PAST TENSE

Gainesville in the 30's

The city weathered the Great Depression better than most, thanks to our agriculture.


Published: Wednesday, June 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, June 5, 2005 at 5:31 p.m.

The Great Depression.

Gainesville's city employees suffered salary cuts of up to two-thirds. The 15 doctors in town were often paid in produce.

University of Florida football coach Dutch Stanley supplemented his income by laying bricks.

But Gainesville held strong during that bleak period. Writers Robert Frost and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the former a regular visitor and the latter a resident of nearby Cross Creek, gave a famed spark to the area. The agriculture industry fed the community, and very few went unemployed.

Gainesville in the 1930s, therefore, did not fail. It sustained.

"The 1920s in Gainesville experienced a lot of expansion, going out and doing a lot of progressive things," says Murray Laurie, a Gainesville historic preservation consultant. "The `30s just maintained what had already been done, and without the federal funds that became available, they probably wouldn't have been able to even continue that."

The university and agriculture industry protected the city from the Depression's horrors.

ORANGE, BLUE AND TUNG

The collapse of the land boom in 1926 began the downward turn in Florida's economy, according to historical accounts from the Matheson Museum. The stock market crash of 1929, therefore, only continued and intensified the economic descent.

Compared to the southern region of the state, however, Gainesville fared well. Florida cities on average managed to collect just 51.2 percent of taxes owed in the early `30s; Gainesville collected 76.8 percent.

The city's population of around 11,000 never suffered rampant unemployment - partly because of the University of Florida, which furnished a monthly payroll for about 1,000 staff and faculty. Fortunately, most of that money would be spent in town.

The university - with enrollment at about 3,000 students - weathered its own financial belt-tightening by increasing class sizes and cutting all salaries up to 50 percent. UF President John J. Tigert saw his annual salary dwindle from $10,000 to $7,000, and until his last year as president in 1947, Tigert's salary never again rose above $8,500.

Despite the hardships, Tigert completed a 22,000-seat football stadium, four student dorms, an infirmary and the campus' first student union. The UF football even got its first press box, created by six brick-layers employed by the Works Progress Administration, the government make-work program.

In 1932, Tigert helped found the Southeastern Conference, for which he would later serve four terms as president. He believed colleges could generate more income and save money by banding together.

The other bulwark of Gainesville's economy was agriculture. Area farmers grew a variety of crops - cabbages, cucumbers, string beans and other perishables. About 1,500 railroad cars filled with these goods shipped out of the area in 1935.

But the mainstay of the industry rested with the tung crops. The first trees were planted in the early `20s, and by 1930, the Alachua Tung Oil Corporation erected an extraction mill just five miles from Gainesville, says Mark Barrow, retired cardiologist and longtime historian at the Matheson Museum.

The oil extracted from the tung nuts was used in the manufacturing of paint, varnish, printing ink, waterproof fabrics and paper, lacquer, enamels and certain medicines. China had previously been the only supplier.

The nuts and the extracted oil became a huge industry by the middle of the decade. In 1936, one local grove exported shipments of 16 tons to Russia, six tons to New Zealand and another six tons to Australia. China, the original home of the trees, even demanded the Gainesville product.

The first Tung Blossom Parade down University Avenue in 1931 celebrated the industry's importance. It featured 50 floats and 13 contestants vying for the title of queen.

The tung crops are no longer harvested in any significant amount around the area because of new technology that doesn't require tung oil in paints, Barrow says.

Livestock also grew into a dominant industry. From October 1935 to May 1936, the Alachua County Livestock Auction Market passed $200,000 worth of livestock through its stockades. It was the only market of its kind in Florida.

In fact, a preliminary survey disclosed that there was more livestock raised within a 100- mile radius of Gainesville than within a similar distance of any other city in the state, according to "A History of Gainesville" by Charles Hildreth.

FEDERAL PROJECTS

The election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 spawned an influx of government aid to Florida's depressed economy, including that of Alachua County.

In December 1933, for instance, the Civil Works Administration provided an Alachua County payroll of $18,874, which paid for 40,000 man-hours of work. The CWA also purchased around $19,609 worth of county supplies.

"In Gainesville there seemed to be a lot of practical projects done," Laurie says. "I guess that is what the city fathers wanted. They decided these were the kind of things that would give them the best product for their community."

CWA funds enhanced O'Leno State Park, paved streets, built schools and expanded the sewer system. The Newberry stone-structured municipal building designed by Gainesville architect Sanford Goin was also paid for using a grant.

Most notable was the construction of the city's airport in 1935 and the completion of the downtown Seagle Building, the city's tallest. Originally designed as the Dixie Hotel, the Seagle Building saw its construction begin in the 1920s, but during the collapse of the land boom, work ceased. For a couple of years, the building's skeleton towered over Gainesville.

Georgia A. Seagle, a Gainesville resident, matched the city's $20,000 in order to purchase the building. The title to the property was given to the Florida Board of Education.

With the help from a grant, the building was completed and named after Miss Seagle's late brother, John F. Seagle.

Because of these benefits, city officials rented out the Gainesville town hall for $200 a month as the regional headquarters for certain federal agencies. As a result, city government offices were located in three stores across the street for a year and a half.

FAME, FIRE & MORE FIRSTS

Along with the Depression, Gainesville witnessed an enrichment of cultural life in the `30s. Poet Robert Frost wintered in the city in 1937-1938, residing for four months at the Thomas Hotel and then living in a nearby apartment with his family.

Three decades later, he would receive an honorary doctorate from UF for his annual poetry lectures and his classroom seminars, which began in the `30s and continued for more than 20 years.

Another literary figure, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, moved to a farmhouse near Cross Creek in 1928. During her time there, she would write "The Yearling," a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and "Cross Creek." Her home remains as she lived in it and is preserved as a state historic site.

The decade also beheld an enormous downtown fire just after midnight on April 24, 1938. It lasted five hours and caused $300,000 in damage, destroying many businesses. Most owners did not have insurance.

About 650,000 gallons of water were needed to extinguish the fire, and the Atlantic Coast Line train was delayed two hours because of hoses crossing the tracks. The decade in which you could buy a new Ford V-8 for $515 brought many other firsts to Gainesville.

UF awarded its first Ph.D. in 1934, admitted its first two football cheerleaders in 1937 and graduated its first female law student, who underwent the same curriculum as her male counterparts, in 1933.

Next issue: Gainesville in the 1940s. Sources: "Florida's Eden" by John B. Pickard, "The History of Gainesville" by Charles Hildreth and Merlin Cox, information from Lisa Auel, director of the Matheson Museum and articles from The Gainesville Sun.

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