The Great Depression struck Utah harshly, and long. Utah was one of the hardest hit states in the union.
By almost any measurement, Utah was hurting. In 1933, the state’s unemployment rate was a staggering 35.8 percent, fourth highest in the nation. Wages plummeted by 45 percent for those who had not lost their jobs. Almost a third of the population in 1933 received at least some food, clothing, shelter, or other necessities from government funds. Thirty two percent of the banks failed. The bedrocks of the state’s economy were farming and mining: farm income plunged from $69 million to $29 million by 1932 ($908 million to $381 million in 2002 dollars). Minerals plunged from $115 million to $23 million ($1.5 billion to $302.6 million in 2002 dollars).
Virtually every segment of the state was consumed by the challenge. Like many other organizations, the Chamber of Commerce and Commercial Club found itself sailing in uncharted waters, improvising and using its ingenuity and influence in unprecedented ways.
Utah did not have a tradition of strong, positive government, and officials were unprepared to assume new responsibilities. They turned often to the private sector to provide help, with the burden falling primarily on private charities and county governments. Gus Backman, only recently appointed executive secretary of the Chamber, found out quickly what its role would be.
The Chamber began coordinating the relief efforts by governments and various churches. “We got into the welfare game, and boy, what a time that was,” he recalled years later. “Due to the fact that things were so miserable, the group of wonderful men associated with the Chamber decided that the Chamber should assume the responsibility of trying to find ways and means of helping the poor people of the community to get something to do or something to eat.”
One unusual proposal came from the Chamber. “We would ask everybody who had full employment to contribute two percent of their salary each month, or each week, whenever they were paid, to a central pot for the purpose of assisting the people who were completely out of money and in many instances completely out of food. It was remarkable the response we received.” The Chamber used the money to fund work to complete a number of projects, including work on Memory Grove, part of the wall around the city cemetery, and other projects.
It soon became apparent that the resources of the community and of the Chamber would not be enough. A special sub-committee told the Board of Governors in January 1931 that the city and county governments should take full responsibility for the unemployment situation and that they should set up a central organization to supervise it. Two days later the Chamber officers appeared before the commissioners (who had actually been at the Board of Governors meeting) and told them that the burden was growing beyond control in the community. President Harold Fabian said, “The usual sources of voluntary contributions (have) become exhausted. It is now realized that the community has a sore spot that is not being cured, and the first mistake was when the problem was put up to a civic committee instead of to the city and county commissions.”
The Chamber also told the commission that “the business men and the big taxpayers will not oppose a special tax levy to meet the situation.”
The Chamber found itself involved in helping the unemployed in many different ways.
The federal government loaned the states money to help. Governor George Dern called together a committee of people that included banker Marriner Eccles and Gus Backman. “From that point on, the state committee assumed the responsibility of state administration,” said Backman.
“They asked the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce if they wouldn’t assume the responsibility of taking care of conditions in Salt Lake County as a whole, which we immediately agreed to do. We did it for two reasons: one was that we felt it was our responsibility, and the other was we didn’t have any money coming in ourselves,” he said. He figured the office workers “would be better off with a half or a third of their salary working for a welfare setup as they would be to be out of a job completely. Thus the welfare setup for the Salt Lake County again was started in the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce office.”
That in turn put the Chamber in the middle of a volatile situation. There were marches on the Chamber “almost constantly by groups that were demanding food, demanding clothes, demanding more money, demanding everything.
It finally got to a point where they really became vicious in a lot of their attacksÉat one point they even went in and beat up some of the social workers,” Backman recalled. His response was right to the point. He asked for and got permission to use veterans (he called them American Legion boys) who were out of work to try to keep the peace. “They had them all sworn in as deputy sheriffs or special police officers, and every time anyone was beaten up for some unknown reason, they (the perpetrators) were immediately contacted and they too suffered.” There were complaints, “but nevertheless, we had things quieted down to a considerable extent.”
The operation finally became so large that it moved from the Chamber into a garage on Fourth South, he said.
The Chamber found itself involved in a number of similarly colorful projects. In October 1931, a thousand Boy Scouts were out collecting clothing and canned and bottled fruit throughout the city to give to the unemployed.
Just before Thanksgiving of 1931, the Chamber sponsored a massive benefit performance to raise funds for unemployed. The Capitol, Gem, Paramount, Rialto, RKO-Orpheum, Victory, State, Star, and Empire theaters gave all their proceeds to the relief fund, including the films and services of the operators. Members of the musicians’ union and local amateur and professional artists donated their services to augment the program and provide a street parade. They were needed. At least fifteen thousand tickets were sold, reported the Deseret News, and eight thousand people who came downtown couldn’t get in. “Even the streets were turned into a general carnival entertainment,” the paper said. The effort raised nearly $8,000 (about $95,200 in 2002 dollars).
