Ann Arbor and the Great Depression

The rapid expansion of Ann Arbor and the University was not immediately halted by the October 1929 stock market crash. No banner headlines marked "Black Thursday." Instead the Daily News stressed short rallies rather than sharp declines in stock prices. In December 1929, when the unprecedented dimensions of the depression were becoming apparent, Ann Arbor's Mayor Edward Staebler assured local residents that the economy was sound and would weather this temporary financial crisis. Throughout the rest of the decade the city leaders and the local press continued to express confidence in the future of Ann Arbor. While this optimism masked many real economic reversals and personal hardships, it was indicative of the relative stability of Ann Arbor's retail economy compared to the economic and social plight of industrial cities like Detroit.

As the employer of twenty per cent of Ann Arbor's work force and the source of over 10,000 student and faculty consumers, the University buffered to some extent the immediate effects of the depression. Until 1931 it operated on a budget appropriated in the spring of 1929, when prosperity seemed assured. The number of students and tuition revenues did not seriously decline until the 1931-32 academic year. However, the expansion of the University's physical plant stopped abruptly and in 1931 a ten per cent pay decrease went into effect and enrollment declined ten per cent. University President A. G. Ruthven responded optimistically, "I am not at all discouraged...I must admit that the curtailment of our resources has permitted me to make certain changes in the organization which I believe will be of lasting benefit."

Despite marked declines, most of its industrial, farm, and retail establishment survived. Even during the national "bank holidays" Ann Arbor banks maintained limited business hours. In the ensuing years the city's relative stability attracted new residents and industries fleeing the economic distress of Detroit. Thus Ann Arbor's economic losses were balanced by modest gains.

But Ann Arbor did not escape the depression. Companies which supplied parts for the automotive industry, such as American Broach, King Seeley, and Hoover Ball & Bearing, accounted for a large per cent of the industrial work force and were immediately forced to reduce production and to lay off factory and office workers. Several firms went into receivership and withdrew from Ann Arbor. Others merged with out-of-state companies hoping that additional resources would allow them to survive, even if the patterns of employment shifted away from Ann Arbor. Retail establishments, which accounted for a majority of the city's income, suffered a fifty per cent drop in sales. Although few businesses declared bankruptcy, most were plagued by unpaid bills and increasing debts.

The building boom of the previous decade which had created new University buildings, factories, stores, and homes stopped short as Ann Arbor prepared to wait out the financial slump. Home-building permits declined from 260 in 1929 to an average of fewer than 50 during each of the next six years. Not only did contractors, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and suppliers suffer, but unemployed factory workers were denied the temporary construction work which had previously allowed them to survive periodic unemployment.

With continuing price declines, the surrounding farm community was not a source of temporary employment either. With its diversified production of grain, vegetable, dairy, and poultry products, Washtenaw County suffered less than farm regions dependent on one crop. But the number of farm mortgage foreclosures increased steadily from 1930, and farm auctions became more frequent. Unemployment--its increasing magnitude and duration--became Ann Arbor's most critical problem of the depression. By 1931, ten per cent of the work force was without a regular paycheck to pay the rent and buy the family groceries. Without hope for a job in the foreseeable future, these people were completely dependent on their neighbors.

The Community Pulls Together

The tradition of community self-help was strong in Ann Arbor. The Community Fund supported eleven private welfare agencies and the city's Poor and Cemetery Committee provided emergency aid to indigents and transients. But as unemployment soared, the usual means of support proved totally inadequate. With the help of the Boy Scouts, the Community Fund redoubled its annual campaign appeals. Allocating most of its resources to the Family Welfare Bureau, the Community Fund focused on immediate relief problems by sponsoring clothing drives and soup kitchens. Civic groups directed their charitable activities to the relief problem and the League of St. Andrew Thrift Shop expanded its operations. Spontaneous events like a community dance and the post-season Michigan Chicago football game in 1930, as well as regular events like the Police and Fireman's Ball, added funds to the community welfare effort.

Despite widespread cooperation, these efforts were not sufficient. The bulk of the relief burden fell to the city. The immediate tasks of a hurriedly expanded Unemployment Committee were to allocate funds for emergency relief, register job seekers, and locate work. As available jobs in business and industry disappeared, a door to door canvass sought odd jobs, and the city hired increasing numbers to cut wood and to sell sandbags and onions. By 1931 all unemployed job hunters reported directly to the Parks Department and the Board of Public Works.

