Depression Years: San Juan County

  • By Lynn Weber/Roochvarg
  • Posted 7/30/2018
  • Essay 20613
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No region of Washington was spared the crippling effects of the Great Depression that overshadowed the country in the 1930s, but the residents of San Juan County in Northwest Washington had some advantages in meeting the many challenges. The San Juan Islands, as an isolated rural community with a long history of working cooperatively to solve local problems and an economy based largely on farming, fishing, and local industries, had resources that delayed and somewhat mitigated the worst of the Depression's consequences. San Juan County residents were even able to help those in other areas whose situation was more dire. Nevertheless, county relief funds and local aid efforts soon were stretched to the limit, some families were barely coping, and federal and state relief programs offered welcome assistance for those struggling with basic essentials of living. Agencies such as the Civil Works Administration, the Washington Emergency Relief Administration, and the Works Progress Administration provided much-needed aid -- and frustrating bureaucratic red tape. Ultimately, however, a sound local bank and community mutual support were key to the county's improving economy as the decade drew to a close.

Early Economic Decline

Much has been written over the years concerning the Great Depression, usually dated from the stock-market crash of October 24, 1929. For most of the country, including Washington, the 1920s had been a heady period of growth, industrial expansion, optimism, and opportunity. But in the San Juans, an archipelago in the Salish Sea in the far northwest corner of the state, residents were largely more restrained in their economic expectations and spending. Owners of farms that had, by boat, supplied the West Coast with vegetables, grains, and fruit were becoming unable to compete with produce grown on the mainland and shipped by rail to coastal cities. A once-thriving limestone industry was in decline. Properties were abandoned. The county population between 1910 and 1920 had remained static at about 3,600, but by 1930 it was barely more than 3,000.

Almost a month before the stock market bottomed out, merchants and service providers on San Juan Island jointly took out large spaces in several issues of the local newspaper to warn residents against the practice of charging for goods and services and then either not paying promptly or only partially paying their monthly bills or even using items and then returning them to avoid payment entirely. The necessity of paying bills to keep good personal credit was emphasized. Just two months later the San Juan County commissioners, who had long included an item in their budget for indigent care, found there was already a $350 deficit in the account.

Most residents of the San Juan Islands did not feel the immediate impact of the more-than-50-percent drop in the value of Washington industries between 1929 and 1931, although the diminishing revenues from salmon canneries, important local employers, were certainly noted. The price for Washington apples "declined to an average price of minus 30 cents per box" (Mullins). Prices for dairy products plunged too.

Still, local farms were small, and while family belts were tightened, farm produce and locally caught seafood kept most islanders reasonably well fed, and few were forced financially from their homes. As the Depression deepened in 1931 and the desperate plight of unemployed residents of Seattle and other cities worsened, the Friday Harbor Journal (FHJ), the islands' community newspaper, included frequent reports from residents who had returned from travels around the state or who had received communications from around the country about the economic woes elsewhere. The reports were noted with sincere but perhaps slightly detached sympathy reflecting the relative comfort of the majority of San Juan County residents. For those truly in need, the county provided some financial assistance (usually sums of $5 to $20 per month for individuals) or would pay minimally for caregivers for the indigent ill or invalid.

The Depression Deepens

The political climate early in the Depression was not supportive of government intervention or aid. At the federal level President Herbert Hoover's (1874-1964) administration operated on the philosophy that the national government "should be only a catalyst or, at most, a coordinator for relief and recovery" (Mullins). Washington's Governor Roland Hartley (1864-1952) emphatically concurred and felt that the state had no role in providing relief either; local organizations, churches, charities, and counties, he declared, were responsible for aiding their communities. And for a few years reliance on local assistance, at least in the San Juan Islands, was sufficient.

