With many people currently out of work, some economists are comparing current unemployment levels with that of the Great Depression years. So far, however, the social safety net has held, and suffering is not yet at 1930s levels. Historian Gary Entz has the story of Rhinelander’s Hoovervilles.
Prior to the Great Depression most major metropolitan areas maintained some form of municipal lodging house to provide shelter for the indigent. However, skyrocketing unemployment of the early 1930s overwhelmed the ability of most communities to provide aid. Many people looked to the federal government to provide relief, but the administration of Herbert Hoover remained unresponsive to the needs of individual workers. With no help coming, people who had lost their jobs and their homes were forced to seek shelter in shantytowns that came to be known as Hoovervilles.
While Hoovervilles were ramshackle places, they were not the same as a rail-side camp for beggars or the indolent. An observer visiting a Hooverville in 1933 remarked: “Effort is made in virtually all the villages to preserve the decency of life, to maintain the spirit of self-respect that surrounds a home or the lowly semblance of one.”
Itinerant workers, often called Hoboes in the early twentieth century, were an important part of American life and provided seasonal labor in many areas. In the Northwoods, it was just this sort of worker who often toiled in the logging camps during the winters, and many moved into Hoovervilles along with locals who had lost their jobs and homes.
In Rhinelander’s three Hoovervilles, former lumberjacks and out-of-work laborers were the sort of people who often wound up in them. As the local press reported at the time, “Some of these men are” out of work and “on the bum for the first time” in their lives. “Many are old lumberjacks who” used to be able to find work in this vicinity. Others, the reporter disdainfully remarked, were “chronic tramps who hadn’t worked in years.”
People took work wherever they could get it, but it was never enough. For example, an unemployed local saw a work crew on Stevens Street. He was so desperate that he offered to work the entire day for a single dollar. The foreman readily agreed, but the man soon collapsed from weakness. He had not eaten in days because he had given what little he had to his wife and children. The sympathetic foreman bought the man lunch so he could finish the day.
Stories like this were common, and at first residents were sympathetic to the plight of those living in the Hoovervilles. But there was enough begging and panhandling going on that many people started to become inured to the homeless. As the election of 1932 grew near, indifference grew to open hostility, particularly on the part of those who continued to support the administration of Herbert Hoover.
In September, the Thayer Street Fire Department was called out to “Hoover Camp No. 3” near the old Stevens Mill site along the Wisconsin River. The Hooverville was destroyed but deemed not a loss as it had no monetary value. The fire likely started from an overheated stove, but speculation was also that it may have been Hoover supporters angered at the symbolism of the camp.
Whatever the case, Hoovervilles remained part of life until World War II.