From the beginning Ann Arbor advocated municipal work relief as an antidote to unemployment. According to Mayor H. Wirt Newkirk: "The men don't want charity, they want work." For thirty cents an hour, often paid in scrip, these men pulled weeds, built stone fences, and planted grass, trees, and flowers along roadways and the Huron River. New baseball diamonds, swings, slides, and picnic tables were added to city parks and playgrounds. An eighteen-hole municipal golf course was improved. Potatoes, cabbage, and onions were harvested from forty acres of city gardens. The unemployed contributed to the construction of additional sanitary and storm sewers, sidewalks, and curbs and in 1932 to the addition to the post office.

In addition to providing jobs, the city distributed relief funds for food, clothing, and rent. By 1931 a full-time volunteer was directing the welfare funds and a city store was opened to provide food and clothing at the lowest possible prices. The city also operated a dormitory and a restaurant to provide temporary help for indigents. An investigator was hired to check all claims for aid.

Despite unemployment and the relief burden, most Ann Arborites remained optimistic enough to vote for President Hoover in the 1932 election. A Daily News editorial commented that Hoover should not be blamed for the depression and that the country's economy would automatically recover regardless of the outcome of the election. When the votes were counted, Washtenaw County was one of the few areas in Michigan which maintained its traditional Republicanism. Hoover received 15,368 votes to 12,552 for Roosevelt. The city and county offices were held by Republicans. Only the second U. S. Congressional District, of which Washtenaw County was a part, elected a New Deal Democrat, John C. Lehr.

But the city could not provide relief and jobs indefinitely. The number of families on relief jumped from 162 in 1931 to 405 in 1933. Monthly welfare costs skyrocketed from $2,000 to $14,000 per month. Increased expenditures were juxtaposed against the city's rapidly shrinking revenues. Despite several municipal bond issues for the city's public works projects and continued borrowing from the annual contingency fund, the welfare fund was always low. Traditional financial revenues had decreased by almost sixty per cent, due to the rising rate of tax delinquency and declining valuations of local property. Even special emergency relief bonds amounting to $150,000 passed in November 1932 were exhausted within six months.

On May 10, 1933, the Daily News headlined "City Welfare Fund Emptied," and only cases of "dire necessity" would receive aid. Fortunately, in the following week implementation of state and federal welfare programs rescued Ann Arbor's welfare fund with Reconstruction Finance Corporation loans of over $10,000 and established the pattern of state and federal cooperation in local relief efforts. Longer than many other cities, Ann Arbor had shouldered the burden of relief and had reason to be proud of its community spirit and welfare accomplishments. The confidence of city leaders had been justified.

The New Deal in Ann Arbor

Of the many state and federal aid programs during the remainder of the decade, the Public Works Administration had the greatest impact on Ann Arbor. Continuing the pattern of municipal work relief, PWA funds allowed the city to undertake far-reaching public improvements such as the sewage treatment plant, the water softening plant, and miles of connecting sewers and drains. A brick terminal containing office space was added to the airport and Ann Arbor High School was expanded. City council proceedings were indexed and the city hall and several school buildings were decorated with murals.

The most popular contribution, however, was the improvement of parks in the city and of those along the Huron River. A resurfaced Huron River Drive led motorists to new picnic tables, swings, baseball diamonds, and grassy clearings that had been added to the parks between Dexter and Ypsilanti. When dam repairs lowered the water level, the Municipal Beach was cleared for safer swimming; a rock island, a new dock, and an expanded parking lot were also added.

In other federal programs, the National Youth Administration supported young people who worked in the University museums and libraries cataloging insect collections or describing historical manuscripts. Five nursery schools were maintained with federal assistance. Moreover, WPA artists contributed two Black pumas to the University's Museum.

Recreation was another form of relief. In Ann Arbor there were many opportunities for escaping the daily routine of working or looking for work. Athletic teams attracted loyal crowds and encouraged fierce rivalries. The University football team led by Coach Harry Kipke and Athletic Director Fielding Yost accumulated four Big Ten and two national championships between 1929 and 1933. Every football Saturday, out-of-town supporters flocked through Ann Arbor's streets, stores, and restaurants before and after the games. The three high schools also boasted of winning teams: Ann Arbor High School in track, University High School in basketball, and St. Thomas High School in football. In addition, local business and civic groups sponsored team competition in baseball, basketball, golf, bowling, and hockey. One's dinner might be meatless or the paycheck might be late, but if "the team" won, few cared.

In Ann Arbor sports careers started early. From choosing up sides in neighborhood baseball games to learning new skills in the city recreation program, youths of all ages practiced and dreamed of becoming the Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth of the next generation. For young Barney Oldfields, the annual soap box derby down Broadway Hill culminated months of exacting preparations.

Refurbished by continual work-relief projects, the parks in the city and along the Huron River became centers of recreation and leisure. Skating and tobogganing were popular in the winter; swimming at the Municipal Beach and canoeing over the Delhi rapids were favorite summer diversions. Fishermen whiled away the long depression days along the river banks and filled the evenings with fish stories. Annual picnics of business or civic groups featured three-legged races, shoe kicking competition, and "human pump" contests. Music lovers applauded the Ann Arbor Civic Orchestra and local bands during summer concerts in the Orchestra Shell, a WPA project in West Park.

