Woodbridge, NJ: A Local Experience of the Great Depression (1929-1936)
By Christopher Frolich
Woodbridge, NJ was not immune to the effects of the greatest economic depression in American history. Many suffered extreme scarcity and hardship while others took their lives or committed crimes, even infanticide, just to survive. The local newspaper proclaimed that the Great Depression left the town in “a condition that causes humanity to lose heart and hope.”# Disease and sickness were rampant and many were unable to enjoy basic necessities such as shoes, blankets, clothing, and food. The citizens of Woodbridge did not wilt in the face of this monumental challenge, however. A tight-knit, active, and caring community responded forcefully to the dire effects of the Depression by providing desperately needed relief and social support for the destitute. Meanwhile, the town government attempted to turn the situation to an advantage by hiring the unemployed to improve the physical and business infrastructure of the town. Even with this success, town leaders struggled to cope with the overwhelming unemployment and relief needs within the town and eventually required state and federal aid to alleviate massive debt, high unemployment, and the widespread need for relief. Yet by 1936, the town had largely recovered from the debilitating conditions of the Great Depression. A strong sense of community and shared purpose exemplified by all levels of society was critical in uplifting the town of Woodbridge in the face of a national disaster, and it is this story that we will now explore.
II Daily Life in Woodbridge during the 1930s
Woodbridge in the 1930’s was a town where “everybody knew everybody.” One particular anecdote will illuminate the truth in this statement, referred to as simply the “Hatchet Story.” When Don Aaroe was a child, he and a friend each received small hatchets as a gift for Christmas. They proceeded to go to Woodbridge Speedway, which is where the high school and public library reside today, and began to hack at the wooden beams holding up the stands. A cop soon discovered this innocent yet dangerous game and told them to stand still. After interrogating them for a few minutes he told Don to go home and tell his father what he did, and if not his Dad would hear about it on Friday when they bowled together.# This story relates a common feature of a town where people knew each other on a personal level. Newspaper editions made front page news of tea-party get-togethers and the story of Mrs. Kingsberry entertaining three tables of bridge.# Though a growing suburb, Woodbridge retained a small-town feel that was evident when tough times hit and would prove essential in helping the town out of the Depression.
Local clubs and charities were intrinsically involved in the social life of Woodbridge during the 1930s. Local groups like the Lions Club and Women’s Club of Fords and Woodbridge, the American Legion, Knights of Columbus, Woodbridge Rotary Club, and local church groups and fire companies played a vital role in providing entertainment, aiding business development, building and preserving socially beneficial works, and eventually providing widespread relief. The Woodbridge Lions Club held a Halloween party that proved “youthful spirit still exists in the community” and was called a “great success.#” In May, 1930 the Fords Lions and Women’s Clubs put on the “Fords Frolic,” two days of dancing held outside of a school.# Minstrel shows garnered large crowds with two to three shows a year selling out the five-hundred seat Fords Theater.# Minstrels often included leaders such as the chief of police and town councilmen performing comedy while dressed up in black face; as well as children like Edna Harkey, who was an accordion player, and Ed Kocsik who served the role of the interlocutor, or set-up man. A carnival at St. Cecilia’s was said to be “the largest social event of the summer… with booths of jewelry, candy, groceries, and novelties.#” Of course, not all the inhabitants of Woodbridge supported carnivals because they destroyed local business “for weeks,” and brought to town undesirable “carnies” that hurt reputable businesses.# However, carnivals and other social gatherings were crucial in boosting the townspeople’s morale and provided entertainment in a time when it was sorely needed.
Local clubs also brought a greater sense of community to the town. Groups like the Rotary Club, Lions’ Club, and Knights of Columbus gave speeches on the history of Woodbridge and on the origins of Christmas.# When Japanese beetles infested the gardens so vital to Woodbridge residents during the Depression, the Women’s Club set up a competition that handed out prizes to those who killed the most. By August 18th, 1933, 488,000 beetles had been destroyed!# In April, 1933, local organizations donated the $100 necessary to keep the Barron Library and its fifteen thousand books open for four months so as to not let the “depression [reach] such proportion as to rob youngsters of this pleasure.”# These voluntary efforts to provide socially beneficial works were an important component in creating a peaceful and uplifting community.
