"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN
Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.
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 600 workers in 1931; three years later, only 25 jobs remained. (2)
Despite these numbers, the DUBUQUE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE wrote of the city's economy:
A striking thing about these (local industries) is that they keep right on producing quality products with seldom or never a shutdown. (3)
This attitude lead to cynicism among the unemployed. Rumors circulated that the Chamber had kept the auto industry and other employers who paid good wages out of the city. There developed the idea that business leaders were keeping wages low for their own profit. The fact that wages in Dubuque were on a par with those paid in the South was used by officials as a way of attracting new business. Only seven percent of the nation's labor force was unionized, and efforts to organize locally had met with little success. (4)
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. (5) CATHOLIC CHARITIES OF THE ARCHDIOCESE OF DUBUQUE was founded in 1931 as a non-profit, social service organization. (6) 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. (7)
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. (8) 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. (9)
Parent-Teacher Associations proposed ideas and supported others. The Bryant Welfare Fund sponsored by the Bryant Parent-Teacher Association. Food was distributed by a committee to families which were cared for by the association. A donation of ten dollars was approved for the welfare fund and five dollars to the clothing exchange. (10) Through March 1, 1932 a total of 504 children had been cared for by the exchange. Among the 1,700 garments given out were 75 pairs of new shoes, 183 pairs of used shoes, 41 pairs of new and 54 pairs of used overshoes, 86 overalls, and 40 shorts. (11)
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. (12) 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. (13) Payment for work could be in grocery orders. (14)
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. (15)
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. (16)
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. (17)
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. (18)
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. (19) 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. (20)
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. (21)
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. (22) 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. (23)
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. In Dubuque, the city council, various city commissions, public works committee of the Chamber of Commerce and representatives of civic groups met on November 16, 1933 met to draw up a list of projects. These would be submitted to the Iowa Civil Works Administration. The head of the administration in Iowa had the power to approve or reject the projects without passing them on to the federal government. A total of $400 million was allotted to the program across the United States while the exact appropriation to Iowa had not been announced. Wages paid were those of civil works employees--fifty cents per hour for common labor and $1.20 for skilled. (24) 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. (25)
In 1937 the National Youth Administration (N.Y.A.) Conservation and Game Management Project was offering to plant trees in Dubuque County. Anyone willing to set aside land was asked to contact Horace Poole at his office at 163 Main. Hickory nuts and acorns for planting were preceded by the planting of wild grape vines. (26)
In March 1940 a "job clinic" aimed at helping young women find work was organized by N. Y. A. Club for girls. A similar organization had been organized for the men. (27) The N.Y.A. Center in the Fulton School Annex served Dubuque youth between the ages of 17 and 24. By 1940 the local supervisor stated that 248 youth were enrolled in the various activities and that plans were made for quickly increasing this number to 500. To accommodate the increasing numbers of students, a prefabricated steel building and a small addition were erected in December 1941. Young women could take classes in homemaking and sewing. Young men had opportunities for instruction in sheet metal work; torch, electric and spot welding, and other fields. Equipment was provided for all the activities. Students were required to put in 60 hours each month for which they would be paid $16.20. Additional hours learning more could be put in without pay. (28) The course offerings were expanded in January 1942 to include machine shop instruction for the young men and nursing and nutrition for the women. Payment was increased to $24. (29) In June 1942 examinations were given to all the students as they were potential workers in the defense industry. The cost of the examinations was paid by the NYA. (30)BEE BRANCH sewer system. The swimming pool at EAGLE POINT was expected to be finished by June, 1937. The third program was the development of the riverside drive also in the Eagle Point area. A bridge had been finished on the northern end of LAKE PEOSTA and workmen were in the process of installing rock ballast along a new road, considered a key to future development, from Rhomberg Avenue to the CITY ISLAND. (31) WPA programs also 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. (32) Dubuque’s Federal Building, formerly known as the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse began in 1932 and was completed in 1934.
