Saturday, July 18, 2015

Growing Up in Rochester, 1935-1947


© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.


For the last few weeks I've been reading Blake McKelvey's history of Rochester. McKelvey, one of America's greatest urban historians, wrote, among many books about Rochester, his definitive four-volume study: Rochester: The Water-Power City, 1812-1854; Rochester: The Flower City, 1855-1890; Rochester: The Quest for Quality, 1890-1925; and Rochester: An Emerging Metropolis, 1925-1961. Fortunately for me, late in his life, McKelvey abridged his roughly 1600 page study into one 300-page volume, Rochester on the Genesee. I read this book up to his account of 1929, then turned to the original fourth volume, that I read from 1929 until mid-1947, when Adams left Rochester for Detroit. What I was after was a basic understanding of Rochester's origins as a city, but I wanted the specificity that the original study would give me about Pepper Adams' time in Rochester and how the Great Depression was navigated by its citizens beginning slightly before Pepper arrived.

I've learned much about the derivation and makeup of Rochester, but McKelvey's accounts of what went on during Pepper's boyhood is really fascinating. Even as a young grade-school student (ages eleven to fourteen), Adams wouldn't have been immune to all the things going on in Rochester on behalf of the war effort. Here's some of my notes about his Rochester experience, in no apparent order:

With Defense Department orders coming into Rochester factories in the late 1930s as a response to war in Europe, the last traces of the Great Depression ended. By late 1940, as the United States clung to its neutrality while Hitler invaded countries in Europe, Rochesterians were involved in numerous war relief drives, and the sale of defense bonds and scrap drives. According to McKelvey, "the first scrap metal drive collected over twenty tons of aluminum. A paper-salvage campaign quickly eliminated all danger of a shortage in that field. Awakening to the value of scrap metal, the City Council halted its plan to cover old trolley tracks with asphalt and undertook the more laborious task of salvaging them for scrap."

As a ten-year-old boy, Pepper Adams would have heard, observed, read or participated in all sorts of activity taking place around him in response to the war. Many citizens listened to President Franklin Roosevelt's "fireside chats" throughout the 1930s and Adams likely heard some of these with his parents as they continued throughout the war. 

Virtually every organization in Rochester was eager to help with the war effort. The Boy Scouts and Automobile Club helped itemize cars that could assist in an evacuation of the city, the Society of Engineers surveyed buildings suitable as bomb shelters, the League of Women Voters distributed information about various defense provisions and devised an example of a "blackout room," county staff drew up contingency plans for the evacuation of 20,000 Rochesterians, and school children were asked to fill out a questionnaire indicating if they needed special assistance in the event of an evacuation. A series of practice exercises took place in Rochester to test blackouts.

As per McKelvey: "The technical facilities of many Rochester firms attracted a flood of defense contracts exceeding $75 million in total value by the end of August, 1941. . . . Defense contracts brought a surge in employment." 

After the invasion of Pearl Harbor, many Rochesterians joined the military and, according to McKelvey,  "local officials hastily stationed emergency police at several vital points--notably the airport, the reservoirs, and the New York Central Bridge across the Genesee River. Defense industries increased their guards; 400 legionnaires voluntarily manned a series of air-raid posts; both the city and county defense councils engaged full-time staffs and prepared to operate on a war basis. When a hastily announced blackout demonstrated some of the inadequacies of the earlier civilian defense provisions, jittery residents readily backed measures for improvement; some called for an effective roundup of all enemy aliens. . . . With the outbreak of war, the President designated all Japanese, German and Italian nationals as enemy aliens and required them to turn in to the police all cameras, shortwave radio sets, and firearms. . . . The city and county war councils sprang quickly into action." 2600 volunteered for air-raid duty, 500 as auxiliary firemen, 1000 as aircraft-spotters, 1000 as auxiliary police and 400 for a civilian air patrol. The Red Cross were tasked with training nurses for possible emergencies. Volunteers prepared thousands of first aid kits and a blood bank was established. 

Unlike the war-bond drives in World War I that were intermittent, Adams would have recognized the incessant war bond drives of his era. As a citizen, he would have participated in the scrap-metal drives too, though it's not known to what extent school children participated. In 1941, Rochester collected of 20 tons of aluminum; in 1942 the city exceeded 1000 tons. Rubber salvage netted 300 tons. Rochester barbers collected in two months 240,000 used razor blades. Some 200 tons of tin cans were collected. Besides metal and other common scrap, housewives were also asked to salvage fats from its garbage.

According to McKelvey, "It was in the great scrap-metal drive of October [1942] that the community as a whole outdid itself. A skillful newspaper campaign, featuring the achievements of other communities, prepared the way. The Junior Chamber enrolled several hundred volunteer scrap sorters who turned out on five holidays to help speed the metal to hungry foundries. Because of the great number and generous size of the curbstone scrap piles, the scheduled collections, on October 24, was prolonged over a period of several weeks." 

Rationing was another effect of the war. Sales of tires and sugar were limited, as were the sale of meat, shoes, new cars, typewriters, bicycles and other scarce items. Ration books were distributed, and hundreds of teachers and volunteers scrutinized more than a half a million applicants for coffee, gasoline, building materials and other items. Because of gas rationing, bus traffic became more common as a form of transportation.

Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Year's celebrations were observed quietly at home, McKelvey writes, due to the continuing war effort and out of respect to returning servicemen.

Nine blackout tests took place in 1943.

The summer of 1944 attracted high-school students and teachers to help with harvest as labor for the war effort was siphoning off all able-bodied men, women and even POWs.

Even despite 7000 of its employees working for the war effort, Eastman Kodak expanded its operation during the war. By December, 1944 it employed 29,000 workers.

Red Cross and Community Chest drives were also successful in raising funds and collecting used clothing for war relief.

A victory-garden program enrolled 30,000 volunteer gardeners in 1943 and 1944 to alleviate any food shortages.

The Rochester park system, one of America's best, was maintained at full capacity during the war, even with a budget austerity in place, as seen in other city programs.

A severe snow storm, the worst in 40 years, took place on December 11-12, 1944.
Another winter storm paralyzed the city on Nov 29, 1945.

Rochester was very proactive and ahead of the curve regarding its unemployment situation after the Crash of 1929. In February 1931, Kodak and thirteen other large Rochester companies established unemployment insurance for its workers. Relief work for the unemployed was established in 1931 and again in 1932, with matching funds from the state. 250 acres were given to 2000 families as "self-help gardens" to grow food. The program was sustained the following year and for years to come. A large bond was supported by local banks for relief work and city services after Franklin D. Roosevelt's inauguration in 1933. All of this was established before Roosevelt's New Deal reforms were rolled out in the U.S.


                (Acclaimed historian Blake McKelvey.)