Roaring Twenties, the Depression and Wartime Prosperity: 1920-1945
by Nunes and Theising
1920 was a landmark year for East St. Louis, and marked the beginning of one of the most hopeful tunes for the city. East St. Louis was nearly 60 years old and had gone through some excruciating growth pains. The city battled social problems (gambling, prostitution), natural disasters (the tornado of 1896, the flood of 1903), and shaky government (from the tension of the "two governments" in 1877 to the corruption of the Lambert Administration between 1911 and 1913). The 1917 race riot seemed to be the peak of pain for everyone. Just as the murder of Elijah Lovejoy in 1837 Alton stifled growth in that town, the stigma of the East St. Louis race riot hung like a dark cloud over the city for the next two decades. Sometimes it takes a tragedy to bring people together.
There was reason for hope with the dawn of a new decade - the view from 1920 was fairly good. Industry had been flocking to East St. Louis at an unprecedented rate. The population had mushroomed the previous three decades. The city limits reached further than ever before. Social groups were formed, cultural organizations sprang forth, churches and schools were built, parks were created, and new-fangled inventions such as the "flivver" (automobile) were making life easier. Most important of all, jobs were plentiful. Voters adopted the commission form of government in 1919. The "new" mayor was M. M. Stephens, who had been the city's hero in the 1880s and 1890s. The city seemed poised for great things.
The "Roaring 20s" roared loudly in East St. Louis. Mayor Stephens governed most of them, leaving office 'in 1927. It was a stark contrast to the events which were to come. The Great Depression, which gripped the nation for a decade, came to an end only as the world took up arms again and wartime production spawned jobs.
The Great Depression struck every town in America in some form, but East St. Louis, though devastated, fared better than other cities. In part, due to the huge assets of the National Stock Yards Bank, not a single bank in the city failed. Few, if any, cities of similar size could make such a claim. To be certain, East St. Louis businesses closed, people lost jobs, investments were lost, and crime (out of the desperation) rose. The first soup line in the history of the city formed. However, a large number of major industries remained because their products were essentials of life - coal, chemicals, metals, meats and foods, oil, paint, shoes and railroad parts. These were the basic products on which America survived. But with the influx of funds from the New Deal added to the economic equation, East St. Louis really did not see the devastating unemployment levels that other cities did. That was one advantage of being a diversified industrial powerhouse.
There were a couple of dark clouds on the horizon. In 1920, the Census Bureau reported that East St. Louis (the government) was the second poorest city of its size in the country. And city fathers blithely ignored the report of a St. Louis city planner which said that major changes needed to be made.
Prohibition was probably tougher on East St. Louis than the Depression. Many people lost their jobs at Central Brewery on Broadway and Helms Brewery on State due to the advent of the Volstead Act. The "noble experiment," which ended in 1933, deprived East St. Louis of its tavern license revenue, which made up half of the city's budget. Bootlegging operations gave rise to organized crime in East St. Louis, giving a revenue source to the Klan, Charlie Birger, and the Sheltons. It also gave a young Frank Wortman his first real taste of criminal activity. However, once Prohibition ended, the comer tavern and nightclubs made a spectacular comeback. Revenues began flowing once again into the coffers of city hall, but the gangsters stayed around and devised new ways to supplement their incomes.
Like the Great Depression, World War II touched every town in America - including East St. Louis. 'Me wartime economy was good to East St. Louis as government contracts were let and plants that had been dormant sprang to life once more. Soldiers stationed at nearby Scott Air Force Base flocked to the night spots that the city had to offer. Students at Parks Air College, one of the largest facilities of its kind in the country, also added to the lively mix. Production facilities worked around the clock, and many factories were experiencing record-breaking production.
Wartime rationing hit the scene and East St. Louisans did their fair share by learning to cope with sugar, rubber, gasoline, silk stockings and other items being rationed. Many hometown men and women changed the way lives were lived. Men went off to war and women stepped forward to fill the breach in the job market. "Rosie the Riveter" was alive and well in East St. Louis. Some women coordinated various efforts on the home front, but everyone - male and female - did part of the work. These were difficult times, yet somehow working men and women managed to maintain pride in work and family.
The advent of World War II had given the city a reprieve, times were good, business thrived, and the city once more had a job for anyone who wanted to work. Production had won the war and East St. Louis played no small role in providing Allied governments with the tools and weapons that were needed to finish the job against the Axis powers.
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