The role of the W.P.A. was presented to city leaders at a supper held at EAGLE POINT PARK in May, 1940. In a program entitled "This Work Pays Your Community Week," workers from many W.P.A. projects explained the working and purpose of each program. During the week of May 21, projects in the Professional and Service Division planned open houses for anyone interested in learning more. (33)
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. (34)
The park board decided to construct a stone shelter to provide employment with federal funds. (35) 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. (36) 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." (37) He was quoted as saying, "The gods were constructed out of form, wherefore beautiful built things become temples." (38) 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. (39) 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. (40)
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. (41) Skilled labor could earn from $70-$72 per month. (42) WPA contractors could earn as much as $1.20 per hour, but they had to supply their own room and board. (43)
In 1937 healthy unemployed men under the age of 65 could enroll in a FERA work camp in Clarksville, Iowa. Dubuque County's quota, however, was fixed at fifty. Men would enroll for three months during which they would be paid $48 monthly. From this the government deducted $22.50 each month for food, shelter, and medical attention.
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. (48) In 1934 officials of the Dubuque Chamber of Commerce met in Chicago with officials of the RFC to determine whether funds for companies in Dubuque could be secured. Although still operating, financial help was needed for long-term credit, loans, or working capital. (49)
Dubuque was originally to be the headquarters of the WPA and a building was started just north of the Dubuque approach to the JULIEN DUBUQUE BRIDGE. The beginning of WORLD WAR II prevented the headquarters being opened here, and in 1942 the construction was finished on what became a small office for the Dock Commission. (50)
On July 8, 1939 WPA workers in Dubuque called a protest strike over an increase in working hours per month without additional pay. They were all back at work on July 11th. Word came to the city that a meeting was scheduled in Chicago to discuss the new relief act which provided for 130 hours per month for men employed on WPA projects. (51)
The first day nursery for the children of Dubuque mothers employed in war work was opened at AUDUBON ELEMENTARY SCHOOL at the end of November, 1942. Children aged 2-4 were eligible and parents were assured that those in charge would be qualified. Activities were to be carefully supervised and would include morning and afternoon rest periods, supervised play, and nutritious meals. Personnel for the nursery were provided through federal funds of the Works Progress Administration. Space was provided by the Dubuque Board of Education and equipment was purchased with funds donated by the the Lions Club and local industries involved in defense work. Operational expenses above that paid by parents were furnished through contributions of the Battery Workers Union, DUBUQUE TRADES AND LABOR CONGRESS, American Legion, Kiwanis Club, Rotary Club, and the Elks Club. (52)
In November 1942 voters authorized the city council to establish an annual levy not exceeding 3/4 of a mill for the purchase of a site in Table Mound Township for the development, maintenance, and operation of an airport. The city was assured of a Works Progress Administration grant for this construction. (53)
Following the election, all WPA activities were halted by presidential order. An estimated 80-100 people were affected by the closing of projects in the city. Some of these included women employed in clerical work, but the majority were men employed on county highway project. (54) CAA officials associated with the NAVY flying program at LORAS COLLEGE had inspected the site and believed a CAA grant for the airport could be arranged. Acting on this, the city council authorized the mayor to appoint a committee from the council and other city officials to contact federal agencies regarding a grant. During the second week of June, 1943 the mayor, solicitor, and manager contacted Navy officials in Minneapolis, Minnesota; CAA officials in Kansas City, Missouri; United States Senators Gillette and George Wilson; and Congressman Talle in Washington, D. C. Following the long distance calls, the grant was made. (55)
Food subsidies intended during the war to keep food prices low totaled $1.5 billion in 1945. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation paid an estimated $560 million to meat packers, $100 million to creameries, and $190 million to flour mills. This equaled about five cents per pound on meat, two cents per quart on milk, a one cent per pound on bread. The Commodity Credit Corporation paid $568 million to dairy production. Officials warned of a sudden end to these payments. Incomes were expected to fall with the return of soldiers and the end of much overtime pay. Potentially violent opposition was suggested by labor groups. (56)
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. "Turning Points," Telegraph Herald, September 25, 1983, p. 29
5. "Dubuque Rescue Mission," Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, Online: http://www.dbqfoundation.org/donors/giving-center/dubuque-rescue-mission
6. Catholic Charities. Online: http://catholiccharitiesdubuque.org/about-us/catholic-charities-history/
7. 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
9. "City to Start More Projects to Provide Jobs," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, November 3, 1931, p. 2
10. Johnstone, Mrs. W. O. "Parent-Teacher Associations, Telegraph-Herald and Times-Journal , March 6, 1932
12. "Work Planned by City for Aid of Unemployed," Telegraph Herald, July 13, 1932, p. 5
13. "More Building Activity Here to Aid Jobless," Telegraph Herald, Nov. 1, 1931, p. 7
14. "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
15. "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
16. "Milk Fund Accepts Checks On Any Bank Open Last Week," Telegraph-Herald and Times- Journal, March 7, 1933, p. 2
17. "A Bank Holiday," U.S. History: Pre-Columbian to the New Millenium, Online: http://www.ushistory.org/us/49a.asp
19. "A Bank Holiday."