During the unprecedented heat waves of the 1930's, which ruined farming throughout the midwest and resulted in mounting death tolls, Ann Arbor residents found ways to beat high temperatures. Family picnics freed mother from the stove and transformed leftovers into a celebration. Ice cream was a special treat whether eaten at the neighborhood Millers or delivered by Wursters. Adults envied the children who cooled off in wash tubs filled by using the garden hose.

The summer scorchers were equalled only by the winter blizzards. Snow drifts blocked country roads and city traffic was stilled. More mobile than cars, horsedrawn plows continued to clear the sidewalks throughout most of the decade. University students sculptured gigantic snow figures along fraternity row.

Ann Arbor's traditional cultural and entertainment activities provided relief from the depression. Movie houses showed Charlie Chaplin, W. C. Fields, Tyrone Power, and Mary Astor. The Saturday morning "Wheaties" program attracted crowds of children to watch cartoons and the latest westerns and comedies. Theater goers could choose among traditional plays at the Ann Arbor Civic Theater, the modern playwrights produced by the University's theater groups, or the revivals of eighteenth-century classics by the amateur Nell Gwyn group. Musicals were performed by the Union Opera, by neighborhood groups, and by high school students. The world's best musical artists came to Ann Arbor during the Choral Union series and the May Festival. In almost every home, radios provided up-to-date national and world news reports as well as programs from the University featuring music classes and extension courses.

The Recovery Begins

By the middle of the decade the signs of recovery were increasing in Ann Arbor; Thanksgiving turkeys returned to many dinner tables. While unemployment and the need for relief continued (and even increased during the recession in 1937-38), the amount of permanent unemployment was decreasing. In November 1937 a special federal census revealed that unemployment in Washtenaw County had declined considerably from the twenty per cent level of the worst years of the depression.

A slow but steady recovery was indicated in the expansion of existing industries and by the entrance of new companies. King-Seeley, Ann Arbor's largest industrial employer, built three additions to its factory after 1935, and quadrupled its employment from 200 in 1930 to 800 in 1936. The American Broach and Machine Company, expanding its plant in 1935 and again in 1936, employed 140 men who produced metal parts destined for Europe and Russia.

With the repeal of prohibition in 1932, the city's beer industry revived. The Ann Arbor Beer Company replaced the pre-prohibition Michigan Union Beverage Company as the German brewing art flourished once again. To bring power tools, such as saws and drills, within the reach of average householders, Double A Products Company was organized in Ann Arbor in 1934. In the following years they marketed a line of 200 products. The most significant industrial newcomer, the International Radio Corporation, came to Ann Arbor in 1931 and employed 150 men. Not only did it produce the popular and economical radio "Kadette Jewel," and the Argus camera, but also by merging its radio and photographic interests it began experimenting with a new phenomenon called television.

Prosperity slowly returned to the retail business. After 1935 dozens of new businesses appeared in the city directory and the number of retail employees increased from 1,932 in 1929 to 2,841 in 1940. According to a 1936 survey the amount of retail sales per capita in Washtenaw County was $599.00--the highest in the State of Michigan. Main Street and State Street shopping areas and the newly located Farmers' Market supplied a full range of food, clothing, and appliances. Increased farm purchasing power, augmented by government checks, and the renewed influx of University students in 1935 combined with the optimistic outlook of local industry to make Ann Arbor the retail center for a growing town and its surrounding countryside.

The construction of new buildings not only resulted from the increasing prosperity but also added to it. Between 1930 and 1936, assets of the University's physical plant increased to $7 million in valuation. Noteworthy among new buildings made possible by generous gifts were Hutchins Hall, the Rackham Building, and Burton Memorial Tower. The pre-1930's commitment to provide dormitories was fulfilled with the help of federal funds in the construction of West Quadrangle, East Quadrangle, and Stockwell Hall. Although the town was growing moderately, the population of school-age children mushroomed. Crowded classrooms prompted the construction of Stone Elementary School and Slauson Junior High School. In addition to business and industrial building the number of permits for housing steadily increased. New homes were ringing the city, which measured almost six miles square.

A final indication of increased economic prosperity was the rapid decline in delinquent taxes and the payment of back taxes. Encouraged by strict local ordinances and police cooperation as well as state deadlines for payment without added interest, Washtenaw County taxpayers paid up thousands of dollars of back taxes. In 1936, ninety-five per cent of Ann Arbor's current property taxes had been collected.

