Thursday, September 14, 2017

Days of Alphabet Soup: Algoma & the Depression

Algoma's Most Visible Reminder of the Days of Alphabet Soup

Kewaunee County folks felt the Great Depression as badly as it was felt across the U.S. If rural Wisconsinites were better off than their big city cousins, nobody knew it. What they thought in November 1932 was that a vote for Franklin Delano Roosevelt would offer a path out of such wretchedness. At the depths of the Depression, at least 1 in 4 was unemployed.

Roosevelt’s election brought his New Deal, and with it came civil and relief agencies charged with alleviating the economic suffering of the country’s citizens. Known by a plethora of initials, the programs were lumped into “Alphabet Soup.” For some, the days of Alphabet Soup were much like the stone soup fairy-tale in children’s storybooks. There were the CCC, WPA and NRA among others. Some such as SSB, SEC, FHA, FCC, FDIC, FCA and TVA are still operating. With the exception of Social Security in 1935, the agencies were created in 1933 or 1834. Kewaunee County didn’t experience the TVA – Tennessee Valley Authority - but it could easily have been the only one.

Crescent Beach work
In charge of the CCC – Civil Conservation Corps – in Kewaunee County, Alice Krauss provided information and ran early enrollment certifications for the agency. Physically fit, unemployed men to age 23 were eligible for a six month enrollment. They could re-enroll for a period of 2 years, provided they were under 23. Originally a relief agency, CCC was redefined to also provide education, thus offering men a chance to improve themselves. Most of the work was out-of-doors where men learned such things as forestry, soil conservation and park development. CCC changed and accepted men to age 25 for a period of 6 months. The government paid $30 a month in addition to offering food, clothing and lodging.

Algoma’s Milton Blahnik was one who took advantage of the program. He was at Bloomington in August 1935 where he played first base on the camp’s baseball team. Blahnik’s athletic prowess made news. Playing an all-star team from Grant County, Blahnik scored 3 hits in 5 times at bat. Not only was he recognized for his long hits, but he also had a defensive game at first base.

During June 1936, 7 county men were enrolled for CCC service. There were exams to pass and Kewaunee’s Erwin Suchocki, William McCalvy and Joe Muchoski made it. So did Algoma men Glen Welnick and Harvey Rudie, Lester Huber of Carlton, and Frank Swifka of West Kewaunee. Algoma’s Louie Wautlet wanted to enroll but had to wait for discharge papers from an earlier enrollment. By November 1939 Rupert Pagel and his brother Lester had just returned to the CCC Camp at Minoqua following a week’s vacation with their parents.  Vincent Charles of East Rosiere had 10 days off about the same time.

Opportunities existed during the Depression and young men were taking advantage of them even though March 1934 marked the end of CWA in Kewaunee County. Several programs were begun in November 1933 and with the end of the CWA, some of those programs would go unfinished. That was most unfortunate. Kewaunee’s hill was being terraced and work at the airport had just begun. Remodeling the county farm came to an end. The work on Algoma’s park came to a standstill, but the park could wait. That park was a swamp that would be known as Perry Field. Plans were to fill in the swamp with 20,000 yards of fill at a cost of $12,000. Trees, shrubs, piping, culverts and more were part of the earlier scheduled work. As for the county home, it was expected that the building would rest on new foundations before time ran out. Since Kewaunee’s hill was part of the state highway system, it was hoped the state would step in.

Just as stone soup was made, something else generally got thrown into the pot, however the additions were often no more palatable to Kewaunee County municipalities than they were to others throughout the state. FERA was a late add-on. Kewaunee County was stymied as it didn’t have cities over 5,000 people, and that’s what FERA required for participation. County officials including Board Chair O. H. Bruemmer, Algoma Mayor Harry Heidmann, Kewaunee Mayor William Karsten and A.D. Shimek in the Wisconsin Assembly fired off a telegram of protest to FERA. The kicker was that community participation required community funds, and that meant that the decision to participate would be in the hands of any community, whether or not the smalls were included.