Islanders rallied to help those neighbors who needed assistance. The San Juan Island Commercial Club appointed a committee to identify for help those families on the island in "dire distress" ("Relief Committee ..."). The Journal editorialized that "it is hoped that those having surplus supplies will cooperate with the committee in lending a helping hand to those who are victims of circumstances and are 'up against it' through no fault of theirs" (FHJ, January 2, 1932, p. 2). The Women of the Moose on San Juan Island made and distributed much-needed clothing (5 coats, 2 mackinaws, 14 bloomers, 9 dresses, 36 pairs of socks, 2 undershirts, 5 union suits, 3 nightgowns, 8 aprons, 3 pairs of house slippers, 7 pairs of shoes, 1 cap), some of it to Shaw Island residents. The American Legion Auxiliary also collected old clothes and put out a request for children's apparel, especially shoes and overalls. The Red Cross, too, collected children's shoes, reminding islanders that "some discarded shoes at your home may keep a youngster in school" ("Friday Harbor in ...," January 26, 1933).

And county residents were able to help beyond their island neighbors. When the Anacortes Relief Committee on the nearby mainland found itself overwhelmed with the needs of 197 families, it appealed to San Juan Islanders for assistance, and received immediate and generous aid including cash, old clothing, and farm produce such as potatoes, apples, and vegetables. The people of Anacortes were immensely grateful: "the community of San Juan Island may rest assured that the assistance rendered in this hour of need is greatly appreciated. The promptness and zeal you displayed in coming to our relief is appreciated still more ... We wish to assure you that if and when you are in need of assistance, you will find this community's response to be as prompt and generous" ("Anacortes Expresses ...").

As 1932 began, many in the islands felt that perhaps the worst was over. The editor of the Journal was optimistic: "We, who are residents of San Juan County, have, as it were, sat on the sidelines and watched ... events march past us. For us the specter of hunger is unknown, and in a small way, it has been our privilege to assist other communities less fortunate ... We have no serious unemployment problem. The land is filled with moisture and we may look forward to a good crop year ..." ("Future Looks Bright ..."). Islanders were even invited to "save your old clothes for the 'Depression Dance,' ... You might win one of the many prizes. The worse you look, the better for you" ("Additional Locals"). With remarkably premature confidence, the San Juan Agricultural Company (which sold supplies, equipment, seeds, and other items to local farmers) placed an ad in the paper declaring definitively that the Depression was over.

But events through the year proved otherwise, and 1932 saw only a worsening of the Depression's impact. State unemployment reached new highs, and in Seattle and other urban areas, industries collapsed, shantytowns (often called Hoovervilles) grew in number despite officials' efforts to tear them down, and people began to organize to protest the lack of help. Even Congress finally recognized that something needed to be done and amended earlier legislation creating the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to allow distribution of more than $1 billion for relief and public works. Governor Hartley, however, refused to sign paperwork needed to obtain much of the federal money for which Washington counties and cities were eligible, objecting, as he said, to the federal government's interference in local affairs. By November of that year the San Juan County commissioners again found the allocation for indigent care had run out, and, recognizing how vital this aid had become and that it was "the duty of the Commissioners of San Juan County to properly take care of the infirm and needy within the county" ("Proceedings ...," November 1932), they passed a resolution stating that in this emergency situation the expenditures must continue to be paid, even as they increased.

Private agencies continued to do their best to help. During the winter of 1932-1933 the Red Cross undertook a variety of relief activities including the distribution of 45 barrels of flour, 48 sweaters for men and boys, 48 suits of underwear for men and boys, 24 suits of underwear for women, 48 pairs of socks for men and boys, 48 pairs of hose for women, and 24 pairs of coveralls for men and boys. The annual drive that year for Red Cross memberships at a cost of $1 took on new importance in the community as more and more people knew friends and relatives who needed the help that the Red Cross was providing.

Keeping the Local Bank Open

In November 1932 Washington voters demanded a change. Hoover had carried every county in the state in 1928 but this time he lost every county to Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945). Hartley was replaced by Clarence Martin (1886-1955), who immediately began a bipartisan program of progressive reform. During 1932 an ever-increasing number of banks throughout the country had failed, as depositors demanded their savings and banks often did not have enough money to satisfy all requests. In an effort to restore confidence and stabilize the country's banks, one of Roosevelt's first acts after being sworn into office on March 4, 1933, was to declare a bank holiday effective until March 13, after which, in accord with the newly enacted Emergency Banking Act, no bank could reopen until it was determined to have enough capital to do business.

