by BETH ALTENA
Take a look at some of Rockford’s buildings today and you will find a history lesson about a time when jobs were scarce, the economy was terrible and people were unemployed in record numbers. Many structures dating from the Great Depression years are still in use today and tell a story about public works and community spirit during those hard times. Former Rockford resident Jerry DeMaagd was the speaker at the February 2 meeting of the Rockford Area Historical Society on what was happening in our town during the decade of 1930 to 1940.
“I was born in 1936 so I wasn’t around to see most of it myself,” he stated at the meeting’s start. He said he researched the issues of The Rockford Register (now The Rockford Squire) on microfilm at the library to find information. “It was a big job” he noted.
A hobby photographer and “aesthetic archeologist,” DeMaagd’s interest in architecture provided a base for this study. Also, the pictures are “a noticing choice”; what to photograph is a personal choice as well as a historical record. The first image is probably something every Rockford resident has probably driven past without a second thought: the classical detailing on the former Kent County “Barn” (Road Commission Garage on Northland Drive), built when Warren Townsend was chairman of the Kent County Road Commission (Townsend Park is named after him) and is now owned by Wolverine World Wide. That structure reflects the influence of the day, showing classical detailing on the columns did not add to the functionality of the building, but common to architects who were classically trained.
To set the atmosphere of the times behind his discussion, DeMaagd spoke of his father, Gerald DeMaagd M.D., who had his first office over the Kimm furniture store and rented a room in the building now occupied by the Pederson Funeral Home. He held up the doctor’s books from that time—literally a book where the doctor’s income and expenses were handwritten. “The average cost of a call to a doctor’s office at that time was $1.50,” he said.
DeMaagd said his father married and the couple’s first child was stillborn on May 16, 1935. That baby girl, who would have been his oldest sister, has a headstone in the Rockford Cemetery. DeMaagd noted that his father’s practice was first over the Kimm Furniture store, and then over Stanfield’s pharmacy after the furniture store went out of business at the depth of the depression in 1932.
An ad in The Rockford Register in 1930 described some prices in Flossie Kerr’s restaurant—breakfast was 15 cents, lunch 40 cents and dinner 45 cents. Gas was nine cents a gallon. Some of the existing businesses were McQuarrie Motor Sales (Ford), Dockery Lumber and Rockford Motor Sales/Denton Motor Sales (Chevrolet). The stock market crash in 1929 was not mentioned in The Rockford Register (because it happened in New York City). In fact, the far-away event did affect Rockford as well as the rest of the country in the following decade.
“It did affect Rockford and greatly reduced prices,” DeMaagd said. Not just items, but labor prices were reduced by about one-third. Public salaries were reduced as well. A state trooper made about $90 a month and bartering became accepted in most businesses. A notice in the Register announced:
“We need the money but we will accept anything we can use on subscription accounts: wood, eggs, meat, fowls, or what have you.”
At Wolverine, Otto Krause kept employees working three days a week and had the novel idea of putting shoes in stores without asking for payment until their sale—the concept we now know as consignment. The Dick Kimm furniture store was forced out of business in December 1932—the low point in the Depression. DeMaagd noted that personal hardship did not miss his own family, as his grandfather lost his home in Grand Rapids about then.
In 1933, the Register reported the Childsdale paper mill was rebuilt and opened for business.
Rockford, existing earlier as a village, became a city in June 1935. As a City, Rockford hired its first city manager, H.G. Pope. Other headlines announced a pig-calling contest. DeMaagd said H.G. Pope’s son today lives in Chesterton, Ind., in a steel house called a “Lustron” home. H.G. (Herman George, but known as H.G.) was a graduate engineer from Purdue University, and had a law degree in public law from Valparaiso University, so was well-qualified to get many Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects approved for the new City of Rockford.
The following is from the microfilm archives of The Rockford Register at the library, paraphrased:
City Council Chooses H.G. Pope of Indiana As New City Manager
(This was right after Rockford became a home rule city.)
(Thursday, July 25, 1935)—The city council met and selected H.G. Pope of Chesterton, Indiana as the unanimous choice. He is a graduate engineer from Purdue University. When the depression came along, he decided that a law course would be invaluable to him and he completed a three-year course in Indiana and Valparaiso Universities. This course which specialized in public law has given him a good deal of valuable training. He was expected to take over August 1st, 1935 and was married.
H.G. Pope Resigns as Rockford City Manager, Accepts New Position
(in Huntington Woods, a suburb of Detroit)
(Thursday, March 4, 1937)—“Makes splendid record as City Manager”—The article went on to list projects initiated by Pope, including curb and gutter on several streets, storm and sanitary sewer, paving, water mains and water storage tank, and the community cabin. “Pope carried on with federal aid (WPA projects) at a very low cost to the community.”
“We are informed that in spite of these extensive improvements, operating department costs have dropped, and the city is more sound financially now than it was two years ago.”
“As you can see his tenure as city manager was relative short, but a lot was accomplished during that time,” said Historical Society speaker Jerry DeMaagd. “My dad (Dr. DeMaagd) always said that Pope had reputation for getting things done. He also said that he knew how to get government money (what we would call grants today). Pope’s name was Herman George, but he always went by his initials only: H.G.”