Social groups were also the first to recognize the impact of the depression and provide necessary relief. As early as 1930, proceeds for many events and shows in the town were donated directly to charity; for instance, the Knight of Columbus held their first annual charity ball in October, 1930.# The American Legion also held two vaudeville shows that raised $645 for unemployment relief.# Likewise, Woodbridge High School donated proceeds from a football game in December, 1930 that swelled the unemployment relief fund to $2,150.# Perhaps no group did more for the destitute and unemployed than the Women’s Clubs of Woodbridge and Fords. Between April 1, 1929 and March 1, 1930, over 6,160 pounds of milk and 1,045 pounds of ice had been distributed by these groups. Twenty-nine shoes were given out and over “one hundred families received help in the way of food, clothing, and medical care” because of the Women’s clubs efforts. “Quilts were made, jams and jellies collected,” and glasses were provided for a near blind woman and school children.# The Women’s Club are just one exceptional example of a community that responded forcefully and immediately to the dire conditions that they witnessed being caused by the Great Depression, well before the town government publicly recognized the same.#
Throughout the Depression, individuals acted together to help for collect, collate, and administer relief to the poor. Local science teachers supervised three Red Cross chapters in the town that collected 1,700 yards of clothe to make 672 garments.# The Committee to Administer Relief was staffed by 73 members, with 33 being volunteers and most of the rest paid through relief.# Their duty was to interview former employees and friends of families that requested relief in order to make sure they were worthy of it and not receiving duplicate orders.# Private individuals like Mrs. Boyton investigated 43 cases herself and handed out shoes, coal, and food. Likewise, Mr. H. Sherman’s garage served as the storage depot for all relief goods.# Those “better-off” formed a program in which “every family [were] to adopt a family,” providing clothes, food, and other comforts to a needy family.# Meanwhile, doctors gave their time generously and unselfishly, helping the town to have “almost no fatal illnesses.#” The Woodbridge Independent summed it up best by saying it was “the duty of each individual to do his bit,” a message taken serious by the townspeople.# Private individuals acted communally and played a central role in providing care and comfort to their neighbors, often in conjunction with charity organizations and government agencies
However, private organizations and businesses could not effectively respond to the overwhelming needs of the community. From 1930 onwards the local government would take an active role in providing relief that helped to save many from destitution or worse. The town leaders optimistically thought they could turn the “depression and the problem of the unemployed…to profitable advantage for the community,” because the unemployed did “work that had to be done…at a minimum cost.”# Significant improvements were achieved that provided a foundation for business growth but at the price of contributing to a significant town debt and damage to the local environment.
III Woodbridge: The Hub of New Jersey
By late October, 1930 the situation had turned drastic. One town councilman urgently proclaimed that “there must be something done or God only knows what will happen this winter!#” The first step taken was to form a committee “to formulate some relief plans for the needy for the coming winter.” From the outset there was a recognition that relief would be acted on by all residents, uniting “the coordinated efforts of all employers, organizations, and societies…as well as individuals who by their advice or financial assistance may help in the solution of such a problem.#” This decision marked the beginning of a period in which the town government would take a leading role in caring for the welfare of the unemployed and destitute. It took a full year of rapid economic decline before the government took the reins of relief from private organizations. What the town government lacked in haste, it made up for in zeal.
The town developed a two-fold strategy to handle the depression: their first goal was to provide work for the great number of unemployed so that relief was not just charity.# The second goal was to use the unemployed to improve the town’s infrastructure and bring in new businesses and employment that would propel Woodbridge to become the “leading residential community of this section of the state.”# The mayor hoped that improvements would “attract the home seeker and builder to Woodbridge so that growth will be rapid, with resulting increase in taxable dollars.”# The strategy of providing jobs for the unemployed while attempting to become a major industrial and commercial hub would stand at the heart of the town’s response to the Depression and would dramatically alter the landscape of the town in the process.
