Highland News Leader

Great Depression hit local coal mines hard

Roland Harris
Roland Harris

The economic depression that began 1929 is called the “Great Depression.” I can see nothing “great” about it as I lived through those terrible days, when families suffered from hunger, as the fathers became unemployed. It was heartbreaking.

William “Bill” Nunes, of Glen Carbon, but formerly of East St. Louis, has written many books about Illinois and this area. I have three of his books, “Incredible Illinois,” published in 2004 and signed by Bill. I will be quoting from pages 126 and 127, of this book for part of this column. Thanks, Bill. I enjoyed our conversation this Saturday morning. I also have the book, “Illinois in the Roaring 1920s,” published in 2006, and “Illinois in World War II,” published in 2007. These books will be given to the Highland Home Museum and will be in the “I” section of the museum office book file.

Here are a few of the happenings from early 1929 in Highland taken from the Highland Sesquicentennial Book of 1987.

▪ “Wedge Quick Shop was located at 1521 Broadway, where old Route 40 (now Sycamore Street) curved into Broadway, heading west and east, with Poplar Street, headed north and south. This Munie Service Station, originally called ‘Filling Station,’ was built in early 1929 by Victor Munie. Munie operated the station until 1934 … Henry and Gus Beinecke bought and ran the Linco Filling Station from 1937 to 1956. In 1957, Lester and Verna Kuhner Walther bought and ran the business for seven years… In 1973, Mike and Karen Smith purchased the business and were running the service station, when the Sesquicentennial book was published. Submitted by Larry and Sharon Moss.” (Page 76, Sesquicentennial Book)

▪ “Highland Batteries Inc. was in the planning stage for several months and was founded in November 1929 by Philip M. Gundlach, president; Elmer R. Gundlach, vice-president; and Hubert A. Bardill, treasurer. The company was located at 808 Broadway in Highland. They manufactured automotive and agricultural storage batteries through March 1934. Philip M. Gundlach was a founding member of the Highland Pistol Club and Elmer Gundlach established and coached St. Paul’s first basketball team. Philip M. Gundlach and his wide, reside in Smithton, Ill.” Page 52, Sesquicentennial Book)

The following is Bill Nunes about the start of the Depression:

“The wild and wooly decade of the 1920s came to a crushing ending on Thursday, Oct. 24, 1929, when the stock market crashed in New York City, with a one-day loss of $32 billion. By the end of 1929, the losses amounted to a staggering $40 million.

“Over production by farmers led to the falling commodity prices, and over expansion during the booming decade after World War I, also added to the economic woes. Stock prices had soared to unrealistic, dizzying heights, fueled by feverish investor speculation that brought the margin down to paying only 10 percent and gambling everything on even higher prices.

“The state of Illinois, like all the other states of the nation and then the countries of the world, would suffer through almost a decade-long depression. Illinois coal mines closed, one after another, due to lack of industrial demand. (This closing of the coal mines really affected Illinois and our area, as Illinois was a big coal producer, hitting hard Collinsville, Livingston, White City, Staunton and Mount Olive.) People could no longer afford to ride trains, and many had lost their employment. The Illinois Central Railroad was forced to lay off nearly half of its 60,000 work force. (Other railroads were forced to do the same, and the unemployment continued to soar, beyond everyone’s worst imaginations.)

“Numerous Illinois banks, and banks across the nation, were financially unsound, because they too had speculated and made risky loans at the prospect of high profits. Large numbers of people started withdrawing their savings to cover their living expenses. Shortfalls occurred, which led to runs on the banks, and it turned into financial panic. Banks were closed (some never to reopen), causing many people to lose their life savings.

“In Chicago, the largest commercial building in the world was being built. The Merchandise Mart in Chicago was two city clocks long and a block wise, 15 stories high, with 95 acres of total floor space. The Merchandise Mart was able to be completed in 1930.”

I made a two- or three-day buying trip to Chicago to the Merchandise Mart for their Furniture Mart show each January that I was a partner in Tibbetts & Co. and then owner of Roland Harris Furniture, at 906 Broadway in Highland. Originally intended to serve the wholesale business needs, in 1991, the Merchandise Mart opened several lower floors to retail shoppers. The Furniture Mart is much reduced in size, as many regional furniture marts have sprung up all over the nation and foreign countries.

Now, our grandson, Will Harris, of Chicago, is working in the same Merchandise Mart building. His employer, YELP, has two floors, with more than 800 employees in the building. How times have changed.

Thanks, Bill Nunes, for your delightful and educating books.