No doubt there were some who felt some Kewaunee County potatoes could be thrown into the stone soup. As it was, to hear the word “bootleg” when talking about potatoes seemed like a stretch. But, to officials, it was not. September 1935 saw the attachment of “Potato Control” to AAA. Every farmer who raised and sold more than 5 bushels of potatoes was affected by regulations that required packing potatoes in containers of sizes determined by the Department of Agriculture. Each container would bear a government stamp. Each farmer had a potato production quota and those raising more were charged a 45 cent tax on each bushel in excess of the quota. There were temptations to exceed quotas but anyone caught buying or selling non-stamped potatoes was liable to be fined $1,000, or even imprisonment for a 2nd offense.  At the time potatoes were selling for about 60 cents a bushel.

By September 1936 state newspaper headlines were shrieking that Uncle Sam was tightening relief monies before getting the approved 42 million Works Progress monies out. Wisconsin’s monies were cut in August, and September’s funds would be far less. State officials said things were muddled in Washington and advised the public to remain calm. The public was so worried that Governor Phillip LaFollette went to Washington rather than to the State Fair where there was a day in his honor. When LaFollette called from Washington, it was a call that put a smile on the faces of some. Sixteen million dollars were freed. By December, however, Wisconsin agriculture had received less than 21 million of the expected 80-120 million from WPA. Some blamed red tape though others said WPA just didn’t have the money.

Farm market roads were to have been improved before the 2 million tons of crushed lime and its distribution was far reduced. The hiring of 325 inspectors ensuring farm and dairy plant quality was so delayed that Wisconsin had only one man in position in 3 months. At the same time 33,000 farmers were dropped from drought jobs because of a lack in funding. There were other problems. A few days before Christmas in 1936, 33,000 drought stricken farmers got a one-month job. The same farmers had been dropped from WPA jobs a short time earlier due to dwindling funds. It was said 5,000 would get jobs while the others would get assistance grants. It was further said that by presenting their termination certificates, the farmers could get such assistance without additional red-tape.

Algoma sewer work, 1939
Early in 1938 the Record Herald commented that most workers preferred work relief rather than assistance. Algoma had plenty of work to be done but the city was not able to pay for all of it. The school was built and the new sewage treatment plant and its extensions were completed, although there was still work to be done. The city received about 45% of the treatment plant funding through the various programs. Cleaning the brush and the area around the treatment plant remained a must. During the previous summer broken concrete from another project was placed along the lake shore in readiness for a WPA project when funds were available. The idea was to supply dry semi-circular walls that would be filled in to provide additional places along the beach during the summer. Algoma’s magnificent Crescent Beach was enhanced during the days of CCC and WPA. It continues to be improved.

During the first 9 months of 1938, local groups were bearing 85% of their costs. Papers were editorializing that a return to private industrial expansion would keep the needy off the relief roles. Additionally, winter was coming, and just before Christmas 1938, state and local agencies faced even greater burdens in dealing with their own relief as reductions in WPA monies were felt. Algoma saw picketing at the home of Congressman Joshua Johns, left.

Winter did indeed come and jobs started coming available, though not entirely because of government funded programs. Projects needed finishing when German troops marched into the Sudetenland – and then kept on going. As did so many other manufacturing plants, Algoma Plywood and Veneer began increasing the workforce in what turned out to be “pre-war” production. Pre-war production continued into war production. Then came the rationing. As Alphabet Soup faded into the past, meatless days and meat substitutes brought a new kind of stone soup. But, that's another story.

The beach stone flag is at the bottom of south WPA stairway to Crescent Beach, Algoma's crown jewel. Nearly 80 years old, it is one of Algoma's civic reminders of the Great Depression and the men and women, and their families, who survived because of such projects.

Following are some the the Depression ear agencies:
CCC - Civilian Conservation Corp
WPA - Works Progress Administration      
FDIC - Federal Deposit Insurance Corp
TVA - Tennessee Valley Authority    
SEC - Security Exchange Commission   
FCA - Farm Credit Association
SSA - Social Security Administration which created the SSB - Social Security Board
CWA - Civil Works Administration
FERA - Federal Emergency Relief Act
NRA - National Recovery Administration
AAA - Agriculture Adjustment Act
PWA - Public Works Administration

Sources: Algoma Record Herald; family files. Black & white photos were taken from Algoma Record Herald; colored photos are the blogger's.

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