PART I: Living through the Great Depression

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By Ron Van Stockum

About six months ago, when I decided to write a column for the anniversary of the 1929 Market Crash, I had no idea how timely it might be.

Oct. 29, 1929. 79 years ago today, was engraved in the public mind as "Black Tuesday." The next day, The New York Times reported:

"Stock prices virtually collapsed yesterday, swept downward with gigantic losses in the most disastrous trading day in the stock market's history. Billions of dollars in open market values were wiped out as prices crumbled under the pressure of liquidation of securities which had to be sold at any price."

John Kenneth Galbraith, noted economist, in The Great Crash 1929 wrote years later, "Thursday, October 29, was the most devastating day in the history of the New York stock market, and it may have been the most devastating day in the history of markets. It combined all of the bad features of all of the bad days before."

Thus began the "Great Depression," a seminal event in financial and social history.

There had been stories about the stock market "crash" of 1929 causing dozens of people to commit suicide by jumping out of windows of Wall Street investment houses, but these have been largely discredited. However, the worst was yet to come, for the stock market and for the economy.

Herbert Hoover, by profession a mining engineer, had gained prestige as head of the American Relief Administration that provided food for millions of starving people in Central Europe following World War I. Subsequently, after serving as Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Harding and Coolidge, he had been elected as president, taking office March 4, 1928.

The judgment of history is that, lacking charisma, Hoover was unsuccessful in addressing the great challenges he faced in October 1929. In implementing the conventional wisdom of his time that the federal budget should be balanced at all costs, he drafted and sent to Congress a bill that became the Revenue Act of 1932.

This act raised taxes across the board with the expectation of doubling tax receipts. Many economists today consider this to have been a counter-productive measure. They favor the opposite action, cutting taxes during a recession or depression in order to stimulate spending.

A family's struggle

On "Black Tuesday," I had just started high school in Bellingham, Wash., a city of about 25,000 in the scenic northwestern part of the state. As a carrier for the Bellingham Herald, I would trade newspapers with a carrier of the competing newspaper, the Bellingham Evening News, which featured the popular "Buck Rogers 2429 AD," the first newspaper science-fiction comic strip. The Herald was small enough that it could be rolled and bent into the form of a boomerang, which could be thrown, somewhat mutilated, on customers' porches as I walked my route.

My father, having started out walking a route, or "debit" to collect a few cents weekly from customers with small insurance policies, had become an assistant manager in the Bellingham office of The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. I remember so well a phonograph record carrying a Christmas message from Chairman of the Board Haley Fiske, insurance tycoon, addressed to all his agents "To my dear children in the field."

Such a paternalistic approach by management was typical of those times. Also I recall that pamphlets were distributed by the company to promote good health and longer life. One included an admonishment to "take out a dictionary now and then and look up the meaning of the word 'soap.' "

Branching out on his own, my father had just obtained a position with a new insurance company, which, following "Black Tuesday," was bought out, leaving him without a job.

Desperately seeking employment, he moved our family south a hundred miles to Seattle, where he left no opportunity unexplored. I remember his traveling the Pacific states, trying to sell a "pop-up" stop sign for use at intersections.

Discouraged by paucity of sales and dismayed by demands of some political officials for "kick backs," he aggressively looked elsewhere for employment. In those days there was no "social safety net," such as exists today, and the expression "over the hill to the poor house" had real meaning.

The high school years

The affect for me was that, having had a successful first semester in high school, I had to transfer in the middle of my freshman year to a school in Seattle. There I found the curriculum to be advanced, particularly in mathematics, and I struggled where I had previously excelled.

Being a "veteran" newsboy, I obtained a route with the Seattle Times, which euphemistically called us "Carrier Salesmen." My talents as a salesman were reflective of those of the contemporary radio comedian, Al Pearce, who, after knocking, would murmur "I guess there's nobody home, I hope."

I remember so well collecting 85 cents monthly for the daily and Sunday editions. This was "hard money" country, and my purse was filled with silver dollars. In those days the newspapers put out special "Extra" editions whenever there was a dramatic event in the news, and newsmen would walk the neighborhood, hawking the news.

When the Japanese invaded Manchuria on Sept. 19, 1931, the call was "Extree, Extree! Looks like another world war"! Amos and Andy would air on the radio about five in the afternoon, and, as I walked from house to house on my route, I would hear bits of the dialogue. In 1932 Jack Benny's weekly radio show became equally popular.

An opportunity opened for Dad when he was asked to organize a medical service bureau in Yakima, Wash. This was a novel type of organization, established by doctors, to provide group insurance at this time of depression when they were having difficulty collecting for their services.

So we moved again and I completed my high school years at Yakima High School in mid-1933.

Robert A. Long and Longview, Washington

Later that year, my father was asked to establish a local hospital, with an associated medical service bureau, in an unused railroad station in Longview, Wash., a city on the Columbia River, about 150 miles south of Seattle, that was built in the early 1920s by Robert Alexander Long to support his newly-built Long-Bell Lumber Mill.

Long had been born in Shelby County and raised on his family's farm, on "the waters of Plum run," south of Simpsonville. His father, Samuel Mallory Long, was a successful farmer who, on his death in 1882, left his 200 acres and a considerable inventory of goods and livestock to his seven surviving children.

He could afford to send Robert to a local boarding school for boys, probably the highly-regarded Dodd's High School. At 22 Robert traveled to Kansas City to join his uncle, Churchill J. White, a well-connected banker. In 1875, in partnership with his uncle's son Robert and Victor Bell, he founded R. A. Long & Company in Columbus, Kan., and opened a lumberyard.

Thus began the career of Robert Alexander Bell who, later, as chairman of the Board of the Long-Bell Lumber Company, became a predominant lumber baron of his time.

My first view of Longview revealed a large expanse of flat land, laid out in a highly organized pattern, with streets and utility lines, but largely devoid of houses. Long had planned for the future, but growth had not yet met his expectations.

It had a beautiful hotel, a large high school, and a modern railroad station, which was never used as such. And nearby stood his Long-Bell lumber mill, reputed to be the largest in the world, the rationale for Longview's creation.

Robert A. Long did not do things in a small way

COMING FRIDAY: From the New Deal to World War II.