A Father Scarred by the Great Depression

It’s nearly impossible for us living in the 21st century to imagine what life was like in the early years of the Great Depression after the 1929 stock market crash.

The sudden arrival of what turned out to be a decade of hard times was a particular shock because the 20’s had been so good. Grand Rapids, Michigan had been booming because its several dozen furniture factories were furnishing the homes of a rising middle class. Jobs were plentiful, living standards were rising. Homes were being wired for electricity, families bought cars, radios and washing machines. Michigan prospered because of manufacturing and producing the cars that were high demand.

When the stock market crashed in November 1929 the good times came crashing down. Investors, of course, were wiped out. By 1932 the stock market was down 90% from its peak.

In Michigan, unemployment soared to 34%. In Grand Rapids it was 30%. As economic activity contracted, banks failed. Seven hundred went under in 1930 and nationally 9,000 failed. If you had money in a failed bank, it was gone. In early 1933 there was financial panic in Detroit as two of its biggest banks failed. In Grand Rapids, the National Bank of Grand Rapids and the Grand Rapids Savings Bank, went under.  Michigan’s governor closed the banks for one week, a precursor to President Roosevelt’s one week bank holiday in March.

Prior to 1935 if you lost your job, as nearly one in three workers did, you were on your own. There was no unemployment pay, no food stamps, no social security. The hungry, those on relief, stood in soup lines for charity handouts.

As the crisis deepened, it’s not surprising that to keep their jobs workers agreed to wage cuts of up to 30%. Prices fell along with wages as the US economy spiraled down into deflation.

In Grand Rapids one half of the furniture factories closed their doors. By 1935 furniture production was down 75%. As tax revenue collapsed and because its reserves had been deposited in the failed banks, the City of Grand Rapids ran out of money. Workers were paid in scrip, a surrogate money that could only be used to purchase groceries.

The election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 signaled a big change in hands off government policy. Three and a half years after the crash, congress enacted New Deal programs to boost the economy. These included social security, an emergency jobs program and deposit insurance.

Like tens of thousands my dad, Howell Wood, bore the scars of the Depression for the rest of his life. He was frugal, paid bills the day they arrived, and kept his savings in Old Kent, “because it survived the depression.”

Dad was 27 In 1930 with a wife and new baby. A farm boy from southern Ohio, dad came north in the mid-20s with an AT&T crew putting up the poles and lines that brought telephone service to millions.

Tel CrewAT&T crew at Shelbyville, MI, 1927 (Howell Wood looking sideways from cab)

Dad drove the truck and kept books for the traveling crew. He met my mother, then a telephone operator, in Wayland along the route of the Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo cable.

Woody managed to keep his job until 1933. Unable to afford the $47 monthly rent at 1843 Jefferson SE, the family retreated to Wayland, 20 miles south, where dad used his farming skills to plant a large garden that fed several families. Fred Hilbert, Nita Wood’s father, had a small house that he rented to the family for $7 per month.

gardenHowell Wood’s garden, Wayland, 1935

In 1936 the family returned to Grand Rapids, to the same house on Jefferson Ave., as dad was employed delivering bread from a horse and wagon for the Colonial Baking Company. The pay was $17 per week, the same amount as the greatly reduced monthly rent on Jefferson where the landlord said, “pay me when you can.”

The Colonial stables were nearby at Buchanan and Franklin SE. But what stands out is that 20 years after automobiles and trucks had become common, Colonial still did its deliveries with horses and wagons.

Colon BakeryHowell Wood in a Colonial wagon, Grand Rapids, winter 1936

Frederic Hilbert, my uncle, said in 2008, “Woody was my hero. He took a job way beneath him in order to make ends meet. Not very many people would have done that.”

A year later, in 1937, dad had saved the $75 needed to apply for a job at Consumers Power. He got the job as company representative in Caledonia, beginning a career that ended with retirement as a right-of-way buyer in 1968.

Dad died at age 87 in 1990. In April of this year my sister, Pat Markle of Hastings, MI and I returned to the house on Jefferson Avenue where she had lived as a child.

Jeff Ave1843 Jefferson Ave. SE, Grand Rapids

Both of us have great respect for our parents but we’ve always wondered why dad was steadfast in supporting the Republican party, given the travails of the great depression. The answer seems to be that despite a decade of hard times, dad remained skeptical of the government handouts he never took. Hard times made dad conservative and cautious, largely unwilling to take risks. Until late middle age he was even skeptical of home ownership, having seen mortgage bankruptcies and precipitous house price declines in the 1930s. #