Initially, the town’s leaders considered Woodbridge’s situation to be “not as bad as other parts of the county; due to presence of a number of industrial plants and also the road department.#” Yet on the first day that the unemployment bureau was formed in 1930, 92 people signed up for relief; in less than one month there was a total of 475 residents that registered, 370 of them being unskilled laborers.#A typical profile of an applicant was a married man with a family of 8 or 9 children that lacked food in their homes, could not pay the rent, and had only the clothing on their back. Some were aided and “fed by contributions from their neighbors,” because they had been out of work for up to a year and a half.# A few chose to chop down trees throughout the town because “they would not see their families without fuel this winter.”#Others were forced to poach in state parks to kill deer and elk, and the Woodbridge Independent pleaded for government jobs to provide useful work that would breed “more self-respect for workers.#”
The town council took up this challenge with firm determination. Many in Woodbridge recognized that the town had great potential for growth. The Fords Lions Club noted the advantages inherent in the area, which included “industrial and traffic advantages, plenty of water front, many railroads, and several highways.”# The Woodbridge Independent was even bold enough to declare that “Woodbridge has the possibility to become the largest industrial center between New York and Philadelphia.”# One hurdle to this industrial growth was the substandard road conditions which the newspaper deemed were still designed for horses.# Residents of Sewaren petitioned the town for paved roads because “clouds of dust are raised by passing motor vehicles which make our homes very dirty.”# The town took action in 1932 to improve the roads and in the process relieved the unemployed situation by hiring 54 workers to lay pavement on Sewaren Rd. alone. # Even with concerted efforts by the town to improve the roads, the “volume of traffic has kept ahead of the road program,” helping to provide greater impetus for laying down pavement.# Ultimately, paved roads were economically oriented and designed with the hope that “many more cars will come from Perth Amboy and New Brunswick, helping business.”#
Besides paving roads, the town also aggressively installed large numbers of curbs, gutters, and sewers. In particular, gutters were vital because they would “prevent ruts and holes [in the road caused by] drainage.”# Some citizens demanded other additions; for instance, the residents on Fulton St. in Woodbridge suffered from overflowing sewage whenever it rained and asked for something to be done. The town council authorized that a sewage connector be built since the existing one was inadequate. This addition alone cost the town $18,000, $4,053 of which was paid to the construction company that was awarded the contract; some of which surely would have transferred down to the workers that needed it most. # Other jobs included the removal of the Woodbridge Speedway’s track by an “army of unemployed” who kept the lumber for firewood.# These jobs fulfilled the town’s goal of providing work and relief for the unemployed while also performing tasks necessary for an improved infrastructure.
The township also saw the creation of the park system as a crucial step in creating work and bringing more business development to the town. On June 28, 1930 a resolution was passed to build a park in Woodbridge on Pearl St. with the purpose of providing “work for the unemployed.”# Later that year, the committee declared their intention “to provide playgrounds in all sections of the township as fast as money can buy.”# Improvements to Fords Park alone would amount to $112,000 by August 10, 1931.# One councilman envisioned that the park system would turn the center of town from “an eyesore….an ugly area of swamp, a dump of ashes, tin cans and the odds and ends that accumulate in vacant, useless land,” into “one of the finest playgrounds in the state.#” By the summer of 1931, the mayor praised the Avenel wading pool for providing a “refuge for old and young alike from the heat of the summer.”# Overall, the park system has been a lasting benefit for the town, especially as other open areas of the town were depleted in the effort for residential, transportation, and business growth.
Even with economic depression in their midst, the citizens of Woodbridge had reason to be hopeful in 1930. An offer by the federal government to dredge the creek running alongside Sewaren offered Woodbridge the “greatest boom in history.”# In return for the town building a dock at the price of $10,000 in Sewaren, the federal government agreed to dredge the creek to a depth of twenty-two feet. By this time, New York land was crowded and manufacturers needed water transportation. Woodbridge had available land and would use the canal to help provide jobs, new home-seekers, and a “growing demand for waterfront property.”# Furthermore, it would allow trade to bypass Perth Amboy and provide clay manufacturers the ability to ship their good directly out of Woodbridge. The first boat to leave the Woodbridge dock in 1931 carried 270 tons of clay to Taunton, MA and helped to briefly keep afloat the struggling clay industry.# The newspaper also hoped the canal would help idle factories in Sewaren re-open since it had a negative psychological effect on the townspeople: “with so much agitation about unemployment, the sight of a fine brick and tile making plant lying idle is somewhat depressing.#”
The canal did not prove to be the “biggest boom in history” for the clay industry. The local newspaper summed up the deteriorating situation by declaring that “many once active pits are now abandoned.#” The town was forced to look for other sources of industry. Shell Oil soon erected a plant that brought not only jobs but also its first accident as two men were badly injured when a tanker exploded. In response, the council wrote Shell to re-evaluate fire precautions because they were “exposing whole section of the community to danger of property loss and possible injury.#” The “greatest boom of history” also had the effect of turning what was once a resort area and beach, known as Boynton Beach, into a highly polluted, industrial area. By 1935, citizens were unable to use the water in Sewaren because of pollution and sewage.#
Many inhabitants did not feel the same zeal for industry that town leaders did and in December 1934, Avenel citizens petitioned for the removal of three plants.# Town leaders were not deterred by the petition and continued seeking more industry. The mayor urged the Singer Plant to consider Woodbridge for the site of a new plant because the town afforded newly paved streets, sewers, parks and an area “well equipped to handle a population far in excess of our present population.”# In 1934, the town committee authorized an Industrial Secretary to “take every step possible to attract new plants.”# In the process, the town’s leaders created the foundation for modern Woodbridge: a center for commerce and industry but also a place where the natural areas and open space has become depleted and heavily polluted.
