Relief fund kept community spirit strong in 30s

By Regina Villiers.  Originally published September 13, 1995 in The Suburban Life, added September 17, 2018.

Though not involved in Madeira’s post-Depression relief fund, Bean’s Grocery was one of Madeira’s early grocery stores. In 1922, it stood on the northeast corner of Miami and Laurel, now occupied by the Shell Station. Later, It became Bauer’s Department Store.

Welfare, a word that invades our lives today, trips frequently on our tongues.  We read it in our newspapers.  We see it on our TV news. Whether we’re for or against it, it’s a fact of life.

At one time, in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, Madeira had its own welfare system, except it was referred to as “relief.”  And it was a temporary situation, not a way of life.

The group called itself the Local Relief Committee, and met in churches and each other’s homes.

Former Madeira Mayor Dan McDonald believes the organization started with St. Gertrude Church and spread to other churches and individuals.

Mayor McDonald, who served as Madeira’s mayor longer than anyone else in history, almost two decades, still lives in Madeira and is extremely interested in Madeira’s legacy to history.

Several years ago he received, for safekeeping, all the records of the old relief organization from a Mrs. Margaret Thompson, who had carefully preserved them all theses years.  Here husband had been one of the leaders of the group.

This group kept meticulous records.  Everything is recorded and accounted for, down to a single can of sardines.

The minutes are written in longhand on yellowed, ruled sheets of paper in a very old loose-leaf notebook.  They’re signed by Julia Thompson, secretary, and the dates run from 1935 to the mid-1940s.

Funds for the group came mostly from donations, and this is all recorded too.   In the back of the notebook are lists of staple foods, stored; it’s duly recorded, in the “cupboards of the grade school.”

A yellowed newspaper clipping tells of a fund-raising event for the group.

The event was to be held at St. Gertrude’s on a Saturday night and was billed as a card party and dance, with a floor show, a 15-minuted act of toe, tap and novelty dancing.  Also billed was a Big Apple contest.  Music was to be provided by Al Pfeiffer’s seven-piece orchestra.

Prizes were to be given, of course, and they included two tons of coal, a $20 merchandise order, and baskets of foods.

James Thompson, chairman of the event, was quoted about the purpose of the organization: “To help people in emergencies, furnishing food, coal, and medical care until the situation eased.”

Mayor McDonald thinks the Depression did not hit Madeira full force.  “Everybody in Madeira, at that time,” he said, “grew tons of fruits and vegetables.  They traded and bartered with each other for what they did not have.”

One of the biggest needs was coal for heating.  Natural gas heating did not come to Madeira until much later.

Stacks of receipts were preserved from the businesses involved in the project.  Coal was furnished by Fred Laffey’s Coal, Feed, and Building Materials Co.  and by the George Meyer Co. which is still in Madeira today.

Coal sold for $2 per ton then, though there are instances of its being sold by the bushel.

Medical service was provided by Dr. J.R. Hudson and Braun Pharmacy.  Doctor visits were a standard $2 per visit.  And in October 1938, a prescription was filled at Braun’s for 88cents (85 cents plus three cents tax).  Compare that to your medical bills today.

There were two grocery stores involved in the project. Shawnee Food Market was located where the meat market is today on Laurel Avenue.  Hemsath Grocery was the other.  Hemsath Grocery was the other.  Hemsath’s had been Tice’s grocery at one time.  Later it became Dot and Mack’s, a still remembered landmark.  Today a bank occupies that corner.

In comparing receipts, Hemsath’s may have been better on prices, though at Shawnee in 1938 you could get five pounds of potatoes for 15 cents, five pounds of flour for 28 cents and a box of oatmeal for nine cents.

Coffee ran about 10 cents per pound, though one woman bought only the best, Maxwell House at 30 cents per pound.  In fact, she bought the best down the line. Her tab for one shopping, two pages long, included several kinds of cereals, several soaps, poppy seed bread, many fruits and vegetables, fruit salad, one-package Ralston biscuits and real butter at 43 cents per pound.

But most people bought only the most basic necessities.  One family, on one visit, bought 24 pounds of flour (77 cents), 20 pounds of cornmeal (70 cents), and 10 pounds of sweet potatoes (45 cents).

While these prices seem ridiculously low today, Mayor McDonald points out that it’s all relevant.  Though you could buy five pounds of sugar for 28 cents, there was not as much money.

“Today,” he said, “you have many dollars for every dollar you’d have had back then.”

Though most of the relief fund’s money went for bare necessities, there are a few receipts for tobacco. One tab lists on “Home Run” tobacco at 10 cents.

And there’s one total inconsistency-a bill for subscription to Baseball Magazine for $2.  The bill was paid; maybe there was a tad of welfare fraud even then.  Or maybe baseball was a necessity for someone.

The records stop in the 1940’s.  By then, the economy had improved and there was little need for relief in Madeira.  But for a while it was a true case of people helping people.