Unlike many banks, the only bank in the islands, the San Juan County Bank, located in Friday Harbor (on San Juan Island), the islands' largest community and the county seat, had continued to maintain the trust of its customers and could cover all withdrawals. Bank president Gene Gould (1879-1957) had noted in an interview with the Seattle Post Intelligencer (quoted in a Friday Harbor Journal article headlined "San Juan County Debtless, Doleless, and Warrant Clear") that "the 3000 citizens of San Juan County may not be rich, measured in money, but they are thrifty and prosperous" (FHJ, December 8, 1932, p. 1). Business at the bank was being carried on as usual; while deposits were down, the decline was less than one-third of the average for the state. Most debtors continued to pay back loans, and the bank was financially sound.

However, the San Juan County Bank did have to write off a number of loans, especially railroad bonds for companies that had failed, and bank officers had taken the precaution of applying for a $50,000 loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. After passage of the Emergency Banking Act, Gould and the bank manager made several trips to Olympia to meet with the state bank supervisor to discuss the amount of capital needed for the bank to reopen on the scheduled day; the sum required was $30,000, more than the bank had on hand. An immediate capital increase was needed, and an approach was made to the wealthiest man in the county, retired department store owner L. B. Carter (1857-1937), for a loan. Carter agreed, but would not accept stock in payment as he didn't want the uncertainty at his age of when the monies would be returned, and would not accept a promissory note because he was reluctant for his family to learn how much of their inheritance he was risking. Later an agreement was quietly made to assure appropriate compensation in the future. After the compulsory holiday, the San Juan County Bank immediately reopened for business and soon was advertising its services -- for example, to assist farmers to refinance mortgages at low interest rates and favorable terms with the help of new government programs.

The bank faced one more crisis before the year was out, however, when, in December, the state supervisor decided that the San Juan County Bank again did not have enough capital to offset some of the loans written off during the year. The bank, he declared, could not reopen after January 1, 1934, without an additional $25,000 of capital. After much discussion of options, it was decided that bank officers would draw up a list of the largest depositors, contact each individual, and ask for a loan to help keep the bank open. The calls were all made between 6 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. that same day, and pledges for the entire sum were immediately obtained. One of the bank's officers "later confided to his family that the men were warmly received with no turndowns" (Carter). The bank continued to operate in the black through 1934, and all obligations for payment of interest and principal on the borrowed funds were met.

State and Federal Aid Arrives

Islanders were soon grappling with the challenges of applying for assistance from the growing number of agencies offering aid that ranged from paying farmers for not growing certain crops and refinancing farm mortgages at lower interest rates to instituting work projects such as road improvement and painting and varnishing the county courthouse. The Civil Works Administration (CWA) facilitated a number of projects including reclaiming the Friday Harbor waterfront; clearing land for the Friday Harbor airport; painting schoolhouses on San Juan, Stuart, and Decatur islands; building a new toolshed and garage in Friday Harbor; and applying aluminum paint to the city's water tank. Women (10 each on San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez islands) repaired and sewed clothing for the Red Cross to distribute. By March 1934, 315 garments, sheets, blankets, and quilts had been prepared for distribution. A county nurse, funded through the program, examined schoolchildren, made home visits, provided first-aid instruction, and did pre- and post-natal visits. CWA projects provided employment for the full number of workers allotted to San Juan County (within a year, more than 10 per cent of the county population age 21 or older), "which furnished a substantial payroll for the community" ("CWA Projects ...").

Among the most important government programs was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), whose work can still be seen around San Juan County. The program was under the jurisdiction of the federal departments of labor, agriculture, war, and interior, and offered young men a salary of $30 a month ($25 of which had to be sent home to dependents) in addition to food, clothing, and shelter in exchange for their work. The clothing and equipment issued to the participants was World War I surplus. The camps, located in national forests, state parks, and on military reservations and soil conservation lands, were run by U.S. Army reserve officers in military style with military supplies. Young men enlisted for a 6-to-24-month period. San Juan County both contributed young workers and was the site of one of the camps.