IV Depression and Recovery
The town government’s initial response did not solve the problem of unemployment or meet the needs of all the people completely. Into 1933 the town saw an increasing amount of individuals and families seeking relief. Meanwhile, the town slumped further into debt. Woodbridge did show glimpses of recovery but overall suffered mightily in the first part of the 1930s. Eventually, local relief gave way to state and federal efforts to help the destitute and unemployed. Woodbridge soldiered on, though, and by 1936 found itself in a much improved position than it began in 1929.
An obvious sign of the worsening depression can be found in the amount of crime in the town, much of which seemed spurred by necessity. In November, 1930 the wheels from a child’s bicycle were stolen, presumably for rubber.# In the same month, six blankets were stolen from a store on Fulton St. and two men were caught stealing gasoline from cars. # Other crimes bordered on comical. For example, in June 1932 a truck full of chickens tipped over and mysteriously all the chickens “disappeared in a remarkably short time.” As the Woodbridge Independent cleverly pointed out, it was perhaps the only time during the Depression that there was a chicken in every pot.# Most crimes were much more tragic, as was the case when a baby was found dead at the dump by a man searching for scraps of food.# At least two men also committed suicide because of financial worry.# Yet, remarkably, crime was not overly prevalent. Each person interviewed for this paper stated that their families never locked their door; as a few pointed out, however, this could partly be due to the fact that no one had much of anything to steal.#
Crime paled in comparison to the problems of unemployment, disease, and scarcity. One high school student was so destitute of basic needs that her shoulder blades showed through her dress and her teeth had rotted out of her mouth.# In 1930 alone there were 122 cases of tuberculosis.# By December, 1931 there were 842 heads of families who applied for work with only 110 jobs available and by February, 1933 an astounding 7,302 residents were receiving aid, over 25% of the population. The committee leader for relief declared that another 25% had exhausted all their resources, making over five thousand families in “distress.#” For the relief committee, “everyday [brought] new stories of tragedies.”#
The town government had limited means to improve the unemployment situation. In 1929, the town already was in a debt of $1,077, 669.64. This number soon skyrocketed as extra expenditures could not be funded.#In 1931, the budget for the town was $640,000. During the course of the year the town pledged an additional $1,196,000 in “new improvements.” Meanwhile, the town could not collect its taxes that were marked originally for town expenditures such as schools, salaries of officials, police, etc. By February, 1932, there were still uncollected taxes that totaled $704,141.75 from 1930-1931.# Increased costs combined with decreased tax collections created a disastrous financial situation for the town.