Building a Better City

With fuller coffers, the city continued its efforts to modernize every corner of Ann Arbor. In addition to the airport, sewage treatment plant, and water softening plant, the city constructed gas pipelines in preparation for conversion to natural gas in 1939. Seven hydroelectric plants provided electricity for 8,000 Ann Arbor buildings and ninety per cent of the neighboring farms. Sanitary and storm sewers, bituminous and concrete paving, and sidewalks and curbs extended into outlying residential areas. Dirt roads vulnerable to rain washouts and susceptible to deep ruts were fast disappearing. In 1939 the streetcar tracks were removed from Main Street.

In addition to having an expanding economy and progressive civic improvements, Ann Arbor remained a safe place to live. Citizens were relatively secure from fire, crime, and traffic accidents. In two squad cars equipped with two-way radios, the thirty-one-man police force protected homes and businesses and patrolled the street traffic. By 1936 traffic regulations alone filled an eighty-six page book. Ten dollar fines for 25 m.p.h. speeding on Washtenaw contributed to the unusually low level of traffic deaths--under five per year. For its size and number of automobiles, Ann Arbor was cited as one of the safest cities in the country.

The residential areas surrounding the city were tree-lined and generally quiet. Home owners of bungalows and mansions participated with equal enthusiasm in the "More Attractive Ann Arbor" campaign sponsored by the Ann Arbor Garden Club and the Ann Arbor News. The increased attention to trees and shrubbery was occasioned by the University's centennial celebrations, which in the summer of 1937 brought thousands of guests from all forty-eight states to the city.

Traditionally a source of civic pride, Ann Arbor's school system not only educated over 5,000 students in well-equipped buildings by professional teachers, but offered a broad range of educational opportunities to the public. Adult evening classes at Ann Arbor High School included typing, sewing, and cooking classes. The Public Library run by the board of education served an active clientele of over 10,000 borrowers.

Representing a broad spectrum of religious practice, twenty-five churches conducted worship services, provided fellowship, and promoted charitable causes. With the exception of the new Presbyterian Church on Washtenaw, there was little church construction during the 1930's; but church activities retained their traditionally important place in Ann Arbor. Local civic and fraternal clubs also contributed to the well being of Ann Arbor. Sponsoring lectures, study groups, and benefits, the Kiwanians, Rotarians, Masons, Elks, and others maintained active memberships. Particularly during the holidays these groups organized benefits and parties for the handicapped or needy children.

Local Politics

Local politics were spirited but rarely bitterly partisan, as Republicans continued to hold city offices. The active participation of the Ann Arbor Citizens Council in local issues furthered the city's tradition of responsible government. In general the council's deliberate actions on city ordinances and appropriations provoked little controversy. The institution of parking meters in 1937 was an exception, however.

No one denied that lack of parking forced motorists to circle the block endlessly and reduced business. But opponents argued that the meters could not create additional parking space. Despite vigorous opposition and Mayor Walter C. Sadler's veto, the city council authorized the seemingly exorbitant sum of $15,000 to purchase Ann Arbor's first parking meters. By the end of the decade, their existence was accepted, and the revenues from the meters were used to improve off-street parking for business employees.

During the last three years of the decade Ann Arbor's attention was increasingly drawn beyond local issues. In January 1937 its National Guard unit boarded the train to assist in the unprecedented Flint sit-down strike. With the peaceful settlement of that strike, new hope fueled labor union activity. Although an ensuing wave of sit-down strikes exasperated communities across the nation, labor unions, aided by the Wagner Labor Act, gained a new place in American industry.

Ann Arbor participated in this trend on August 3, 1937, when two-thirds of the 300 workers at the American Broach Company sat down inside the plant. The persuasive intervention of Mayor Sadler, together with an injunction in the hands of Sheriff Jacob B. Andre, removed the strikers to the street. There they maintained a picket until, on the third day, County Prosecutor Albert J. Rapp (wearing a white straw hat) notified the strikers that negotiations between the company and the UAW in Governor Frank Murphy's office had reached an agreement. The strikers moved to a nearby church and peacefully accepted the company's promise to initiate collective bargaining.

International crises also appeared in the headlines. Fighting in Spain and China and the growing power of Hitler and Mussolini threatened American isolation. Debates over neutrality, preparedness, and munitions makers' profits rang out from the Michigan Daily. The rest of the town, however, noted each new development and hoped that the country could avoid the horrors of war without sacrificing the ideals of democracy.

More than ever, at the end of the decade the town's future was inextricably linked to the fate of the nation. With airplanes landing near State Street, with the new streamlined Mercury train whizzing between Detroit and Chicago in four hours, and with two-lane highways penetrating the city, Ann Arbor could not escape being involved in World War II to a greater extent than it had been affected by the Great Depression.