Robert Moran (1857-1943), a wealthy shipbuilder and former Seattle mayor who had built a mansion on Orcas Island, had acquired near his home more than 5,000 acres of land on and around Mount Constitution, which he then donated for use as a state park. Developing the park became a major CCC project, and a large camp began to rise on the property. Seven or more buildings were planned including administration and forestry buildings, a hospital, and four barracks. In the park workers developed trails and roads, cleared camping areas, and built facilities and an observation tower. By 1934 the Friday Harbor Journal periodically included an almost-one-full-column article devoted to CCC camp news, essentially a diary of the activities including entertainments, basketball games, sports days, and medical visits as well as notes on the projects undertaken. While the camp functioned as a headquarters and training facility, workers were also sent elsewhere in the county. Some were assigned to work on the grounds of the University of Washington's "Oceanographic Laboratories" in Friday Harbor, building facilities, creating trails, and beautifying the grounds. Reports in the Journal indicated that the workers enjoyed their time on the island; they even won their baseball game against the Friday Harbor team.

Meanwhile, San Juan County residents who enlisted in the CCC were sent not to the camp on Orcas Island, but rather to Fort Worden across the Strait of Juan de Fuca at Port Townsend. In a letter to the Journal, young recruits from Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor on San Juan Island and Deer Harbor on Orcas Island described the first days after their arrival, filled with physical exams, vaccinations, instruction on the rules (including about staying out late), but with time for a baseball game against the army reservists. The young men expected to be sworn into service shortly and to be sent to Camp Quilcene.

The evolution of government aid sometimes created as many questions as solutions. When the Civil Works Administration ceased operations at the end of 1934, a project to build a runway at the Friday Harbor airport was left unfinished, and while a new agency was going to replace the CWA, it was unclear whether the runway was ever to be completed. In 1933 the state legislature passed the McDonald Act, setting up the Washington Emergency Relief Administration (WERA), which assumed many responsibilities and activities of the CWA. Some former CWA programs continued. A WERA nurse, for example, provided, in a six-month period in the county in 1934, 461 home visits for general service, 109 nursing-care visits, 24 visits to tuberculosis patients, 112 maternal and infant-welfare visits, and 156 visits to the homes of pupils referred by their schools.

The WERA, however, also ceased operations after only two years, but its successor, the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) -- later, the Works Projects Administration -- was to have a longer-lasting impact on the islands. County officials were anxious, for example, to take advantage of funding for much-needed roadwork on several islands. Some projects -- sewing centers, adult education, and even ditch-clearing work -- were initiated, often with substantial county financial and supervisory contributions. The problem was that for too many projects, although the work and workers had been identified and funding allocated, authorization to begin was often glacially slow in arriving. County commissioners were bombarded with complaints that all was ready, but nothing was happening; those most needing income were not working. A confusion of rules and regulations added to the frustration. Administrators for the various federal programs had diverse and sometimes conflicting explanations but seemingly no ability to clear the bottleneck.

Finally, in extreme exasperation, the San Juan County prosecuting attorney wrote directly to President Roosevelt and, after describing the nature of the islands and local industries, explained to the president:

"We are coming to you in this matter because we have spent endless time and money chasing around the officers which have, or claim to have, something to do with such matters and all we get out of them is words, words, and words.

"Meanwhile it is Christmas and we actually have approximately 200 persons in the county who need work desperately and are willing to work on the relief program and whom it will be necessary to provide maintenance for between now and April in some manner.

"You have the power under this bill to cut this red tape and you are respectfully requested to issue an order that any unemployed person in San Juan County, Washington, who is willing to work on a project under work relief be accorded that opportunity" ("Situation ...").

Two months passed before San Juan County received a brief reply. The matter had been referred to the administrator of the WPA.

Over the next years, projects, including road improvements around the county, were slowly begun, and the WPA continued to offer employment opportunities into the 1940s. Issues persisted, however; the WPA was extremely slow in sending payments and sometimes left county officials waiting months for tens of thousands of dollars.

