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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
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This entry is being edited.

The following three interviews compiled by the WPA are also available. These tell the personal views of those who lived during this time.




GREAT DEPRESSION. Entering the term "Great Depression" in the entry finder of this encyclopedia introduces the reader to the vast impact this period of American history had on Dubuque. (The term will turn up "in red type" over and over again in the finder.)

At the height of the Great Depression, a quarter of a million teenagers joined the ranks of the army of homeless roaming across America riding freight trains or hitchhiking. By 1933, when the economy hit rock bottom, about 9,000 banks had failed, $2.5 billion in deposits were lost, and unemployment soared to nearly 13 million---about one in four of the labor force. (1) In Dubuque, 2,200 workers lost their jobs between 1927 and 1934 when their firms closed, while only 13 new businesses opened—employing only 300 workers. That meant a loss of 1,900 jobs. Dubuque railroads employed employed 600 workers in 1931; three years later, only 25 jobs remained. (2)

A number of Dubuque area churches explored the idea of providing a ministry to the less fortunate. At the beginning, there was a need to minister to the homeless who traveled the nation. From these beginnings, the DUBUQUE RESCUE MISSION was created. (3) CATHOLIC CHARITIES OF THE ARCHDIOCESE OF DUBUQUE was founded in 1931 as a non-profit, social service organization. (4) Clothing collections were made at SPAHN AND ROSE LUMBER COMPANY between 1:00-4:00 p.m. If people were unable to bring the clothing to the site, they were asked to call the Chamber of Commerce which would send drivers to pick up the material. (5)

In 1931 the Dubuque City Council continued authorizing public works improvement projects to help provide work for the unemployed. In November, the council approved the construction of concrete storm sewers to serve Valley, Quinn, and Rosedale STREETS. A vitrified tile sewer was also approved on 28th Street. (6) The city council also made plans for unemployment relief. In July, 1932 construction was planned on storm sewers on Rush St., Marshall St. and Kaufmann Avenue. Plans were made to employ men on three-day shifts giving more men work and making a greater distribution of wages. (7)

A Chamber of Commerce program "Put Men Back to Work" encouraged individuals to do their share. Citizens responded by contacting the Chamber with offers of work including house painting, apartment remodeling, or the construction of garages. (8) RELIEF GARDENS were established.

In 1932 unemployed men aided by the county relief agency were hired to dig surplus garden products. Owners of the gardens were asked to send their names and addresses to the Telegraph Herald, Times Journal and the Relief Department. A committee assigned men to dig the products which were transported to the food station at Fourth and Iowa. Unemployed men were often willing to hike or hitch-hike to the farms for the work. (9) Payment for work could be in grocery orders. (10)

Food collections were organized. An appeal, for example, was made by the food committee of the Citizens' Emergency Relief. In two days in early January 1933, Dubuque residents contributed more than five tons of canned vegetables and fruits to those unemployed. Two weeks previously the same amount of food was collected. Trucks donated by WESTERN GROCER COMPANY, CARTIGNY FRUIT COMPANY and DENNIS BROS. COMPANY hauled the food collected by the Boy Scouts to the food station at Fourth and Iowa. (11)

An Emergency Milk Fund was established by 1933. Contributions could be sent to the Telegraph Herald and Times Journal. Groups that pledged regular weekly or monthly contributions were listed on an honor roll published daily. (12)

As welcome as these efforts were, the federal government was needed in such a crisis. In the past, depositing money in a savings account carried a degree of risk. If a bank made bad investments and was forced to close, individuals who did not withdraw their money fast enough lost money. A simple rumor could force a bank to close. When depositors feared a bank was unsound and began removing their funds, the news would often spread to other customers. This often caused a panic, leading people to leave their homes and workplaces to get their money before it was too late.

These "runs on banks" were widespread during the early days of the Great Depression. In 1929 alone, 659 banks closed their doors. By 1932, an additional 5,102 banks went out of business. Thirty-eight states adopted restrictions on withdrawals in an effort to prevent panic. Bank failures, however, increased in 1933. (13)

Two days after taking the oath of office, Roosevelt declared a "bank holiday." From March 6 to March 10, 1933 banking transactions were suspended across the nation except for making change. During this period, Roosevelt presented the new Congress with the Emergency Banking Act. The law empowered the President through the Treasury Department to reopen banks that were solvent and assist those that were not. Banks were divided into four categories. Surprisingly, slightly over half the nation's banks were fit to reopen. The second category of banks was permitted to allow a percentage of their deposits to be withdrawn. The third category consisted of banks that were on the brink of collapse. When the holiday was ended, these banks were only permitted to accept deposits. Five percent of banks were in the final category — unfit to continue business. (14)

On Saturday, March 4, 1933, Iowa Lt. Governor Nelson Kraschel ordered the start of a bank holiday. FIRST NATIONAL BANK OF DUBUQUE and AMERICAN TRUST AND SAVINGS BANK announced they would be closed on March 6. When the day came, the banks opened from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. to provide change for merchants. In one hour, the two banks distributed $20,000 in coins.