To pay for operating costs which had grown as “new improvements were pledged” and for normal “lawful expenditures,” the town took out temporary bonds. A bond had the purpose of bringing in an immediate infusion of money that was repaid to investors either quarterly, semi-annually, or annually at a 6% interest rate. Initially, the town was thought to be in “exceptionally sound financial condition” because its bonds were being purchased.# Yet, as the bonds became due and taxes originally allocated were still unpaid, the town was forced to borrow again to pay off the original bonds which created new bonds to pay with interest. For example, a bond that cost a $100,000 in 1930 would cost $106,000 in 1931. Unable to pay for this bond, the town would take another loan out at 6% interest, or $112,360 for 1932. Some of these bonds were not due until as late as 1960 or 1975,# yet the town still was incurring more debt that it could handle. Bonds totaling $2,108,000 were due for the year of 1933, with another $1,458,000 worth of loans owed for temporary improvements from 1930-1933.# There was only $28,736 available to pay for these bonds and in the early months of 1933 the town was forced to borrow another $448,000.00 to pay for necessities like school expenditures.#
The town’s inability to pay off its’ debt can be significantly attributed to delinquent taxes. By April, 1933, $1,148,383.90 was due in delinquent taxes. The council pleaded with the residents of Woodbridge “to make an extra effort to pay their taxes so that our teachers, policeman, fireman, and other township can be paid.”# Such fears were soon realized as teachers went without pay for as much as seven months in 1933.# Many did not have the money to pay their taxes due to the unemployment situation. Others lost what they did have when the First National Bank and Trust Company of Woodbridge closed on November 1st, 1931.# From 1930 to 1934 only 39% of taxes that had been allocated had been collected# and by August, 1934 the town was in a debt of over eight million dollars.# The town council became fed up with those “who can pay their taxes and refuse to do so.” A Woodbridge Township attorney declared it was “not a time for nambly-pambly tactics; direct and forceful action should be taken.#” By July 1934, the town council threatened foreclosures for any who did not pay their bills.# The council also attempted to attain lower costs by making large cuts in public salaries: 44% for elected officials, clerks, and other municipal officials, and 10% for police for the first half of 1933 and 20% for the second half.#
Another step the town took to gain some financial stability was to tax the residents for improvements made to their surrounding property. For instance, residents living on Amboy Ave. were allocated to pay a combined $25,000 for the installations of sewers which was judged to be the increased value to the properties after the improvements. Likewise, the residents of Hillcrest Ave. were taxed $9,000 for the installations of curb, gutters, and concrete sidewalks. Some residents complained that the price was too high and the job was not done right; others claimed they never knew they were going to be assessed.# In many cases the price to each resident was fairly small. For instance, a property owner of a lot and a half on Fulton St. was charged $1.60 for a sewer installation, which from the council’s perspective was reasonable when “present conditions might very well lead to an epidemic.#” Yet, in a time in which residents could not pay the taxes already assessed any further increase was seen as unfair. Over $2,000,000 in assessment taxes went without being paid into 1934 and the town council became resigned to the fact that the taxes “far exceed the actual work of the property on which they lived” and “can not be collected.#”
Town leaders originally sought to manage the Depression by themselves, exemplified by one councilman’s statement to “let us take care of our own-we don’t want to go outside the township.#” On January 25, 1932, however, the town council recognized that “the citizens cannot continue indefinitely to financially support the dependency relief which has been afforded.” The council stated it had two options: either they could cut relief of milk and food down to “less than normal sustaining ration” or be given $26,000 from the state for June, 1932.# In July, 1932 the town made its case to the state of the necessity of taking over relief: It was “impossible to borrow more money to supplement the appropriations already made,” the closing of the bank had a “naturally impairing impact” on collecting taxes, “the clay mines and manufacturing businesses,” in spite of the dredged canal, “has been stricken because the miners and manufacturers have no market for their products,” and most of all because the town has “exhausted all of the means at its command for the relief of its inhabitants who are unable to provide the necessary food, medical aid, and shelter.#” The council frankly admitted that the townspeople could no longer “care for themselves in this emergency.#”