Local Assistance Continues

Even with all the government programs in place, it was often local aid that was most readily available and effective. County commissioners struggled to keep up with local requests for assistance. The county budget for 1936 included the sum of $9392.50 for indigent care under the categories of care of persons, food supplies, medical aid, burials, transportation, drugs, and miscellaneous, along with $3,500 allocated for a monthly allowance for mothers' pensions. People often appeared at commissioners meetings to present their personal cases. Expenses for medical aid frequently exceeded the budgeted amounts.

Every small effort to help was appreciated. In a note to subscribers at the end of one difficult year, the editor of the Friday Harbor Journal commented, "owing to the close times and the realization that money is scarce the Journal has refrained from mailing out statements of account on subscriptions. We ask our readers to examine the label on their paper and if found to be in arrears to send a small remittance to apply on account. If our readers do this, it will aid the publishers materially to continue the Journal as one of the best home papers in the Northwest and make it a Happy New Year for all concerned" ("Friday Harbor in ..., " December 27, 1934). The paper continued to be published weekly without pause. Community organizations joined to prepare a generous supply of toys, children's books, clothing, and food for the needy every Christmas. Those seeking assistance even made an effort to help themselves and each other, creating an organization to aid the unemployed in better handling relief matters and understanding the programs available to them and how to apply.

As the 1930s drew to a close, the island economy finally began to improve and fewer requests were received for assistance, although the WPA continued to employ some islanders for several more years and new programs such as food stamps were still welcomed. The county social-security budget allocated for indigent services decreased, and almost no cash allowances were recorded. Medical services accounted for most of the costs; the county nurse, for example, often found it difficult to make her rounds without travel expenses exceeding the allotted funds. But these were problems that were more readily solvable, and optimism began to return to the islands.

Throughout this long and difficult decade San Juan County residents had largely been able to continue, with determination and generally good humor, their normal routines. Spring planting and autumn harvest continued on local farms. Fishing boats still plied local waters. Few businesses had closed. New movies were shown each week at the local theater and organizations sponsored frequent dances and other activities, bringing islanders together for social occasions and entertainment while providing opportunities for mutual support. As the 1940s began, the islands' future was looking brighter, and residents were thinking more positively of the opportunities ahead.