20. "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
21. "A Bank Holiday."
22. "More Than Million Pounds of Pork for Distribution to Needy in Storage Here," Telegraph- Herald and Times-Journal, October 1, 1933
24. "Dubuque City Council, Civic Groups Compile List of Projects for Civil Works Administration," Telegraph-Herald and Times-Journal, November 16, 1933, p. 1
25. "Five Families in Dubuque..."
26. "NYA Workers to Plant Trees," Telegraph Herald, March 16, 1937, p. 8
27. " 'Job Clinic' Is Organized by N. Y. A Girls," Telegraph Herald, March 20, 1940, p. 9
28. "Local NYA Youth Center a Busy Place," Telegraph Herald, November 3, 1940, p. 24
29. "New Defense Courses Set," Telegraph Herald, January 20, 1942, p. 6
30. "Local NYA Workers Given Examinations," Telegraph Herald, June 4, 1941, p. 16
31. "360 Employed on WPA Jobs," Telegraph Herald, March 21, 1937, p. 5
32. "The Great Depression and the Arts," Online: http://newdeal.feri.org/nchs/lesson04.htm
33. "WPA Week is Launched With Supper," Telegraph Herald, May 231, 1940, p. 2
34. "Historic Federal Building," The City of Dubuque: Masterpiece on the Mississippi, Online: http://www.cityofdubuque.org/1555/Historic-Federal-Building
35. 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
37. 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
41. "Five Families in Dubuque..."
42. "Five Families in Dubuque..." "Roer Family Interview"
44. Jerde, Lyn. "Reunion of the Corps," Telegraph Herald, September 2, 1995, p. 1
45. "Jobless Dubuquers May Enroll at Camp," Telegraph Herald, June 30, 1937, p. 5
46. "Four Iowa CCC Camps to Quit," Telegraph Herald, October 28, 1941, p. 13
47. "Postwar Revival of CCC Urged," Telegraph Herald, June 14, 1943, p. 9
48. "Needy and Unemployed Are Given Work By New Relief Committee; 400 on the Job," Telegraph Herald, March 7, 1933, p. 7
49. "Seeking Funds to Employ More Dubuque Labor," Telegraph Herald, March 8 1934, p. 1
50. "WPA Building About Ready," Telegraph Herald, August 8, 1942, p. 5
51. "WPA Groups Here Vote to Resume Work," Telegraph Herald, July 11, 1939, p. 1
52. "Work 'Orphans' to Have Nursery Here, Telegraph Herald, November 15, 1942, p. 2
53. "End of WPA," Telegraph Herald, January 27, 1942, p. 2
54. "Discuss New Airport Here," Telegraph Herald, October 6, 1942, p. 2
55. Untitled article, Telegraph Herald, June 15, 1943, p. 4
56. "End of Subsidy Plan Uncertain," Telegraph Herald, April 22, 1945, 12