economic and moral implications. It impacted not only western expansion, but such matters as competition for the site of the eastern terminus of a proposed transcontinental railroad.
Hamiltonians -- and the remainder of the nation -- looked back in amazement and disbelief on events between May 30, 1854, and Sept. 17, 1859.
Under popular sovereignty -- as the Kansas and Nebraska territories moved toward statehood -- voters in the areas would vote on state constitutions that either allowed or prohibited slavery in the new states. Until then, that question had been decided by Congress. Instead of an orderly democratic process, it turned chaotic and deadly. Rival outside groups -- from the North and the South, pro-slavery and anti-slavery -- flocked to the territory to influence and participate in the voting.
It soon became "Bleeding Kansas" -- including several contested elections with contrasting results, rival territorial legislatures battling for control, a series of contradictory constitutions and ultimately violence. The mayhem ranged from arson and other destructive acts to one-on-one murders and groups attacking groups.
Reports focused on Lawrence and Pottawatome and other towns as death and destruction replaced verbal encounters. The "Kansas Question" became a national issue, spilling over into the U. S. Congress. Troops were sent to the area. In April 1858 a soldier was killed in a clash with an anti-slavery faction.
May 19, 1856, Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts started a two-day speech, "The Crime Against Kansas," on the floor of the U. S. Senate. His remarks blistered the South, and named Sen. Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina, who wasn't there to hear the attack. Three days later Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina -- a cousin of Butler -- entered the Senate and beat Sumner with a cane. It took the New England abolitionist three years to recover.
Democrat James Buchanan moved into the White House March 4, 1857, facing the challenge of leading a divided nation. His task worsened two days later when the U. S. Supreme Court announced its decision in a pivotal case. Dred Scott, born a slave, had lived in Illinois, a free state, for about 10 years and, on that basis, claimed he had been freed. In brief, the court ruled African-Americans had no rights under the Constitution and slavery was legal.
In the summer of 1858 Lincoln challenged Stephen A. Douglas, the incumbent, in the contest for an Illinois seat in the U. S. Senate. Popular sovereignty and its tragic impact in Kansas was a central issue in that election, won by Douglas.
Sept. 13, 1859 -- four days before Lincoln's Hamilton speech -- Sen. David Broderick of California was killed in a duel with David Terry, chief justice of the California Supreme Court. They had many differences, including Broderick leading the state's anti-slavery Democrats while Terry was an influential pro-slavery Democrat. The duel typified the nationwide split within the party.
A month after Hamiltonians saw and heard Lincoln -- and eight months before he became the 1860 Republican nominee for president -- violence erupted at Harpers Ferry, Va.
John Brown -- a fanatic abolitionist responsible for some of the Kansas killings -- seized the U. S. armory Oct. 16, 1859, planning to start a slave revolt. Seventeen people died -- some on both sides, plus innocent townsmen -- before troops subdued Brown. He was tried on several charges, found guilty and hanged Dec. 2, 1859.
County farmers capitalized on federal electric program
(This column is the 32nd in a series on the Great Depression in the Hamilton area.)
By Jim Blount
A federal Depression program that produced positive, long-terms results brought farming and rural living into the 20th century in the late 1930s. Butler County families began realizing its benefits in 1938.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 7037 May 11, 1935, creating the Rural Electrification Administration. Congress followed with passage May 20, 1936, of the Rural Electrification Act. Both aimed at enabling farmers to modernize their operations and increase efficiency and production.
In the mid 1930s, only 10 percent of the nation's farmers had electric service. About 22 percent of rural Ohio had electricity with "a slightly larger" estimate for Butler County.
Lack of electricity hampered farming in the early '30s, and meant some rural families lived in unhealthy and dangerous conditions. Without electric power many rural families lacked running water for drinking, cooking, bathing and laundry; had unreliable systems of preserving food; and resided in poorly heated homes.
In 1933, about 90 percent of the nation's farmers depended on gas engines or generators and animals and hand labor for power. Kerosene lamps were the usual source of light. Stoves fueled by coal or wood provided heat and a cooking source.
Privately-owned utility companies seldom offered power outside urban areas. They contended that supplying rural areas wasn't profitable. Where available, electric connection costs had been prohibitive for most farm families.
The REA's mission was to provide low-cost loans to non-profit cooperatives formed by farmers and other rural residents.
The Butler County Rural Electric Cooperative Inc. was created Oct. 14, 1935, at a meeting at Hanover Township School as an organization "formed among ourselves on a non-profit basis for acquiring and distributing electrical energy."
Martin Petri of Hanover Township chaired the county committee. Township representatives were Carl Engel, Ross; Luther Borger, Wayne; C. P. Krebs, Milford; John Keehner, Union; Marcus Beard, Morgan; Charles Schlabach, Reily; Loren Sizemore, Oxford; A. F. Baker, Wayne; and Clovis Kalbfleisch, Madison.
The Butler group applied for a $320,000 federal loan March 17, 1936. By summer the organization anticipated supplying current to more than 1,000 Butler County farm homes "before snow flies," but delays caused that goal to be missed.
Thirty local families received the first power March 30, 1938. The first service was at the family home of Mr. and Mrs. Sam F. Bauer on their 31-acre farm on Wayne-Milford Road. More than 252 miles of distribution lines were erected for 718 members.
"Coal oil lamps were flickering hesitantly, soon to disappear entirely in many rural sections," the Journal-News reported. "To many of the patrons of the cooperative, it will be the first time electricity has ever lighted their homes and will mark the end of the era of flickering lamplight that has been the only means of illumination for many years."
"It will mean that modern appliances, such as sweepers, stoves, ironers, heaters and improved radios can be installed to lighten the work of the farmer's wife," the newspaper noted. "It will mean, too, that the farmer can install motor-driven machinery to facilitate his handling of crops and materials in his barns."
Nationwide, thanks to the REA, 40 percent of farms had electricity by 1941 when the United States entered World War II. Ten years later, it was 90 percent. By the 1970s, it reached 98 percent.
Economically and socially, according to most historians, the rural electrification campaign is regarded as one of the most successful New Deal programs of the Roosevelt administration.
Although not written as a work relief measure -- in erecting poles, extending transmission lines and building other facilities -- rural electrification also stimulated employment.