6. The Depression Decade – 1930-1939


By Lynn McBee © April 16, 2008

The Depression Decade – 1930-1939


Following the prosperity of the 1920’s – WW II and influenza pandemic over, building boom and port expansion in Houston, the age of alcohol prohibition, the flappers, women’s suffrage — in October 1929 the stock market crashed and a different reality set in. Bellaire, newly incorporated as a general law city, still reflected life in the country compared to urban Houston.

Bank Holiday

During President Hoover’s lame duck last two months in office as newly elected Franklin D. Roosevelt was waiting to take office in March 1933, there began a “run on the bank” (when everyone wants all their money withdrawn at one time). Many banks closed their doors for good, with 5-15 million dollars a day of gold withdrawals being bled from the U.S. banks. With the beginning of the ”Bank Holiday” Houston stores offered their own checks as “change.” The streetcar company opened a credit department and theaters accepted IOUs. When President Roosevelt took office, he closed the banks for four days by declaring a national bank holiday and delivered his first fireside chat to calm the nation.


By 1933 state legislation was passed prohibiting “Caucasians and Africans” from boxing and wrestling against each other. Outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were slain in Louisiana by Dallas County sheriffs and Texas Rangers. From 1935 to 1939, the State was governed by James V. Allred (later in 1942 a resident of Bellaire). The state celebrated its centennial in 1936 by constructing the San Jacinto Monument and museum in Houston and President Roosevelt received a tumultuous reception when he delivered an address at the San Jacinto Battlefield later that year.


During 1930 the Houston Port was ranked third nationally in foreign exports, Houston Mayor Monteith formed a committee to study unemployment problems while Lyndon Baines Johnson taught school in Houston for two years. That year a National Elimination Balloon (hot air) race was held in Houston on July 4th.. The first Texas Prison Rodeo took place at Huntsville Penitentiary in 1931 and the Houston Symphony made its debut. The University of Houston was founded in 1927 as a junior college, attained senior university status in 1934.

Houston Mayor Oscar F. Holcombe was in office for 22 years, in 11 non-consecutive terms (1921-1958).   In 1934 alone, a loan of $1,119,000 from the federal Public Works Administration (PWA) was approved to build a new Houston City Hall, $250,000 was allotted for county road work, and $403,000 for sewers. Work was started on the $184,000 Memorial Park improvements, a golf course, club house, picnic grounds, and play grounds.

Houstonian Jesse H. Jones was Chairman of the federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) from 1933-1939. By mid-year 1935 Depression relief amounted to $400,000 from local agencies, $1,215,000 from state agencies and $6,648,000 from the federal government. By the first half of 1937, Houston moved to eighth in the nation in new building, with completed construction valued at $11,844,385. Other public buildings completed during the last half of the decade were Jefferson Davis charity hospital for blacks, the $1,000,000 Sam Houston Coliseum, and the University of Houston moved to its new campus, on 110 acres donated by Ben Taub and Julius Settegast

In December 1935 heavy rains sent Buffalo Bayou over its banks, causing possibly the worst flood on record with 36 feet of water higher than normal.

Bellaire Government

Meetings of the early Councils were initially held at the Pavilion, as were elections every two years of Bellaire mayors and Commissioners.   Following C.P. Younts’ second term (elected by 13 votes) ending in 1921, C. R. Munger came in 1921 (22 votes) followed by H. Worth Jones in 1923, Robert F. Farmer in 1925, J.H. Bohmfalk in 1927, Robert F. Farmer again in 1928, J.H. Bohmfalk from 1930-1935 (31 and 33 votes) and Frank Henshaw during 1935-1937.

During Mayor Bohmfalk’s second term, 1933-1935, the Council authorized registration with the RFC Social Service Bureau for men to be transported to and from Bellaire by truck (hired from Teas Nursery at $2.50 a day). The men were underfed without a noonday lunch so authority was given to purchase coffee, bread, etc. at a maximum of $4 a day for the entire crew. They worked at drainage ditches on Rice, Avenues C and A. In 1934 Marshal W. C. Minson resigned but a successor was not appointed until the City’s financial condition improved.

Political Platform

A 1935 political flyer under the banner of the “Progressive Party” announced the candidacy of F.S. Henshaw for Mayor and G.E. Holtmeyer and Gaston Miles for councilmen. Its platform addressed:

City Government – decisions (arrived at in open session, open discussion, meetings held at a fixed time and public place. (Clearly a predecessor to later government sunshine laws.)

