The Great Depression hits Kent State

Kristine Gill

Students at Kent State during the Great Depression could not afford to live on campus.

Sophomore architectural studies major Nathan Hooks has some experience with living in a box. Hooks participated in the Habitat for Humanity sleep out event this fall, joining dozens of students in making forts out of cardboard to sleep in, in an effort to raise awareness of the plight of the homeless.

He didn’t make it through the night though.

“It started to rain,” he said. “And it wasn’t one of those things where they forced you to stay out.”

So Hooks and a few other students ducked indoors.

“I can’t imagine what it would be like having to find a box to sleep in every night,” Hooks said. “Especially if it rains, your box is screwed.”

Students in 1931 didn’t have that option. Despite a reduction in meal plan costs, students at Kent State during the Great Depression could not afford to live on campus. Tuition hikes and a new out-of-state rate made it difficult. When two such students decided to move into the abandoned Kent family barn on the edge of campus, the university looked away.

Coeds in long dresses perform a maypole dance on the lawn in front of Franklin Hall. Photo courtesy of Kent State Archives

“There were Hoovervilles on the campus and Hoovervilles in many communities in the country,” said Phillip Shriver, author of the history book on the university titled “The Years of Youth.” “They were built of cardboard and metal and the one on campus was there for a year from 1931 to 1932.”

But when four more students moved into the barn they had started calling “Bachelor Hall,” something had to be done. “They deemed it a threat to their safety and ordered it demolished,” Shriver said.

William Hildebrand, author of “A Most Noble Enterprise: The Story of Kent State University, 1910-2010,” said the campus Hooverville was treated in the same way shantytowns in the community would have been.

“They called them tramps and kicked them out, but of course they were just homeless people,” he said.

Sophomore architecture major and Habitat for Humanity secretary Yana Grinblat said sleeping in a box was uncomfortable at best.

“College students have more privileges than the homeless, since they can afford to go to school at all,” she said. “But it’s heartbreaking that they had to resort to constructing makeshift shelters because they couldn’t afford dorms.”

The school began its slow transition to more of a commuter campus during this time because living off campus and driving in was cheaper than paying room and board. Students engaged in free activities as entertainment with spring Maypole dance celebrations and step singing, where students gathered in front of buildings on campus to sing in groups.

Hildebrand writes that students survived on diets of coffee and stale crullers, twisted donuts topped with icing or sugar.

Shriver attended junior high and high school in Garfield Heights during the Depression and remembers the struggles his family went through. When his father agreed to continue working his teaching job at Cleveland public schools during the Great Depression, it was with the understanding that he wouldn’t be paid.

“He decided that rather than simply sitting at home, he would teach every day and have something to do,” Shriver said.

That’s what many Kent State students thought, too. Rather than waste time finding jobs that were scarce, they took classes at the school, tripling the enrollment during President James Engleman’s tenure from 1928 to 1938.

Shriver’s father taught for eight months in 1933 for what were called scrips, IOUs from the government to be paid back after the worst of the depression. Kent State and the city of Kent took to printing their own sort of currency, too.

Hildebrand said the university began issuing scrips to its faculty and staff, which could be used on campus and in town for things like groceries. President Engleman had already cut faculty salaries and eliminated one of the summer sessions to save money. Scrips fell in line with the national trend.

“It didn’t last very long, but just an example of how dire things were,” he said.

Things became even bleaker when in April of 1933, the Kent campus was surveyed as a potential site for an insane asylum.

“There was a state rep from Ohio who said that the time had come to look to the needs of the persons with disabilities particularly in the insane category,” Shriver said. “We didn’t have the facilities for the clinically insane or mentally handicapped who were sleeping on floors for lack of beds.”

On top of that, 4,000 Ohio teachers were unemployed, making the mission of a teacher training school seem obsolete. The state said the time had come to convert a normal school to fulfill a better purpose and began an investigation of the state schools.

“It was pretty clear they had Kent in their sites,” Hildebrand said. “Kent had a much more developed campus than Bowling Green did.”

But there was such an uproar from students, faculty and the city that the men in Columbus backed down. No school was converted into an asylum that year.

“It was a near miss that Kent got out of that. It was by the skin of their teeth.” Hildebrand said. “Some people would argue it’s always been an insane asylum, but we don’t have to believe that, do we?”

And amid all the troubles brought on by the depression, the college was overcoming its own separate roadblocks.

President John McGilvrey had been fired in 1926, but continued to work toward his original goal of making the school a university.

“McGilvrey kept pushing and pushing and asked for permission from Engleman who, somewhat reluctantly agreed, for establishing an alumni association,” Shriver said.

And so with a force of more than 7,000 alumni, McGilvrey petitioned the state for a bill that would make his dream a reality.

In May of 1935, it came true.

“Both McGilvrey and Engleman were present when the bills passed,” Hildebrand wrote in his book. “And proving that history has a sense of symmetry, the man who signed the legislation into law on May 17, 1935, was Governor Martin L. Davey, founder of the Board of Trade that brought the normal school to Kent.”

Contact enterprise reporter Kristine Gill at [email protected].