On the Sunday evening before the banks reopened, Roosevelt addressed the nation through one of his "fireside chats." The President assured sixty million radio listeners that the crisis was over and the nation's banks were secure. (15) The following day, First National received more than $45,000 in deposits. On March 8, Lt. Governor Kraschel again announced a complete closing of all banks. First National, a nationally chartered bank, announced it would remain open until ordered closed by the United States treasury secretary. It was the only bank in Iowa open for business that day. (16)

On March 9, Congress quickly passed laws allowing banks to reopen and outlawed the private ownership of GOLD. On Monday, March 13, Dubuque banks were again in operation.

On June 16, 1933, Roosevelt signed the Glass-Steagall Banking Reform Act creating the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Under this new system, depositors in member banks were given the security of knowing that if their bank were to collapse, the federal government would refund their losses. Deposits up to $2500, a figure that would rise through the years, were 100% safe. The act also restricted banks from recklessly speculating depositors' money in the stock market. In 1934, only 61 banks failed. (17)

Banking was only the first of many concerns of the federal government. The federal government under Franklin Delano Roosevelt in its first hundred days created a multitude of new programs and agencies. These were often called "the alphabet agencies" because of the frequent use of their initials. The Agriculture Adjustment Act (AAA) was meant to reduce farm surplus and therefore raise the value of farm produce. The DUBUQUE PACKING COMPANY played several important roles in this program. In 1933 more than one million pounds of pork were stored at the Dubuque packing company for distribution to the needy. (18) The meat was obtained through the slaughter of all marketable hogs purchased from farmers in Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin under the Agriculture Adjustment Act. The Dubuque Packing Company was assigned a quota of hogs of various weights and of sows, and a premium above market value was paid by the government. The program provided an estimated $75,000 to area farmers. The Federal Emergency Relief Organization (FERA) purchased the meat and was in charge of distribution. (19)

The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) also created the Civil Works Administration (CWA), a short-lived U.S. job creation program to rapidly create manual labor jobs for millions of unemployed workers. The jobs were merely for the duration of the hard winter of 1933–34. The CWA created construction jobs, mainly improving or constructing buildings and bridges. It ended on March 31, 1934, after spending $200 million a month and giving jobs to 4 million people. In Dubuque, CWA was involved in the airport construction. Workers were paid $15 per week. (20)

The federal government also affected Dubuque through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). WPA programs included the construction of public buildings such as schools, hospitals and courthouses; highways; recreational facilities such as athletic fields and parks and playgrounds; and conservation facilities such as fish hatcheries and bird sanctuaries. (21) Dubuque’s Federal Building, formerly known as the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse began in 1932 and was completed in 1934.

The interior of the Federal Building features several important murals in the lobby vestibule. The murals were funded with $2,000 of the original money allotted for construction of the building. Although a competition to select an artist was held, officials intended to select Grant Wood, the famous Iowa painter of “American Gothic.” When Wood did not enter the competition, William E. L. Bunn was selected. The selection was subsequently overturned in favor of a painter named Bertram Adams. As a compromise, both Bunn and Adams, who each studied and worked with Wood and were friends from the University of Iowa, were allowed to paint murals. Adams painted “Early Settlers of Dubuque” in 1936 and 1937. The painting depicts several symbols of the city’s pioneering days, such as the JULIEN DUBUQUE MONUMENT and the village of the MESKWAKIES. Adams also represented impending industrialization by painting the SHOT TOWER and a bridge. Bunn painted “Early Mississippi Packet ‘Dubuque 111’ (also referred to as “Early Mississippi Steamboats”) at the same time. His mural illustrates life in Dubuque in 1870 when steamboats were a primary method of transportation in the Midwest. (22)

The park board decided to construct a stone shelter to provide employment with federal funds. (23) To receive the funds from the Civil Works Administration (later Works Project Administration (WPA)), however, the park had to have a plan and someone who would accept a supervisory role. Alfred CALDWELL came to Dubuque highly recommended by renowned landscape architect, Jen Jensen. (24) Caldwell was hired as the project supervisor in March, 1934.

Caldwell directed the construction of the EAGLE POINT PARK shelter area which he called, "The City in a Garden." (25) He was quoted as saying, "The gods were constructed out of form, wherefore beautiful built things become temples." (26) Caldwell was forced out of the project in the spring of 1936 before the dedication of the shelter area in 1937.

Wendelin RETTENBERGER, one of Caldwell's three assistants and the person who finished Caldwell's work, remembered that money was tight. Most of the $200,000 the project received went to the four hundred workers. There was only about $18,000 a year to spend including gasoline and all utilities. (27) Fish ponds, rock walls, and Indian council rings in the park were created through the project. In 2004, the park shelters designed by Caldwell in 1937 were recognized by the American Institute of Architects as among the most influential structures in Iowa from the decade. (28)

Works Progress Administration projects could also involve working in a county stone quarry, park clearing, or brush cutting. For working three days a week, a person earned $48 a month from which $2.50 would be deducted for transportation to and from the work site. (29) Skilled labor could earn from $70-$72 per month. (30) WPA contractors could earn as much as $1.20 per hour, but they had to supply their own room and board. (31)

Although there were no Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps at Dubuque, the agency did help the community. (32) With little chance to find employment in the city, CCC camps involved in planting trees and other outside activities kept younger men busy and lessened the chance they could become involved in crime.

The Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) was an independent agency of the United States government chartered during the administration of Herbert Hoover in 1932. The agency gave $2 billion in aid to state and local governments and made loans to banks, railroads, mortgage associations, and other businesses. The loans were nearly all repaid. It was continued by the New Deal and played a major role in handling the Great Depression in the United States and setting up the relief programs that were taken over by the New Deal in 1933. In March and April 1933, for example, a loan from the RFC of $59,500 was made to the Dubuque County Emergency Relief Committee. Any man, whether they had been on relief or not, was eligible for work relief. Pay was made by orders to merchants for food, fuel and clothing. (33)

Photographic evidence of the impact this period had on Dubuque was collected by John VACHON. Several of his photographs, stored in the Library of Congress, follow:

Looking through the garbage dump for useable items.
Shanties of people who lived near the city dump
Young boys line up at the city mission for soup to take home.
Homeless men line up before their clothes are fumigated, and they are offered showers.



1. Uys, Errol Lincoln. "How Young Americans Survived the Hard Times of the Great Depression," Online: http://erroluys.com/HowAmericansHelpedEachOtherDuringtheGreatDepression.htm

2. "The Great Depression Hits Farms and Cities in the 1930s," Iowa Pathways, Online: http://www.iptv.org/iowapathways/mypath.cfm?ounid=ob_000064

3. "Dubuque Rescue Mission," Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, Online: http://www.dbqfoundation.org/donors/giving-center/dubuque-rescue-mission

4. Catholic Charities. Online: http://catholiccharitiesdubuque.org/about-us/catholic-charities-history/

5. Jobless Ready to Dig Spuds If Given Chance," Telegraph Herald, October 26, 1932, p. 4. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=-wRGAAAAIBAJ&sjid=IL4MAAAAIBAJ&pg=4856,2507826&dq=peaslee+and+company+dubuque&hl=en

6. Ibid.

7. "City to Start More Projects to Provide Jobs," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, November 3, 1931, p. 2

8. "Work Planned by City for Aid of Unemployed," Telegraph Herald, July 13, 1932, p. 5

9. "More Building Activity Here to Aid Jobless," Telegraph Herald, Nov. 1, 1931, p. 7

10. "Five Families in Dubuque: The Urban Depression, 1936-1937," "Crumbaugh Family Interview," Online: http://www.uni.edu/iowahist/Social_Economic/Urban_Depression/urban_depression.htm#Park%20Family%20Interview%20January%201938

11. "Tons of Food Are Collected Here," Telegraph Herald and Times Journal, January 8, 1933, p. 16. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=PPNFAAAAIBAJ&sjid=JL4MAAAAIBAJ&pg=4036,4311543&dq=peaslee+company+dubuque&hl=en

12. "Milk Fund Accepts Checks On Any Bank Open Last Week," Telegraph Herald, March 7, 1933, p. 2

13. "A Bank Holiday," U.S. History: Pre-Columbian to the New Millenium, Online: http://www.ushistory.org/us/49a.asp

14. Ibid.

15. "A Bank Holiday."

16. "Kraschel Says All Iowa Banks Are Now Closed," Telegraph Herald and Times Journal, March 7, 1933, p. 11. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=6f1QAAAAIBAJ&sjid=Or4MAAAAIBAJ&pg=4045,3791016&dq=first+national+bank+dubuque&hl=en

17. "A Bank Holiday."

18. "More Than Million Pounds of Pork for Distribution to Needy in Storage Here," Telegraph Herald, October 1, 1933

19. Ibid.

20. "Five Families in Dubuque..."

21. "The Great Depression and the Arts," Online: http://newdeal.feri.org/nchs/lesson04.htm

22. "Historic Federal Building," The City of Dubuque: Masterpiece on the Mississippi, Online: http://www.cityofdubuque.org/1555/Historic-Federal-Building

23. Chandler, Curt, "Eagle Point History," Telegraph Herald, May 21, 1978, p. 35. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=ncJBAAAAIBAJ&sjid=B6oMAAAAIBAJ&pg=5971,3132466&dq=history+of+eagle+point+park+dubuque&hl=en

24. Ibid.

25. Fyten, David. "40 Years Take Their Toll on Eagle Point Pavilions," Telegraph Herald, September 15, 1974, p. 25. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=Bf5QAAAAIBAJ&sjid=DL8MAAAAIBAJ&pg=5307,2619661&dq=history+of+eagle+point+park+dubuque&hl=en

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid.

29. "Five Families in Dubuque..."

30. "Five Families in Dubuque..." "Roer Family Interview"

31. Ibid.

32. Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy, "CCC Camps in Iowa," Online: http://www.ccclegacy.org/CCC_Camps_Iowa.html

33. "Needy and Unemployed Are Given Work By New Relief Committee; 400 on the Job," Telegraph Herald, March 7, 1933, p. 7