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Heralding Our History: Lambertville weathered the Great Depression with community


It was the depths of the Great Depression, the worst economic period the United States had ever seen and the people of Lambertville were just as affected by this disaster as anyone. Lambertville entered the late 1920s and early ‘30s like so many small towns in America.

It was a town of hardworking people who were community minded. As the small city had strong regional ties to manufacturing, Lambertville was unfortunately positioned to be extraordinarily challenged with the poor economic times of the 1930s.

The question, however, wasn’t if the small city on the Delaware River was going to get through this very serious economic disaster but how would the people of Lambertville meet and overcome this seeming overwhelming challenge.

Lambertville always had an amazing sense of community both in good times and, maybe more importantly, in poor times. Whenever there was a need for the basic necessities, the people of the town would always come through.

According to The Lambertville Beacon, the presence of soup kitchens was present as early as the 1880s and the town council saw fit by 1924 to appoint an “Overseer of the Poor.”

Why were there many needy people in Lambertville during the 1920s which would have been a time of great prosperity for many just prior to the Great Depression?

The city was a regional industrial hub. The challenge was that the factories in town could not change with the times as manufacturing shifted from small local companies to larger corporations and manufacturing plants that produced much more on a larger scale. As early as 1909 the railroad moved its maintenance yard to the state capital of Trenton, the hairpin factory which opened at the start of the 20th century closed its doors by 1922, the Lambertville Pottery Company stopped production by 1925 and the Lambertville Rubber Factory closed due to competition.

The shuttering of the local manufacturing base unfortunately created a pretty bad economic situation before the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Once the Great Depression started in the United States, Lambertville, like every other municipality and community in the United States, was not spared. The unemployment rate rose to an unheard of 25%.

The question quickly became not if Lambertville was going to dig deep as a community to work together but exactly how.

There were two levels of assistance that came from within the town to help its fellow community members. The town government helped to install an economic safety net, and churches as well as other organizations went above and beyond to aid those in need.

The Lambertville City Council knew it had to act quickly as over 2,000 towns throughout the U.S. were bankrupt by the early part of the Great Depression. The council had an initial financial outlay for relief work of $2,500 in 1931. By 1932, the city council was requesting $1,000 per month from the state of New Jersey. Since the city council was able to be frugal during the 1920s it was able to remain solvent throughout the 1930s.

At the same time, however, the city government showed real compassion. The question of tax revenue was a serious concern for the city. With some serious belt tightening the town was able to balance so precariously on the fiscal tightrope of helping those in need while also not defaulting. This became a great challenge as the city refused to foreclose on those who were not able to pay their tax bill.

By the summer of 1932, the city council was providing tools and materials for work relief projects.

Early in the Great Depression, Lambertville was a mirror of what was happening across the nation. The federal government and the national news outlets were identifying that prosperity was “just around the corner.”

In the same way, The Beacon had articles that proclaimed any good economic news and the advertising had a definite positive spin as well.

If the city government was somewhat limited in what it could do, churches and other organizations of Lambertville really spearheaded the effort to help the local townspeople.

One example of a local organization at work in the mid-1930s, was the local chapter of the Catholic Daughters of America under the leadership of Alice Narducci, who went on to be a champion of the Lambertville Historical Society. Ms. Narducci organized a number of raffles and other fundraisers through the decade.

The first event had as door prizes of a half ton of coal and a set of flatware from the local Diamond Silver Company.

By 1935 more than $6,000 was raised to help alleviate the suffering of the unemployed.

To this day, it is a point of pride that the people of Lambertville were able to come together in a common effort during the depths of the Great Depression. Through the work of the local government as well as organizational and personal initiative the city was able to successfully manage through one of America’s most challenging times.

Peter Krais is a Lambertville Historical Society board member.

“Heralding Our History” is a weekly feature. Each month, the Herald delves into the history of one of its towns.

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