In 1930 Johnstown was a city of 70,000
'It was a privilege to be poor 'survivor' says
By MATTHEW EPSTEIN
Want to know about life back in the “good old days” in 1930, when Johnstown and the remainder of the nation teetered on the brink of the Great Depression?
First double the number of people living in your house.
Imagine getting two pounds of butter for 88 cents, and a meal at Glosser Bros. Store for a quarter, or renting a car for a dime.
Forget your high school education, most people hadn't gotten all the way through school - and didn't need to.
Our outgrowth of the hard times was the Bonus Expeditioary Forces, better known as the Bonus Army. If was made up of World War I veterans from across the nation who were upset at the federal government's refusal to pay bonuses to vetereans in their time of need. After being summarily forced from the nation's capital in 1932, they landed in Johnstown on the inviation of then Mayor Eddie McCloskey. The encampment quickly wore out its welcome.
PHOTO COURTESY OF PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE
The dozens of readers who sent their recollections of the 1930s to The Tribune- Democrat remember a lot of hard times
- hoboes begging for scraps along the railroads, waiting lines for bread and milk
- but not a lot of resentment.
“It was a privilege to be poor,” one wrote. In April 1930, as census takers fanned out across the region, Johnstown was a tightly packed, hardworking city of nearly 70,000. Somerset and Bedford counties were close to their current sizes, but much more dependent on manual labor in the mines and on the farms.
While the worst of the Depression was still to come, few had enough money to always be comfortable.
“Parents had a very hard time stretching their income to clothe and feed their families even before the Depression,” Ann Frick wrote of her childhood days in Coopersdale. Census records for 1930 that were released this year tell the details of her life that spring, and those of her parents, William and Ella Goodman.
Recorded as Anna, the 12year-old youngest daughter and her 16-year-old sister were in school. Their.20-year-old brother Clifford was a laborer in the “car shop,” presumably one of the nearby mills.
The Goodmans owned their $4,500 home, and all five Pennsylvania natives could read and write. They also had the relative luxury of a radio at their home at 196 Cooper Ave. -
It took census enumerator Rugie Young 11 days to count the 1,540 residents in Coopersdale, interviewing the head of every household and recording answers longhand on 16 sheets of paper.
In 2000, 921 people lived in the neighborhood. They're still not well off. Statistics show that in Cambria, Somerset and Bedford counties, the average household makes about $10,000. less than the state average. Since most of the letters sent to The Tribune-Democrat are from those who were children in 1930, the view of the city is colored by the considerations of a child.
“I never knew we were poor,” wrote Grace D. Lewis of Johnstown.
Memories of work tend to be first jobs, or of parents getting laid off from the mills Bethlehem Steel stands out since it was so big, but at the time it was one of many employers.
“They had a whole lot of industries, there was a rich mix,” said Randy Whittle, who is writing a history of the city
While the vacant home at 973 Franklin St. below Johnstown's Good Samaritan Medical Center was a rare sight in 1930, today it is far more common.
Within the city's boundaries, 66,993 people lived in space that now holds only 23,000. Population had tripled since the 1889 flood, but the valley walls weren't moving.
“The city had a housing crisis - in the sense that there were far more people than there were houses to put people in,” Whit. tle said. “This carried back from the 1910s.”
To get a sense of the cramped quarters, think about the fact that Johnstown and the suburbs that touch the city now contain about the same size population as those who once lived within the city
A study at the end of the Depression, in 1941, by the city and the federal government found that 27 percent of homes were substandard - needing major repairs, lacking a proper toilet or bath, or with more than 1.5 people per room packed in.
The countryside was mostly that. Westmont had 2,409 residents, half its current total. Somerset County had almost the same 80,000 it had in the 2000 census, while Bedford County had 37,000.
Suburbs such as Richland Township were trees and farmland.
Good times weren't going to last. Unemployment was headed for 30 percent, Whittle said in a telephone interview.
“It was terrible around here, particularly in the early Depression period,” he said. “Home-building went almost to zero.”
All that was before the 1936 flood, which understandably stands out in the memories of those who lived through it.
While most noted a sense of community, feeding hoboes at the back door, helping neighbors however one could, not everybody was included.
One writer remembered cross burnings on the hills above the city, and the Ku Klux Klan is known to have been active against a variety of minority groups around Johnstown in the early part of the century
For part of 1930, the mayor was Joseph Cauffiel, who seven years before had tried to rid the city of blacks and Mexicans.
It wasn't until the state stepped in that Cauffiel's orders exiling minority residents of less than seven years, and barring those left behind from most public gatherings, were rescinded.
The 1941 federal study of housing found that most nonwhites lived clustered in a few small neighborhoods around the city in de facto segregation.
Researching your family tree
By MATTHEW EPSTEIN
Digging into your family's roots doesn't have to be a major research project
Records of the 1930 census are easy to use if you start with the right information, which will soon be available in Johnstown and Everett.
"Anybody who's interested in genealogical research will definitely use the 1930 census, at least to look at it, because they could probably get questions answered that they can't any other way” Connie Martin. president of Windber-Johnstown Area Genealogical Society said in a telephone interview
The key is knowing where to start.
Find a library
Fortunately, the main Cambria County Library in Johnstown expects to get 1930 census records on microfilm this summer, as does Everett Free Library
Both libraries, as well as two in Somerset, have 1920 and older records available for use.
But to look up information from other states, you'll probably have to travel to National Archives sites in Philadelphia or Washington.
There are vague plans to put the records on the Internet, but with 122 million handwritten lines to contend with, don't expect to see it anytime soon.
Have as much information as possible.
Unless you're looking in a few southern states, there is no index by name because of the size of the records, so you need to know at least the name of the municipality where your family lived on April 1, 1930.
Even then, there's a big difference between looking for family in Shanksville, with 247 residents that year and looking in Philadelphia, or even Johnstown.
The records are organized by street address, then by section of the city, so knowing that a relative lived on, say Central Avenue in Johnstown's 8th Ward, makes for an easier search.
Know what you'll get.
The 1930 records are a snapshot, not a complete history They tell what each person in a household did for a living, where they were from and the wealth of the family.
If you can, going back to other sources, such as the 1920 records, will give you a picture over time. An advantage is that older census records, having fewer people to count, are name-indexed.
National Archives sites in Philadelphia and Washington also have immigration entry lists by ship and a variety of other records available for free use.
For the more serious researcher, there's always county records on births, deaths, property transactions and the like to continue your research.
Another place to look for information is at county historical societies in Ebensburg, Somerset and Bedford.
ABOUT THE CENSUS
Here are some facts about census records:
The Census Bureau is required to keep individual census records secret for 72 years, so records for 1930 were not available until this April.
The records for 1930 are handwritten, from interviews conducted by census enumerators. Each one lists all the members of a family, their occupations, origins, whether they can read or write, and where they live, among other things.
By comparison, the 2000 census was much more detailed, especially for the one-in-six households that filled out the long form.
Also different was the fact that most people filled it out themselves, although census enurnera tors still make visits to homes where there has been no response.
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