Gordon Carter, 85 Years of Service: The San Juan County Bank (Friday Harbor: Harbor Press, 1978), 1, 6-8; Paul Dorpat and Genevieve McCoy, Building Washington: A History of Washington State Public Works (Seattle: Tartu Publications, 1998), 10-15; Cecil Dryden, Dryden's History of Washington (Portland: Binfords & Mort, 1968), 271-78; Notice (sponsored by multiple merchants), Friday Harbor Journal, September 26, 1929, p. 4; "Additional Locals," Ibid., January 7, 1932, p. 2; "Relief Committee Appointed by Club," Ibid., January 28, 1932, p. 1; "Anacortes Expresses  Appreciation for Aid," Ibid., February 11, 1932, p. 1; "Local Committee Arranged Loan," Ibid., March 17, 1932, p. 1; "Future Looks Bright for the San Juan Archipelago," Ibid., March 24, 1932, p. 1; "San Juan County Debtless, Doleless, and Warrant Clear," Ibid., December 8, 1932, p. 1; "Welfare Work Carried on by Moose Women," Ibid., December 15, 1932, p. 1; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Ibid., January 26, 1933, p. 5; "Stress Self-help in Relief Report," Ibid., February 2, 1933, p. 1; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Ibid., February 16, 1933, p. 5; "San Juan Bank Open as Usual," Ibid., March 23, 1933, p. 1; "San Juan County Bank advertisement, Ibid., May 25, 1933, p. 1; "President Signs Farm Legislation to Help Prices," Ibid., May 25, 1933, p. 1; "Boys Arrive at CCC Camp," Ibid., June 1, 1933, p. 1; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Ibid., July 6, 1933, p. 5; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Ibid., July 13, 1933, p. 5; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-Shell," Ibid., August 3, 1933, p. 5; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Ibid., August 31, 1933, p. 5; "New Barracks to be Built Soon," Ibid., September 21, 1933, p. 1; "Help Given by the Red Cross," Ibid., November 9, 1933, p. 1; "CWA Official Visits Island," Ibid., December 21, 1933, p. 1; "Thirty Women Given CWA Work" Ibid., January 4, 1934, p. 1; "CWA Projects Big Payroll," Ibid., January 11, 1934, p. 1; "CWA Payroll for County," Ibid., March 1, 1934, p. 1; "Work Finished by CWA Women," Ibid., March 8, 1934, p. 1; "CCC Camp News," Ibid., March 29, 1934, p. 4; "WERA Takes Place of CWA," Ibid., April 5, 1934, p. 1; "CWA Drop Leaves Airports in Air," Ibid., April 26, 1934, p. 1; "Large Sum Received in County," Ibid., June 7, 1934, p. 1; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Ibid., November 22, 1934, p. 5; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Ibid., December 27, 1934, p. 5; "WERA Work in San Juan County," Ibid., January 10, 1935, p. 1; "Schedule WERA Representative," Ibid., January 17, 1935, p. 1; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Ibid., February 7, 1935, p. 5; "WERA Nursing Corrects Defects," Ibid., February 28, 1935, p. 1; "WPA Projects are Initiated," Ibid., December 19, 1935, p. 1; "Drainage Ditch Is Underway," Ibid., December 19, 1935, p. 1; "Facts Regarding WPA Employment," Ibid., January 2, 1936, p. 1; "Situation Is Referred to WPA," Ibid., January 16, 1936, pp. 1, 6; "New Start for Local Families," Ibid., January 30, 1936, p. 1; "Adult Education Is Well Received," Ibid., March 5, 1936, p. 1; "WPA Home Study Credits Given," Ibid., April 30, 1936, p. 1; "The Great Depression in Washington," University of Washington Pacific Northwest Labor & Civil Rights Projects website accessed June 19, 2018 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Stock market crash, called Black Tuesday, hits on October 24, 1929" (by Greg Lange), "Moran, Robert (1857-1943)" (by Cassandra Tate), "Civilian Conservation Corps begins building an observation tower on Mount Constitution, Orcas Island, in August 1935" (by Kit Oldham), "Great Depression, 1929-1939" (by David Wilma), "1930 Census ..." (by John Caldbick), and "Governor Clarence Martin signs the revenue act of 1935 on March 25, 1935" (by Frank Chesley) (accessed June 22, 2018); William H. Mullins, The Depression and the Urban West Coast, 1929-1933: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 1, 3-4, 10, 17, 23, 40, 76, 80-1, 87, 91, 107, 114, 117-19, 127-28, 131-32; Boyd C. Pratt, Lime: Quarrying and Limemaking in the San Juan Islands (Friday Harbor: Mulno Cove Publications, 2016), 25-26; "Record of the Proceedings," [San Juan County] Commissioners Journal: October 1915 to June 1936, November 1929 (p. 451), October 1930 (p. 466), November 1932 (p. 519), January 7, 1935 (pp. 568-69), January 14, 1935 (p. 571), February 4, 1935 (p. 573), February 11, 1935 (p. 575), March 4, 1935 (p. 576), April 1, 1935 (p. 580), October 7, 1935 (pp. 601, 603), November 2, 1935 (pp. 607-08), December 2, 1935 (p. 613), May 4, 1936 (pp. 633-34), San Juan County records, Friday Harbor, Washington; "Record of the Proceedings," Commissioners Journal: July 1936 to August 1950, August 3, 1936 (p. 7), January 11, 1937 (p. 30), March 1, 1937 (p. 37), March 7, 1938 (p. 82), April 4, 1938 (p. 85), August 1, 1938 (p. 104), January 9, 1939 (p. 158), April 3, 1939 (pp. 142-43), June 5, 1939 (p. 150), August 7, 1939 (p. 158), November 6, 1939 (p. 171), July 1, 1940 (p. 199), August 5, 1940 (p. 202), October 2, 1940 (p. 208), November 4, 1940 (p. 215), December 2, 1940 (p. 218), January 6, 1941 (p. 220), San Juan County records; Fred Splitstone, Orcas: Gem of the San Juans (East Sound: Darvill, 1954), 93; "Washington (state). Emergency Relief Administration," Social Networks and Archival Context website accessed April 14, 2018 (

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