Answer Man: House was given away back in '35

News-DemocratMay 11, 2013 

Q. I remember back at the end of World War II there was a small, white house built in the middle of the Belleville Public Square where the fountain is now. What can you tell me about it?

-- Angela Breidenbach, of Belleville

A. The U.S. was still clawing its way out of the Great Depression, but you would have never known it by reading the Belleville News-Democrat on Sept. 18, 1935.

"Opportunity is knocking at the door of every man, woman and child in this vicinity right now," the front-page editorial proclaimed underneath a headline that featured lyrics from the song "Happy Days Are Here Again."

"The nation is well advanced in the recovery stage ... Business is improving and an air of confidence is in the air."

Never mind that the Roosevelt administration was trying every trick in the book to kick-start the nation's economy. Never mind that the unemployment rate, though falling, was still at 20 percent and industrial production remained 25 percent lower than it had been in 1929 before the bust hit.

No, forget the doom and gloom. In early 1935, the News-Democrat decided to don rose-colored glasses and launch a campaign of optimism that it hoped would infect the city. Working with the city's Junior Chamber of Commerce, the paper wanted to put smiles back on residents' faces -- and cash into local merchants' registers.

"The tone of these articles was one of jubilation and optimism, imploring people to see the recovery all around them and to do their part to raise spirits" according to William P. Shannon IV, curator of the St. Clair County Historical Society, in an article he wrote for a recent society newsletter.

The campaign culminated in a huge three-day gala Sept. 19-21, a combination picnic and shopping spree that the paper called Opportunity Days. And one of the opportunities was a chance to win the refurbished house you remember sitting in the middle of downtown Belleville nearly 80 years ago.

According to Shannon, the three-room structure originally sat somewhere in the 200 block of West Washington Street and was in need of a major makeover. So in March 1935 it was moved to the Public Square during the Belleville Recovery Crusade, another public effort to address hardships of the time.

There, Shannon said, it was remodeled, complete with a new carport, trees and picket fence. The rejuvenation was done through Belleville's Better Housing Project, which, in turn, was part of the Federal Housing Administration's efforts to improve living conditions and the country's housing stock.

"Before the Second World War, most Americans didn't own the homes in which they lived," Shannon said. "The house was moved and renovated to encourage the idea of home ownership."

For the next seven months, the Junior Chamber of Commerce sold chances to win the house at 50 cents a pop. At least 25,000 people toured the house, so anticipation was likely running on overdrive by the time Opportunity Days opened.

By any measure, the festival was a success, according to the News-Democrat, which, through its Opportunity Days Edition on Sept. 18, encouraged readers to open their wallets and take advantage of extended store hours.

"On Thursday, Friday and until late Saturday night, the cash register bells in the store of the merchants continually chanted a merry tune," the paper reported the following Monday.

But more than just a shopping fest, it was an attempt to establish a Belleville homecoming to lure back former residents to see how well the city was doing. And come they did. "Unprecedented crowds" (an estimated 15,000) filled downtown for a huge float parade, children's parade, canine contest and plenty of dancing, food and drink.

The climax came when the "house on the Square" was awarded to Mrs. Julia Newa, of 2011 Madison St., in what proved to be a fitting close to this celebration of optimism. Newa said her family had lost its home during the Depression and "was elated over the gift," according to a story in the Belleville Daily Advocate.

About a month later, the house was moved to its current site. According to local historian Judy Belleville, it stands now at 1701 N. Charles St. at Sherman (161), providing lasting lessons that we might be wise to remember today.

"What it ... did was show people that amidst despair and darkness, there can be glimmers of hope for the future," Shannon said. "It showed people that it was OK to get out and have fun. It showed business owners that there might indeed be light at the end of a long tunnel.

"Lastly, it showed that with a little bit of money and a little bit of luck, life can take an unexpected turn for the better."

Today's trivia

Who designed the Statue of Liberty's iron skeleton for French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: Born as Thomas Woodrow Wilson, the nation's 28th president was known as "Tommy" through his college days. Then, he dropped his first name in favor of "Woodrow" -- his mother's maiden name.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 239-2465.

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