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The case for the 1930 junior high

September 17, 2010
By Charles Lindquuist

ESCANABA - In a previous article I discussed the architecture of the Escanaba Middle School (originally the Escanaba Junior High) on Ludington Street. I mentioned in that article that I wondered how it happened that the people of Escanaba approved raising their taxes to pay for this school in March 1930 when the economy was sliding into the Great Depression. In this article I would like to discuss how that happened.

First, it should be said that, generally speaking, the people of Escanaba were no more eager to see their taxes raised for schools than anyone else, and the Board of Education was well aware of that. Ever since 1919 the board had known Escanaba needed a junior high, but the board spent the 1920s working on smaller and more immediate needs rather than tackle this very big project. It was not that these projects were not needed. The school population of North Escanaba was growing a great deal in this time, for instance, and so the extensive work of enlarging and remodeling the Webster School in 1924 was very important. When the city of Escanaba leased to the schools 20 acres in south Escanaba for athletic purposes across from the lakeshore city dump, the schools did not take long to begin developing a very attractive athletic facility on that property.

By 1930, though, Escanaba was the only city in the U.P. with a population over 8,000 without a junior high, and the board knew it was time to do something. So the board announced that in late March there would be an election to see if the property owners in the city would approve a $435,000 bond issue to finally build a junior high. One good thing about being reasonably cautious about building in the 1920s was that the schools had a very low level of debt.

What this would mean, said the schools, was that even with the extra taxes involved in this new levy, Escanaba taxpayers would still have a very low school tax bill compared to most other school districts of its size in the state. While this was a good argument, proponents of the new school had to wonder how the voters would feel with the Great Depression already underway.

Of course, who in late winter 1929-1930 had any idea about how bad this economic downturn was going to become or how long it would last. What people did know was that for most of the last decade Escanaba had been doing well. They didn't know yet that the census of 1930 (conducted later in 1930) would show that Escanaba had grown by 10 percent in population in the 1920s, but they could sense it. All sectors of the local economy including the big four in Escanaba (railroads, forest products, retail and manufacturing) were either holding their own or growing in the 1920s, and early signs in 1930 were positive too.

Montgomery Ward had recently taken over the big three-story former Boston Store at the corner of Ludington and 12th Street, and it was expressing confidence in the local economy. Also, yet another big automobile garage was going to be built on Ludington Street to go with all the others.

By November 1930 conditions would be so awful that the city council would authorize a municipal wood-cutting project to provide work for the unemployed, but, truly, no one suspected this in the spring.

As a result, the voters of Escanaba could assess the educational arguments of this financially-prudent Board of Education led by its respected president, F.0. Beck, with a rather positive attitude.

Educationally, one of the strongest arguments for the new school was made by board member Lawrence Jacobs when he addressed members of the Escanaba Trades and Labor Council at the North Star Hall in North Escanaba. As matters stood, he said, the schools were very overcrowded, and there was simply little room for vocational training. Increasingly, he said, schools in America had been adding courses for those inclined toward further mechanical training. Escanaba would like to offer such classes, too, and this would be possible if the bond issue were approved.

Mr. Jacobs did not point out that the location of this junior high on Ludington Street would be a lot more convenient to students from North Escanaba than the senior high was way down on 8th Avenue South, but perhaps he didn't have to mention this.

Two more educational arguments for the junior high were presented by the two physicians on the board, Drs. J.J. Walch and R.N. Banks. They pointed out that the schools currently had limited gym facilities, and there would be a nice gym In the new junior high If the bond issue passed. Also, they said, Escanaba really lacked an adequate auditorium for cultural programs, and it was planned that this new school building would have a fine 1,000-seat auditorium that could be used for such purposes.

That last argument led to one final really exciting argument for this new school. A few days before the election it was announced that an anonymous citizen of Escanaba had pledged $25,000 toward the new junior high if the bond issue passed.

As it turned out, that last-minute offer of $25,000 perhaps was not necessary to put the bond issue over. When the votes were counted after the election on March 20, 938 people had voted for the project while 485 voted against it.

The next day Mrs. Adele Symons Oliver revealed that she was the person who pledged $25,000, and she was making this gift in memory of her late husband, W.W. Oliver. He had been co-founder in 1900 of one of Escanaba's most successful businesses in the 20th Century, Delta Hardware, and he had also been president of the State Savings Bank (the current Upper Peninsula State Bank) from 1911 until his death in 1920.

In grateful recognition of this handsome gift, the Board of Education decided to name the auditorium in the new school, the W.W. Oliver Auditorium. I suspect members of the board might have tipped their hat, too, to one of their own members, Lawrence Jacobs. Mr. Jacobs was Mrs. Oliver's son-in-law. According to Mr. Jacobs' daughter, Shirley Johnson, he is the person who suggested to Mrs. Oliver that she might want to make this donation in memory of her late husband. As for the dramatic timing involved in the announcement of this gift, well, that has Mr. Jacobs' flair for publicity all over it. Mr. Jacobs ran Escanaba's big movie theater, the Delft, and he probably knew more about how to promote something like this gift than anyone else in town.

If I may, I would like to end these two articles by going back to how attractive the Escanaba Middle School looks. Part of that, I think, has to do with that nice sweep of lawn leading up to the school from Ludington Street. That did not happen all by itself.

Once the bond issue had been approved, the Board of Education began to buy all the buildings lining Ludington Street on the north side of this block. By early May the building housing W.F. Kammeier's jewelry store and Joseph Bellin's barbershop had been sold and would soon be gone. Barker's restaurant in another building would be gone by the end of the month as well, and so it went. It was probably sad to see Barker's and Benin's the rest go elsewhere, but wasn't it worth it?


Charles Lindquist is president of the Delta County Historical Society.



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