The town council requested the State Director of Emergency Relief to transfer the funds reserved to Woodbridge in the amount of $35,000 for June, 1932. From that month into 1934, the town requested the state to provide money for relief, reaching a high of $55,000 in May, 1933.# In 1932, Woodbridge’s budget for relief of the poor was only $11,325. In 1933, the town actually cut that amount by 30%, even though the Depression was in full swing at this point. # The difference was made up by the state in the sum of $812,000 worth of relief from February 1932 to February 1934.# The state also invested $15,000,000 in the area to build Roosevelt Park, the Edison Parkway between Fords Park and the Outerbridge in Staten Island, and the Edison Bridge, most of which would “be spent in Woodbridge.”#
In the meantime individuals, local organizations, and the town government worked to improve the dire financial situation. In August, 1930 the Fords Lions Club formed the Woodbridge Chamber of Commerce with the goal of advertising the town’s “industrial and traffic advantages, plenty of water front, many railroads and several highways.” Two “dollar-days,” a day where every item was sold for a dollar, were planned to stimulate business and create “lasting good-will.#” Most significantly, in 1934 Fords’ merchants were able to bring back to the town a bank with $165,000 worth of credit available that was protected by the newly created FDIC on all deposits up to $2,500.# Overall, local organizations played a pivotal role in providing an economic landscape where businesses would seek to come and prosper. A dinner between 120 businessmen gave hope for a period of “progressive harmony.”# Improved infrastructure paid off with a “boom” of industrial expansion of three firms that created jobs for 230 girls and a hat company in Fords that produced another 65 to 70 jobs.#
As the state handled relief from 1933 to 1936, the town took decisive steps to handle its other two major problems: paying down the town debt and paying the salary of town employees. The town inventively attempted to solve both problems in September, 1933 by issuing “baby bonds,” or scrip, in the place of hard currency to town employees. Baby bonds could be used as currency to buy food, clothing, pay rent, or any other expenditure within the town backed by the town’s depleted treasury. This benefited the town’s treasury because available currency was limited. Furthermore, bonds stimulated the payment of taxes considerably because they could only be used in the town itself. Almost $40,000 was paid in taxes from baby bonds alone in the three month period between March and June, 1933.# Scrip also spurred the payment of back pay for teachers dating from February to September!#
In time, however, the bonds proved troublesome. Baby bonds not used for taxes could be redeemed after a period of time with interest. Unfortunately for the town, the amount of taxes being paid in baby bonds meant less money being brought into the township and interest on the bonds meant more money that had to be expended. If not for the payment of $41,000 of delinquent taxes in September, 1933 the town would have been forced to borrow to pay-off the baby bonds redeemed for cash.# The town found that “each time a maturity date is reached more and more difficulty is experienced in meeting the issues for cash.”# Meanwhile, scrip was not popular with town employees because there were “few if any markets where they can receive face value of bonds.”# So untenable were baby bonds that the town asked the state for over $101,937.78 in three separate loans to pay teachers’ back pay rather than issue more bonds.# Overall, the town’s inventive strategy did little to alleviate their major problems.
It is possible that Woodbridge would never have recovered if not for the active involvement of the federal government in reviving the town. Almost immediately the town was absorbed with the “spirit of the New Deal.” When the National Recovery Administration was formed in the autumn of 1933 the town held an NRA Day on October 18, which celebrated the act with half days for schools and businesses, a parade, and a town meeting in the high school auditorium where town leaders declared that they were “one-hundred percent behind Roosevelt in the battle to wipe out Depression.” Speakers looked forward to the day when the NRA’s power to create codes for fair competition would bring “the unfair twenty percent of business to terms,” while lamenting the fact that “we have mass productions and foodstuffs, yet people starve.”# Even the local newspaper joined in support for the short-lived NRA with a blue eagle on its front cover.#
The NRA was judged to be unconstitutional in 1935 but other programs of the New Deal proved exceptionally beneficial to the town. By January, 1934 the Civil Works Administration employed 631 men for projects around the town and another 300 jobs were added by March.# Meanwhile, the Civilian Conservation Corps employed over 70 town inhabitants to work on building hiking trails in the Idaho wilderness in 1933.# The Works Projects Association offered to allocate money for 7 major projects, including $20,000 for painting schools throughout the town and money to employ 640 men building an ice skating rink in Woodbridge Park.# Another WPA expenditure brought $108,000 to the town to pave 43 roads “that were nothing but mud” in the Colonia, Iselin, and Avenel sections and provided work for 108 men.# In essence, the town was able to receive from the federal government exactly the same type of programs that it had paid for in the past without incurring the same debt. This fortunate situation allowed Woodbridge to drastically turn around its finances.