The Chamber created a Make-work Committee to find jobs. In one effort, women were sent out to canvass all Salt Lake homes, gathering data and urging householders to make their improvements and repairs now in the interest of making work. In 1932, the Make-Work Committee reported that $29,917.40 ($393,650 in 2002 dollars) had been collected and $22,151.07 ($291,461 in 2002 dollars) had been disbursed. More than two hundred men and women were then on various make-work payrolls.
In January, 1931 Backman announced that some thirty thousand pounds of fish would be seined from Utah Lake and distributed to needy families during the first of February. The Utah Lake fish, it was said, “are in a better condition at this time of the year than at any other.” The fish were to be frozen before distribution.
A month later, Julian Bamberger moved that each board member subscribe $5 (or $59.50 in today’s dollars) a month for March, April, and May to the Milk Fund for school children, to be charged to each member’s account. This was approved.
All of this ingenuity, of course, could not match the overwhelming needs. The Federal government finally stepped in with a large array of public works programs and the Chamber found itself lobbying for many of them. Because the Depression had attacked Utah so hard, the government’s New Deal programs in Utah were extensive, noted a historian. Per capita federal spending
in Utah during the 1930s was ninth among the states, and for every dollar that Utah sent to Washington, seven dollars came back.
A controversial program in which the Chamber became involved was the National Recovery Act (NRA), which set up codes for fair competition and set specific standards for prices, wages, and hours worked. At first it was very popular, but in the end it pleased no one. In the beginning, Utahns cooperated in the NRA’s pledge to buy only from firms exhibiting the NRA’s Blue Eagle insignia. By August 1, 1933, about seven hundred Utah firms had accepted the NRA codes, and by August 5 the state’s supply of the NRA Blue Eagle emblems was exhausted, said historian Wayne Hinton. The legislature passed a two percent sales tax to help fund it.
Gus Backman recalled his involvement. “When General Hugh Johnson took on the Blue Eagle and was going to make everybody have exactly the same price for everything, that job, in turn, was assigned to the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, and I became the administrator of the Blue Eagle,” he said. “And, brother, I had a lot of blue days over that.
“I’ll never forget the night we attempted to get the barbers in Salt Lake City to all agree on a 50-cent price for a haircut. Some of them were charging 75 cents, and some of them were charging as little as 25 cents, but we
had quite a controversy and arrived at no conclusions whatever. But after the meeting was over, believe me, there were some protests spread all over the front of the Chamber of Commerce building because they went out and bought a couple of cases of eggs and threw them all over the Chamber of Commerce.”
Eventually the U.S. Supreme Court said the NRA was unconstitutional.
Historian Hinton pointed out the irony of the Chamber’s involvement in getting federal dollars for recovery, while at the time advocating a balanced budget. Gus Backman went to Washington often to lobby for federal approval of Utah projects. And when a program was threatened, the business community fought for it. In the context of the times, however, there was little else to do.
Thus Utah would benefit from the federal programs. They helped set up a school lunch program, adult education, and summer recreations programs. Civic improvements like streets and sewers were installed, and more than 250 public buildings were constructed (some of which the Chamber helped bring to
Salt Lake City). The Works Progress Administration (WPA) alone employed an average of twelve thousand people in the state annually, said one historian, creating thousands of works of art, preserving history, helping writers, and even creating the beginnings of the Utah Symphony.
As the long, hard decade ground on, the Chamber would find itself involved in many of these projects. For example, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to cut back the programs in 1937, Utahns were worried that two Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps would be closed. “A lobbying effort led by the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce succeeded in retaining these camps. The resulting addition of $50 million to the CCC for the fiscal year won wide praise and ready acceptance among Utahns,” wrote historian Wayne Hinton.
All of these programs helped to ease the problems of unemployment, but the Depression itself was not cured. That would only happen when World War II engulfed the country. The war would change the face of Utah, bringing in new businesses and new people. The Chamber had a big role to play there, too. But years later it could look back on the Depression years and know that it had done more than its share to ease the suffering.
Sources: Gus Backman typescript, 1 July 1970, Salt Lake Chamber papers, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah. Wayne K. Hinton, “The Economics of Ambivalence: Utah’s Depression Experience” Utah Historical Quarterly 54 (1986) 271. Thomas G. Alexander and James B. Allen, Mormons & Gentiles, (Boulder, Colorado: Pruett Publishing Co., 1984). Linda Sillitoe, A History of Salt Lake County (Salt Lake City, Utah: Utah State Historical Society and Salt Lake County Commission, 1996). John S. McCormick “The Great Depression” in Utah History Encyclopedia (Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press: 1999), 136-138. Richard D. Poll, ed., Utah’s History (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1989). Deseret News. 24, 26 January 1931; 30 October 1931; 24, 26, 28 November 1931. Board of Governors minutes, 24 January 1931, Salt Lake Chamber papers, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah.