Belleville during the Great Depression: Humor, hope and the 'Make Work Program'

News-DemocratMay 31, 2014 

People really wanted to ignore the Great Depression of the 1930s, but it refused to go away.

Stories in the Belleville newspapers were uniformly upbeat, at least until it became impossible to ignore the large number of unemployed people and the resulting destitution.

In April 1930, the Belleville News-Democrat reported on a desperate man who committed suicide. The dead man was a boilermaker who was unemployed.

But the newspaper speculated that the real reason behind his decision to kill himself was his despair because the city was going to pave his street and tax him for part of the improvement and he didn't think he could pay it.

Others were taking a somewhat more calloused approach to the situation. On April 15, 1930, the News-Democrat published an idea put forth at a meeting by a local lawyer.

"Hon. J. Nick Perrin, local historian, lecturer, and avowed wet, has devised a plan for solving the prohibition and unemployment problems at one swoop," the paper noted.

"Perrin told of his plan at the meeting of the West Side Improvement Association last night. 'The president of the American Federation of Labor,' he said, 'tells us that there were 3,700,000 men out of work.'

"'It is four thousand miles from Maine to the west coast. That is over 21 million feet. Hire those men who are out of work. You can stand them six or seven feet apart along the route. Then anybody who wants to bring liquor will have to bring three quarts -- one for the man on his right, one for the man on his left and one to bring into the country.'

"He was asked who would provide chairs for the 3,700,000 men to sit on. 'They won't need chairs,' he said. 'They'll need cots.'"

But it wasn't long before jocularity gave way to serious worry about all the unemployment.

On May 10, 1930, the Belleville Daily Advocate reported, "Mayor Charles Stegmeyer today took steps to relieve the employment situation in the city following reports from city leaders and heads of laboring organizations that there were 2,500 idle men in the city."

The mayor ordered the city superintendent of streets "to double the forces of the street department during the present business depression so that more men will find employment.

"I believe the city's work should be shared," the mayor declared. "I know that giving a man three or four days of work on the streets is always an asset, especially if a man has a family to support.

"The men must be content with sharing the work because there are too many unemployed to give steady work."

The papers still put forth the sensible line that things were getting better and everyone had to believe. In early 1931, the Daily Advocate reported on an optimistic publication explaining business.

"The grit and common sense of the American people are whipping the depression, declares the bulletin Money News distributed today to customers of the Associated Banks of Belleville," (an organization, not today's bank.)

It says of the common people, "They are too sensible to be deceived by shallow cheerleaders who would have us believe that a business boom is right around the corner. We are equally certain that they are too level headed to give heed to croakers and alarmists."

Meanwhile, the bulletin pointed out that "There have been twenty severe depressions in the United States since 1790, all of which were followed by good times."

Good thing they didn't make a prediction on how long it would be before the good times returned.

The city of Belleville, meanwhile, was trying to help with a Make Work Program. It used donations from people who still had money to provide work for people who didn't.

"Eighteen men today went to work at Walnut Hill Cemetery, clearing the municipal burial grounds of leaves, fallen limbs from trees and other refuse, in exchange for commissary orders from the Belleville Township Unemployment and Relief Fund," the Daily Advocate reported.

"A considerable number of men who are in need of aid because of unemployment expressed a desire to work for food and coal orders rather than accept charity."

In November 1932, the Daily Advocate reported "The county highway department is employing 500 men on road projects through out the county in an effort to relieve the unemployed situation County Superintendent of Highways B.C. McCurdy said today."

As the winter progressed, so did the work program.

In December 1932, the paper reported, "Fifteen men early this morning were given six hours employment on the city street department in removing snow on East Main street between Church and Oak streets, as part of the city's Make Work Program.

"The Make Work Program inaugurated by Mayor George A. Brechnitz and city administration heads, is financed by voluntary contributions from citizens."

"It is intended to relieve unemployment during the two weeks before the Christmas holidays by affording work not on the regular program of the city and for which there otherwise would be no appropriation.

The next day, 30 men were employed to remove snow.

And so it went until World War II finally revived the economy.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part of a series of occasional columns that will appear on Belleville's history in conjunction with the city's bicentennial celebration.

Have a column idea? Call Wally Spiers at 618-239-2506 or 800-642-3878; or email: wspiers@bnd.com.

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