1930’s, Great Depression at Starr Commonwealth
To those who adhere to the popular axiom that “whatever is not growing is dying,” the middle years of the Commonwealth may seem a fallow period of small interest.Indeed, the central campus did not change markedly for nearly two decades. One must bear in mind, however, that his period included the long, lean years of the 1930’s which are still designated as the Depression, as well as theravages of World War II across the first half of the 1940s. Altogether thy were not propitious times for a charitable institution like the Commonwealth.
Yet they began so well. Buoyed by the euphoria of Hoover prosperity, Starr and the Board of Trustees announced a bold expansionprogram in 1929 and the future looked promising. To his last days Starr remembered the first complication.”Wiley Reynolds and I were scheduled to go to NewYork and call upon some of his well-to-do-friends,” he recalled. “Maybe a bit early, I think, I went to Jackson to keep my appointment. When I entered his office, Wiley looked up at me and said, ‘Floyd, what are you here for?’ ‘To keep my appointment with you,’ I replied. ‘didn’t you hear about the stock market crash on Wall Streetyesterday?’ Well, I hadn’t. I’d been too busy getting ready for our trip. ‘Floyd,’ said Wiley, ‘men arejumping out of tenth story buildings and off the bridges. This is no time for us to solicit funds.’ So, that ended that.”
Actually it did nothing of the kind. disregarding counsel from every side, Starr and his indefatigable field secretariesdoubled, then redoubled their efforts to launch the building fund campaign, even as they labored to keep the institution afloat amid declining revenue. Only too soon, however, the economic structure of “hard times” were going to affect every aspect of operating the school. As a local reporter noted, “In these days of financial stress, one can well imagine the worry and responsibility that Floyd Starr and his helpers have in providing food, clothing, shelter, and education for ninety youngsters.” In fact budgetaryfigures attest, the Commonwealth as a whole survived on the barest essentials.In 1933, for instance, one field agent reported that “the yearly budget for the school is from $40,000 to $45,000 and the average cost per boy is about $1 per day.” In a classic understatement she concluded, “This is indeed a modest budget.”
Meeting even minimal expenses in those strenuous years demanded extraordinary sacrifice in every quarter. Over a period of months after President Roosevelt’s bank moratorium, “a majority of the teachers and workers received not a single cent of pay – there was nomoney for their wages; but because of their love for the boys and intense interest in the work, they have continued their work, hoping for bettertimes and feeling they were doing their duty.” To keep food on their tables, many a staff family planted gardens of their own and later lined the shelves with jars of home-grown produce.
The boys outperformed the workers a hundredfold. Across that pre-war decade they planted cartons of seeds donated by the Isbell Seed Company; they assisted the kitchen crew in canning hundreds of quarts of carrots, peas, stringbeans and corn; and they picked bushels of windfalls at nearby peach and apple orchards. Since the Commonwealth was still committed to a vegetarian diet, ample supplies of garden produce, fruit and eggs weredaily essentials. Even at five cents a quart, each boy was allotted only half a glass of milk per meal until well into the ’30s. At long last a presentation in Ann Arbor by field agent Elta Arber brought money to buy the nucleus of the fine herd of Jerseys that Starr boasted of in years to come. Eventually he was able to say “my boys now have all the milk they want to drink.”
Source: Keith Fennimore. FaithMade Visible: The History of Floyd Starr and His School. Albion, Michigan:Starr Commonwealth. 1988.