The early effects of the Great Depression, which in poplar parlance at least. began with the crash of the stock market in late October 1929, were slow to be felt in Wabash.
It’s unlikely that many Wabash people owned significant amounts of stock in companies traded on the New York Stock Exchange then. Instead, most investors here had put their money into local companies, such as banks, factories, stores and real estate. When the crash came its consequences for people here were somewhat delayed.
But our town’s economy had weakened considerably in the months before the crash. At the west edge of town, the buildings of the Service Motor Truck Company sat idle. A handful of small factories had closed, and most of those that survived were operating at reduced production. Late in the summer of 1929, the Plain Dealer noted that the only factory in Wabash running at capacity was the Wabash Cabinet Company, a firm buoyed by orders for cabinets for radios and phonographs.
Less than a week before the crash, the Wabash Chamber of Commerce announced a drive to raise funds to bring new industry to town.
“The memory of the ‘good times’ lingers among the citizens of Wabash, and … a campaign to restore the conditions of several years ago should be undertaken,” said the Plain Dealer.
The stock market had been uneasy throughout much of September and early October, but most people here viewed that as a problem that affected only a handful of wealthy individuals and the big eastern banks.
The market, which had drifted downward through much of early fall, sustained a major shock on Thursday, Oct. 24, when prices fell precipitously. But The Plain Dealer left that story all but untouched, for there were tremendous storms raking the Great Lakes, bringing three major shipwrecks and high loss of life that same week that made big banner headlines.
“Stock Market in Turmoil as Prices Tumble” was the one-column headline over a 6-inch account of trading on what was to become “Black Thursday.”
The most devastating days for the market were yet to come. After stabilizing a bit on Friday, Oct. 25, the market fell by 13 percent the following Monday on continued high volume. The next day, Tuesday, Oct. 29, the market once again was in free fall, even though prices did not drop quite as much as the previous day. That day saw the capitulation of some of the top investors on Wall Street, and for many, the good times of the golden 1920s were over. Even then, the Plain Dealer carried only another 6-inch story on the financial calamity that most thought was far removed from Wabash.
For Wabash, the full impact of the Great Crash did not come for another few months. But when it came, the financial blow was widely felt. Over the next five or six years, unemployment climbed and several businesses and factories, including the Wabash Cabinet Company, fell into receivership. By the mid-1930s, the city school system was unable to meet its payroll. At one point, the city was without a single bank and hundreds of people here went to work on various WPA and PWA relief projects.
Pete Jones writes a weekly column on local history for the Wabash Plain Dealer. He writes about people, places and events in and around Wabash County. Contact him by mail at 1160 Sunset Drive, Wabash, IN 46992 or by email at email@example.com.