Taxation -fair, equal and just, reduced rate.

City Finances – audit reports and fire-proof vault to secure public records, open for inspection.

Utilities – waterworks, electric and telephone rates reduced, and transportation, adequate bus schedule and a 10 cent fare.

Public Health – addressed compulsory installation of septic tanks and elimination of open privies, more frequent City collection of garbage, maintenance of ditches.

Public Safety – spoke to fire protection, fire plugs and police protection night and day. A building Code             was called for to require permits for all new construction “exceeding $20.” And plans for new structures “submitted to council to avoid construction of undesirable premises.”

Streets and Bridges – were to require ”constant attention.”

Employment of Citizens of Bellaire – for all public work performed by the City.

Then, times became even harder and turnover of elected officials increased with resignations. Mayor Frank S. Henshaw was elected in 1935-37. R.E. Turrentine replaced the resigned Commissioner Holtmeyer in 1936. Abe Zindler was appointed to fill the unexpired term of Commissioner Gaston Miles in 1936; he was subsequently elected Mayor for two terms, 1937-1943, and again from 1945-1947. In 1939 Bellaire’s first zoning ordinance was enacted to control land use and locations of streets.

            Annexation.   As a general law city, Bellaire was empowered by the State to annex adjacent land by ordinance only if a majority of the registered voters who resided in the area signed a petition seeking admission. But each annexed section could not exceed one half square mile in area. Bellaire Town Council conducted business by investigating extending its city limits to square the town boundary lines to include a few nearby residents who wanted to come into the townsite.

In “A Short History of Southdale” an article by Jeff Dunn (Bellaire Historical Perspective, a publication of the Bellaire Historical Society, October, 1992), the history of this area was detailed and is summarized below.

“In 1925 Jim West expanded his home building finance company and, taking advantage of a newly laid natural gas line located along the SP railroad tracks, West platted the tract into streets and residential lots, calling it ‘Southdale,’ a variation on names used for subdivisions located elsewhere in Houston’s ‘south end,’ including Southside Place and Southampton.”

A petition was authorized by the Council in 1935 for circulation in Southdale, the area located in the extreme southeast part of Bellaire. By July 1, 1936 a petition was submitted by 21 persons, certified, and an ordinance adopted annexing Southdale, effective from that date. However, on July 15th, another petition (signed by 21 persons) was presented by a delegation from Southdale protesting the annexation.   The Town minutes reflect controversy and resulted in canceling the earlier annexation on August 5th by either repeal or annulment.

Later still, on April 7, 1937, a new ordinance annexing “the territory north of Holt Street in Southdale.”  Jeff Dunn’s entitled the story, “Southdale annexed, deannexed, and reannexed, 1936-1937.” (In the 1990s, Southdale was estimated by Dunn to have about 525 residential lots, each about 50’x100’. The recorded plat of 1973 shows about 240 lots from Newcastle east to the railroad and from Bellaire Blvd. south to Lula. The Harris County Tax Office shows the Southdale subdivision to be 143 acres (vol. 44, pg. 86, Blks 1-11). The area was later more fully developed after WWII.

            Firefighting. Other early Town Council business ranged from street names to be placed on street corners and tile lettering set in concrete curbs, where they existed. Fire and Police badges were obtained for the City Marshal and Fire Chief. Building code data was to be obtained from similar sized towns. And a water committee report recommended action to purchase the water distribution plant owned by C.L. Anderson.

Fire Equipment. Reported in Bellaire’s Own Historical Cookbook, following the formation of the Bellaire Community Club in 1929 which urged Council to buy a fire truck and form a volunteer fire department, Council addressed fire protection in 1932. It created the Office of Fire Marshal, with C.L. Anderson appointed to fill it, and a Fire Prevention Board, with Mrs. Leon Rosner, Clarence Anderson and Lute Anderson appointed to it. Next came discussion of a fire truck. A second hand automobile, a Pierce Arrow Model 81 touring car, was purchased for $85 with plans to equip it with a chassis at a cost of up to $600, including the automobile. C.L. Anderson and the Fire Chief were charged to have the work done in 1932. During its renovation it was parked at Lute Anderson’s garage at the corner of Bissonnet and Rice Ave.

The car was converted to a fire truck. It was equipped with one-inch rubber hose and two soda acid chemical tanks and went into operation in 1933. A 500-gallon trailer was constructed for $75 and was towed to a fire. It carried one and a half inch hose. The trailer was filled by drafting from the ditches or other water source. The fire siren was located above Reamer’s automobile service station at 203 North Rice. When a fire was reported by telephone to the home of Leon Rosner, across from the service station, Rosner would press a button in his home to set off the siren.   

