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By Terry Ommen
Dusting Off History 

Great Depression Brings Community Together


Last updated 4/18/2020 at 6:16pm | View PDF

The city hall and fire department building stood at the corner of Church and Acequia streets. It was in this building that the fire department stored goods for distribution to those in need. (photo circa 1933)

Many people have heard of the nightmare of the 1930s called the Great Depression. Our country, in fact most of the world, was hit by a devastating economic downturn, and many people lost their jobs. Family incomes plummeted. It is estimated that during the worst of the Depression, 25% of U.S. workers were unemployed. Family bills went unpaid and home mortgages went into default, leaving many without homes or basic necessities.

The collapse left local economies also hurting at a time when the need for social services was the greatest. Individuals and governments were struggling. The federal government saw what was happening and stepped in to help. A key element of their assistance came in the form of jobs. They created the Civil Works Administration (CWA) that supplied money to local governments and special districts to hire the unemployed to work on public works projects.

Tulare County was suffering, too. The local Visalia office of the CWA was responsible for distributing the funds throughout the county. In November 1933, for example, it was announced in the Visalia Times-Delta that the CWA was distributing funds for projects countywide. About $90,000 had been given to the county to hire 873 men to go to work on local projects immediately. As part of that allocation, 26 men would be hired to work for 60 days digging the Visalia High School Bowl (which later became known as the Mineral King Bowl.) Another 37 men would be hired to work for 60 days on a Dry Creek road project and another 20 would be hired in the Porterville area to work on a Tule River flood control project. The following month, an additional 25 men were authorized for employment at Sequoia National Park to do "pick and shovel" work to widen the curves on the winding road.

Not all the help for the suffering population came from the federal government. Transients, for example, could work "a few hours" at the Visalia city woodpile, chopping and splitting wood in exchange for food and clothing.

In the early 1930s, a group of charitable and sympathetic Visalians got together "to do something to mitigate worry and suffering." They formed the Visalia Central Welfare Council, which became the coordinating organization for many "helping" projects including job replacement service. One young couple with three children had signed up for assistance and the Visalia Times-Delta shared the family's plight and requested community help, "The young father is able to do any kind of work, but except for a few odd jobs, has been unable to find employment. He is back in rent, grocery bills, etc."

The council helped in other ways as well. The committee served as the collection coordinator for those willing to donate clothing, shoes, hats, etc. They used the firehouse storeroom as the supply depot. The need for shoes, even badly worn pairs, was especially critical. A cobbler was recruited who repaired shoes in exchange for groceries.

Pioneer grocers Henry Goldstein and Myer Iseman established their business in Visalia in 1896. During the Depression, they donated fresh fruit and vegetables. This building was located at 120 W. Main St. (Photo circa 1920)

But there were other Visalia groups that pitched in. The local chapter of the Red Cross worked with the council finding jobs. Knudsen Creamery donated 360 gallons of skimmed milk weekly to families in need. The Goldstein & Iseman grocery store and the Visalia Baking Company donated bread, pastries and vegetables several times a week to the food pantry. And there were many others, including Visalia Woman's Welfare Club, Associated Charities, Kiwanis Club and Catholic Daughters of America.

But according to the Visalia Central Welfare Council, there was a media organization that was especially helpful. On October 11, 1933, the council wrote an open letter thanking the Visalia Times-Delta for the "wonderful publicity and cooperation you have rendered the Visalia Central Welfare Council."

The character of a community can be judged on how it comes together during times of need, and the actions of Tulare County and Visalia during the Great Depression should make us all proud.


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