"Merced County Case Study of Economic Woes" published in last week's San Francisco Chronicle tells of the fiscal crisis, foreclosure, poverty, high unemployment rate and lower education level that plague the county, but it shed little light on the hopeful signs.
Great, Merced County was written about in big city newspaper -- with another depressing story.
We, Merced County residents, need jobs, solutions and encouragement, not another elegy and not pity. The Merced County generation that went through the Great Depression bounced back with endurance and optimism.
The late Bill Kirby once recalled that era in his oral history, "Franklin Delano Roosevelt": "He did a lot of things I didn't agree with. He started socialism in our country, but he did a lot of good things, and the country needed a lot of good things done at the time he came in as president."
Yes, it was a difficult time in Merced during the Great Depression. Business closures headlined the local newspaper and stories of poverty-driven crimes dominated the front page.
California Pottery Co. closed its Merced plant and Crocker-Huffman Meat Packing Plant shut its doors in the 1930s. They were two of the five major industries in Merced County, the other three being Golden State Milk Products Co., Yosemite Portland Cement Plant and the Yosemite Valley Railroad.
These five companies generated $17.5 million in revenue, as reported by the Merced Sun-Star on May 15, 1930.
Economic depression had not destroyed the spirit of Merced County residents, as private and public construction projects continued to bring hope and encouragement for a brighter future.
On March 19, 1930, Our Lady of Mercy Catholic School, on 26th Street between M and Canal Streets, was dedicated. The construction cost mounted to $30,000, and the school provided room for 160 students. Even during such difficult times, the Merced parish in one year was able to raise enough money to help pay for construction.
Then there was the construction of the California Cafe and Coffee Shop on Main Street in 1930. This $28,000 project was accomplished by the following local contractors: Liner & Allen (Contractors-Builders), Zierenberg & Son (painting and decorating), E. A. Hilton (plaster and stucco contractor), J. M. Brown (brick contractor), Merced Planing Mill, and Sanitary Plumbing Co.
Merced Theatre, built by the Golden State Theatre & Realty Corp., opened its door on Oct. 31, 1931. It was constructed in nine months at a cost of $380,000 and provided 1,645 seats with air conditioning.
Another structure that exemplifies the political and economic spirit of the Great Depression was the U.S. Post Office at 415 W. 18th Street (also known as the Federal Building or Bell Station) in 1932. A Los Angeles-based company called Allison & Allison designed it. Funded by the Works Progress Administration, the North Miller Co. built the Federal Building.
The Treasury Department's section of Fine Arts-funded artists Helen Forbes and Dorothy Puchenelli painted the murals inside the building.
Other WPA projects in Merced included Applegate Park, Merced Municipal Airport, John Muir Elementary School, the Public Welfare Building and Lake Yosemite.
Aside from construction, other great things that happened in Merced County during the Great Depression include oil exploration in El Nido in 1934, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt's visit to Merced in 1934, the Merced High School football team's first Valley Championship in 1934, and the expansion of Highway 99 in the mid-1930s.
Many old-timers also remember that the first radio station, KYOS, started broadcasting from the Hotel Tioga in 1936. The first air mail delivery in Merced happened in 1938, and Le Grand native Ruth Kahl set the world's underwater swimming record that same year.
Merced City celebrated its Golden Jubilee in 1939.
For more information about the history of Merced County, please visit the Courthouse Museum. Currently on display is "Merced College: 50 Years of Educational Excellence."
Sarah Lim writes the Museum Notes column.