            Fire Department. A volunteer fire department was organized in 1935 with 18 men. Gaston Miles was named fire chief. A lean-to was added to the Pavilion to house the fire truck. Most of the volunteers were local businessmen or employed in Bellaire. Since there were no fire hydrants, large fires might not be extinguished if the firefighters ran out of water.

Fire Fighting Operations. In 1936 the City purchased the water plant from Clarence Anderson for $7,500. Land was purchased at Rice and Jessamine (still the site of the current Fire Station) to relocate the water works. The new water plant and water tower cost $90,000.   The fire siren was relocated on top of the water tower. Additional land was purchased for a fire station beside the water plant and built in 1937. By 1938 a bona fide fire truck was purchased and the city was designated as a fire district. Lack Lawler was fire marshal at the time.

            Recreation Activities. The Pavilion, at the center of the Town Esplanade/Park, was furnished in 1932-1933 with seats, benches and wiring for the free moving pictures shown there, as was then done in the Houston public parks. The Bellaire School (now Condit Elementary School) PTA was given concession rights for the free movies and plans were made to create a Recreation Department. In 1932 Mrs. H.H. Bradley was employed for four months as Supervisor of the Recreation Department at $25/month for two days per week work. She was authorized to purchase playground equipment but to preserve the area’s trees and shrubs. A public drinking fountain was ordered by the Town Council, the piano was tuned, insurance for the building and equipment secured and a public drinking fountain authorized by 1933. Also in 1933 the Recreation Committee (Menefee and Anderson) were charged to look into the “class of moving pictures” sponsored by the City and shown at the Pavilion. Sunshade and toilets were installed near the tennis court (location assumed to be on the Esplanade).


Breakout Box – World Events


Life Expectancy: Male, 58.1; Female, 61.6. Average Salary: $1,368. Food Prices: Milk, 14 cents/quart, Bread, 9 cents/loaf; Lynchings: 21.

Rise to power of Adolf Hitler and Nazism in Germany; Continental Europe moves to Authoritarianism or Totalitarianism; Japan invades China; Spanish Civil War; Italy invades Ethiopia; Nazi Germany invades Poland, beginning of WW II.

1930-1936 – “Dust Bowl” – dust storms with visibility reduced to a few feet caused by severe drought coupled with decades of farming without crop rotation or other techniques to prevent erosion occurred throughout the Midwest and southern Great Plains, more than 75 % of the country in 27 states.

1930s Literature: Aldous Huxley, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos, Thornton Wilder, Erskine Caldwell, Carl Sandburg, Odgen Nash, Dale Carnegie; Newspaper comic strips and comic books.

1930s Music: Big Bands and Swing: Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey; Songwriters and Composers: George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Richard Rodgers.

1930s Radio: Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Amos and Andy, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Shadow, Jack Armstrong, “Fireside Chats”, War of the Worlds.

1930s Theater and Film: Marc Connelly, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, Lillian Hellman, Maxwell Anderson, Robert Sherwood, Clifford Odets, Eugene O’Neill Hollywood’s Golden Age –Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, Errol Flynn, W.C. Fields, Bob Hope, the Marx Brothers, Shirley Temple, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, “Gone With the Wind” (1939), “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937)

1931-Dick and Jane books-student reading primers, one new word per page; Empire State Building

1932-Winter Olympics, Lake Placid, NY.

1933-FDR is inaugurated President and the New Deal was born to handle the Great Depression. Many “alphabet soup” federal agencies, such as the Public Works Administration (over 34,000 construction projects) and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation $2 billion in aid to sate and local governments, loans to banks, railroads, farm mortgage associations and other businesses) were created to relieve unemployment and displacement; Prohibition ends in the U.S.

1933 Prohibition is repealed; Albert Einstein emigrates to U.S. and Princeton University

1935 Social Security Act-income for the elderly; The Wagner Act-workers’ legal right to unionize.

1935-Monopoly game introduced; Huey Long assassinated.

1936 Civil War begins in Spain; King Edward VII abdicates the British monarchy.

1937-German airship Hindenburg explodes before landing in Lakehurst, NJ.

1938-Hitler annexes Austria; Night of Broken Glass (Kristalinacht); German-Soviet Non-

Aggression Pact Signed.

1939-World War II begins; New York’s World Fair.


© Lynn McBee Feb. 2008

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