Scottsdale and the Great Depression

The graceful, even beautiful, lines of Scottsdale Grammar School #2 convey a sense of prosperity. Stability seems to be written right into the school’s symmetrical concrete façade. It is a testimony to the optimism of 1928, the year it was built—a year in which prosperity seemed so assured. As the nation prospered, so did the growing community of Scottsdale, which confidently passed a $50,000 bond to construct this school, the town’s second. But this was only one year before the stock market crash of 1929, an event that would leave the country in a state of financial crisis. Despite all of the growth it experienced during the 1920s, Scottsdale was not immune to the economic hardships of the Great Depression, though desperation took slightly longer to settle in here in Arizona.

In the immediate years after the crash, most of Arizona’s copper mines shut down or had to slow production, decreasing the state’s revenue from $155 million to $15 million between 1929 and 1932. Unemployed miners and Dust Bowl “Okies” were flocking to the Salt River Valley in search of work—sometimes finding employment picking cotton. Nevertheless, work was scarce. Scottsdale’s only bank closed during the 1933 “bank holiday” and never reopened. The chamber of commerce closed as well. Individuals displaced by the economic crisis threw up shantytowns in the empty desert and tried to scratch out a livelihood from the land.

These were lean years. Many parents could not afford to keep their children in shoes but had to send them to school, often on foot or by horse, wearing disintegrating vestiges of what used to pass for adequate footwear. Meager family resources instead had to go to put food on the table. An unprecedented 20% of the Valley’s population (50% of the severely disadvantaged Latino and black populations) received some kind of municipal or federal aid. As funds from local charities and emergency relief programs ran dry, the Valley was increasingly seeking aid from the federal government. But, for many, accepting aid engendered a fundamental identity crisis. Scottsdale had long held itself to embody a pioneering spirit of self-sufficiency, a quality its citizens believed was at the core of being a Scottsdalian, of being an American. Since Scottdale’s founding, it had been a keenly proud community. This meant that some citizens simply refused aid.

Nevertheless, as the struggles of the 1930s continued, the social stigma attached to accepting aid began to fade. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Policies gradually began to revive the area. By the mid-1930s, thanks to the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, the federal government was Maricopa County’s largest employer. These programs resulted in additions to Scottsdale Grammar School #2 and Scottsdale High School, improvements to the canal, and new roads. Many of these public works can still be seen across the landscape, reminders of past difficulties and the local and national efforts that sought to overcome them.

edited 12/23/2019:wt



A Scottsdae resident describes the hardships that the proud community faced during the Great Depression. Based on an interview with Paul Messinger. Written by Amy T. Long; narrated by JoAnne Handley. Recorded at Scottsdale Channel 11; courtesy of...
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