Ninety years ago, in 1930, the United States was suffering through the early period of the Great Depression. Herbert Hoover was in the White House, and Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency and New Deal programs, aimed at providing jobs and alleviating suffering, were still in the future.
It is difficult for us to envision the hardships faced by many Americans during the Depression years. With millions of people unemployed, hundreds of thousands of men and women of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds took to the road looking for work. Some left home to help alleviate the hardship of their already struggling families. Young people traveling for adventure, were soon unable to support themselves. Unemployed men who boarded empty boxcars, “riding the rails,” became symbolic of this difficult time.
During the Depression years, the Vincennes Salvation Army was inundated with transients seeking a meal and a bed, especially on the coldest nights. The Salvation Army was then located at 16 City Hall Place. City Hall was on the corner of Fourth and Main streets, and the Salvation Army was to the rear of adjacent buildings. Robert Ellis was local Captain at that time. In 1930, they charged either 35 cents or 50 cents for a room, although those unable to pay were also accommodated.
A few examples of travelers coming through Vincennes in late 1930 helps to illustrate the desperation felt by many that year.
On Oct. 30, a 40-year-old man, an engineer by profession, spent the night at the local Salvation Army. Then unemployed, he was seeking work so he could send money back to his family in Chicago. He even carried employment recommendations with him. The man admitted that he was “chasing rainbows,” believing there were jobs waiting for him in several places.
Thanksgiving Day of 1930 saw bitter cold temperatures, with the thermometer registering just 4 degrees above zero that morning. There was a light snow during the day. On Thanksgiving night, 22 people were housed at the Salvation Army. The meal they were served in the fall and winter months was hearty soup, alternating between chili, bean, and vegetable soup.
Among the crowd that night was a 20-year-old man, traveling with his aunt and uncle and their 10-month-old baby. The man, who had been supporting his relatives, lost his job in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The group was making their way in a 1923 Model T Ford touring car to their hometown of Waterloo, Kentucky. The young man went to the police department for help that evening, informing officers that they were without gas or money. They were given gas to get them on their way and food and beds at the Salvation Army.
Women were out on the road alone, too. On the evening of Dec. 11, 1930, 54-year-old Hettie Shepherd was given a ride into Vincennes, having walked over 12 miles that day. She was coming from Pottersville, Missouri, walking or hitching rides across the country, taking all kinds of jobs, such as washing dishes or scrubbing floors for a bed for the night. She took pride in the fact that she never had to “sleep out.” She simply walked up to a house and asked for work. Her night in Vincennes was spent at the Salvation Army.
A day later, on Dec. 12, two unemployed fathers, each with his own son, drove into the city heading to Monticello, Illinois, where one of the pair lived. The men talked to some members of the fire department on Fourth Street, admitting that they were out of money. The firemen invited them for a meal of liver and onions at department headquarters. The travelers then asked if they could spend the night in jail and were allowed to do so, happy to have warm beds for the night.
Although economic conditions improved in later years, millions of people remained unemployed through the 1930s.
Brian Spangle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org His latest book, “Hidden History of Vincennes & Knox County,” published this year by The History Press, is available for purchase at the Knox County Public Library and on Amazon.