By 1936 the town found itself in a much improved financial situation but recognized that they were still in “a difficult situation.” Nonetheless, they believed that “we will find some way so that none of our people will be deprived food, shelter and medical care.” # The town had benefited from the increase in jobs engendered significantly by New Deal programs and a more favorable environment for business urged by the town’s leaders. Along with the arrival of jobs came the payment of taxes and a significant decrease in the town debt. In the first 8 months of 1936 more taxes had been collected than for all of 1933. By the end of the year, over $1.6 million were paid in taxes which far eclipsed any other year from 1929 to 1935.# It was, in the words of the Woodbridge Independent, “a steady tend towards normal.”# From 1933-1936 the town debt also decreased by over $1,250,000 and the town boasted a bank account of $239,000 by the end of 1936, up from a low of $1,000 in 1933.# More importantly, the number of families on relief had dropped from a high of over 5,000 down to 440.# By December, 1936 all town employees were paid fully in cash.# Woodbridge’s town committee efforts to refinance interest rates from 6% to 4.5% ultimately saved the town an additional $60,000 and spread out the maturity of the bonds so that each year would bring a similar total owed in interest and bonds from the year before.# The town newspaper declared that “it is doubtful if a parallel achievement can be cited by any municipality in the country,” and credited the town leaders for the “steady climb back to financial responsibility.”#
Much credit should be given Woodbridge’s social and political leaders for improving the town’s infrastructure so critical for business growth and employment and for reducing delinquent taxes and the town’s debt. However, there can be no denying the important effects that federal and state aid had on the township. In 1933, Woodbridge was buckling under the tremendous amount of relief and employment sought by its’ residents. Meanwhile, the town’s debt stood at $8,000,000 and was primed to grow. There is little doubt that Woodbridge would have crumbled in financial ruin if it had been forced to pay $50,000 a month that the state paid for relief instead of just $1,500#, or had not received some six thousand WPA jobs that spurred improvements, relief, and the payment of back taxes.# Even with the improved financial situation in 1936, the town was still forced to request $75,000 to $100,000 from the federal government for improved sewers when Iselin residents suffered from overflowing sewage that caused “terrible conditions.”# Federal and state aid was vital in giving Woodbridge a respite from incurring more debt while also providing necessary emergency relief and employment that sped improvement to the town’s infrastructure.
It is a credit to the town’s political leaders that the financial situation was turned around so swiftly with foresight and careful management but is not theirs alone. The town government managed to take a vision of the town as an industrial hub and make it into a reality, greatly relieving the unemployment situation in the process. However, it is necessary to recognize that both state and federal aid were vital to recovery in Woodbridge and gave the town, and many of its’ residents, the ability to survive when the town had gone bankrupt. One also cannot ignore the implications that Woodbridge’s industrial boom had on the environment and in the precipitous drop in open and wooded land which has steadily declined since the early 1930’s. Finally, the efforts by individuals and social organizations to create a caring community and provide widespread relief to those less fortunate stands as a true testament to the goodness in mankind and is a significant, and perhaps even primary, reason for the town’s rapid and thorough recovery.
From a 21st century point of view, we are faced with the question of how people survived the scarcity and hardship of the Great Depression. For the people who remember it, who actually lived through it, hardship was an ever-present companion that never got in the way of enjoying life. Edna Harkey ate eating oatmeal three times a day: “We didn’t know we were poor, we were all in the same boat.” Margaret Lomonico recalls eating rotten food her brother brought home from his job because “you couldn’t be picky in those times.” Helen Kovacs remembers there being a depression but not “how it affected us. We had a comfortable life. So did everyone we knew.” Frank Kreisel’s father had a good job during the depression but made “just enough to keep our heads above water.” That didn’t stop Frank from practicing his sharp-shooting at the clay pits, something that would come in handy when he served his country in World War II. Tough times also didn’t stop Rose Mirkovich’s father from showing compassion for his fellow man by not charging them for furniture deliveries, even if it eventually cost him his truck. Likewise, Ed Kocsik was still able to enjoy the great American pastimes of football and baseball, proving that “youthful spirit” did in fact exist even during a national emergency.
For Don and Emma Aaroe, they made it through the depression to become husband and wife. As a carpenter, Don was one of the many who helped build America out of the depression by working on the Edison Bridge for $.50 per hour. For Emma, it would seem her father was right all along when he stood on a long line for relief thinking it was the line for voter registration and thought “WOW this must be a patriotic town!” How else could one explain that fact that although the town suffered crushing unemployment, extreme debt, and faced a formidable opponent in hunger and hardship there was still enough compassion and friendship to give Woodbridge the ability to not only survive but to economically flourish? It is this sense of community, sacrifice, and firm determination by Woodbridge residents in the face of a national emergency that is truly something worth remembering and stands as the root explanation for the how the town could survive this moment of unmatched economic adversity.