The 1930s - good and bad times in Camden

By Barbara F. Dyer | May 09, 2019
Courtesy of: Barbara Dyer Pictured is the Camden Opera House around the turn of the century.

Those were the years of the Great Depression and people in Camden were hit, but not like the rich people from the cities, who were losing their fortunes. We were used to living a simple life, but jobs were very scarce. As there were no zoning laws, we could raise chickens, pigs, ducks, etc., for meat, and planted vegetable gardens. Most families dug clams and they were frequently the meal. We were clean because mother always said, “Soap and water doesn't cost much.” No one expected much for Christmas and hand-me-down clothes were fine and accepted.

Because many “summer people” had chauffeurs, those chauffeurs held a ball in Camden and the admission price went to the “Cheer Up Club,” formed by Mrs. John T. Smythe for the purpose of furnishing 35 dinners weekly for the needy in town. With help from the businessmen and friends, she was able to run this program for seven weeks with a cost of $12.25 per week. The needy were many, as jobs were scarce and some of those who were lucky enough to have one received only half pay. But in a way, the Great Depression was not so bad for many of the people in Camden, as the small town, from my recollection, had only about 3,000 residents and they were one big happy family, ready to help one another.

Mary Louise Bok redecorated and remodeled the Opera House and that gave employment to 15 town men. Dominico Leo opened his barber shop for free haircuts to the unemployed. The New Year's Ball, held in the Opera House by the American Legion, was successful in forming the first Boy Scout Troop in Camden, and was the start of Troop 200. It was planned by George H. Thomas, the Rev. Ralph Hayden and Howard Anderson. Its first scoutmaster was A. Burton Stevenson.

In January of 1932, the House of David played basketball at the Y. M. C.A. against some local players, As they had full beards and long hair, their appearance was unusual in those days, and drew a big crowd. (The Y was located on Chestnut Street then and it had a basketball gym.)

Two events that happened back then have nearly disappeared. One was May Day Festivities by the Camden grade schools, when about 600 children marched to the Village Green to the sound of their toy band of drumsticks, cymbals and bells. A program was held and one girl was chosen “Queen of the May.” Then there was a Maypole dance by the seventh and eighth grades. It was also called “Health Day.” May baskets were another thing. Children loved to make May baskets, fill them with candy and hang them on the doorknob of other children they liked, and try not to be caught. I have found one each year on my kitchen door for the past 10 or more years. It is still a mystery, as I have not caught them, but it is always a pleasant surprise. Arbor Day was observed on May 6, 1932, by the Knowlton Street School by planting shrubs at the front and back of the building in honor of Mrs. Edward Bok and Edna St. Vincent Millay. At the meeting of the Camden Yacht Club, the regatta committee decided to defer the regatta because of the economy. They were never held again, but certainly were exciting during the previous three years. As a small child, I watched them from the shore between Marine Avenue and Sherman's Point. What memories and what speed; some even upset in the water.

The Camden Garden Club sponsored a flower show in the Opera House, with 700 in attendance. Also the eighth annual distribution of the Bok Awards was held that September. First prize of $100 for the best garden was won by Frank Alexander, best lawn to Mrs. Cyrus Brown and the new garden award went to Fred Beale. About $1,000 in prizes were given by the Boks and it inspired people to have nice-looking gardens and lawns.

Postmaster Leslie Ames announced that first-class postage would be increased to three cents in July of this year (1932). There were no such things as “Forever Stamps.” The Megunticook Players put on their first play of the season in the Grange Hall. (Don't look for it today, as it is no longer there.) The Camden District Nursing Association put on a play in the Opera House as a fundraiser. On July 11, 40 leaders of various organizations met with the town manager to plan and coordinate the welfare work needed. Then they formed the Camden Relief Association. President was the Rev. Ralph Hayden, secretary was John Tewksbury and treasurer was Elmer Joyce. Little red boxes were placed around town to help raise money for this effort. A benefit held at the Comique Theater resulted in an initial donation of $59. A plea was made for donations to this fund, and donors were acknowledged publicly in the Camden Herald.

In August, the editorial in the Camden Herald complained of the traffic congestion in town during the summer months. It was felt the shop owners could help by parking their cars a little way out of the business district. Now 87 years later, nothing has changed in that respect. Also, July was only 67 degrees, with 11 clear days and 4.52 inches of precipitation. History repeats itself.

For many years, a carnival was held in Rockport indoors in the winter months. This year it expanded, and was held in the summer on the new waterfront. The Rockport Education Fund and Alumni Association benefited from the proceeds. The carnival was held for three days in August and was very popular.

Camden came under a total eclipse of the sun in August. We lived next door to an MIT professor, who came with his family in the summer. He smoked glass for his children to look through and for us neighborhood kids. That was the first I had ever heard of a total eclipse.

As the depression became more noticeable in 1932, the mills of Camden were surviving and furnishing employment. The Knox Woolen Mill continued with steady work and the Mt. Battie Mill restarted that year. The Seabright Woven Felt Company had closed down for several months but resumed operations in September. The Penobscot Mill resumed operations and the Camden Woolen Company was busy with all 32 looms running six days and three nights. In spite of the mills, the unemployment situation was still serious. The Camden schools announced for the next six months, 5 percent of all school salaries would be donated to the Relief Association. This was on a voluntary basis but they had 100 percent participation.

The many organizations were going strong, such as the Amity Lodge of Masons; Maiden Cliff Rebekah Lodge; The I.O.O.F.; Mt. Battie Lodge No. 102; Garden Club; Megunticook Grange; Rotary; GAR; United Spanish War Veterans and Friends in Council. The town also had the first Brownie troop in Camden; the Boy Scout troop; the Arey-Heal post of the American Legion; the American Legion Auxiliary and Sons of the American Legion.

In the presidential elections, Franklin D. Roosevelt swept the country, with Maine and Vermont being the exceptions. With Thanksgiving approaching, the American Legion held a food sale and the Masons held a venison supper for “Food for the Relief Fund.” In December, the Legion put on a Minstrel Show in the Opera House and on the stage were 112 people. Mrs. Bok, Eugene Rich and the St. Thomas Episcopal Church provided wood for some of the needy families for heating and George Thomas furnished a quarter ton of coal to heat the headquarters on Washington Street, where they were open on Fridays and Saturdays to supply food and clothing for the needy. A program of Christmas music was held in the Opera House, with proceeds going to the Garden Club Christmas Dinner Fund.

Camden was a small town, but they always came together to help one another in any way they could.

 

Barbara F. Dyer has lived all her life, so far, in Camden and is the official town historian.

Pictured is a negative image of the interior of the Camden Opera House. (Courtesy of: Barbara Dyer)
Pictured is an undated photo of the Camden Opera House. (Courtesy of: Barbara Dyer)
Pictured is a present day photo of Rockport Marine Park. (Courtesy of: Barbara Dyer)
Comments (3)
Posted by: Katie Drinkwater | May 13, 2019 06:42

Posted by Dee Urquhart:  people helping those in need, beautiful!  Today, not so much. Nothing "Great" about that.



Posted by: Mary A McKeever | May 10, 2019 16:57

Well done Barbara! I love history. I guess our generation who lived through  WW2 appreciates reminiscences.

Great history and great pictures. Although it is your usual flair for history which peaks the memories and imaginations.

Mary "Mickey" (Brown) McKeever +:)



Posted by: Jeff Sukeforth | May 09, 2019 10:13

What another fantastic article about Camden! Good on ya Barbara.  On a side note if anyone might have any photos of the American Legion hall spoken about in this article they would like to share with the current Legion Post for historical purposes can you please call Jeff Sukeforth at 691-2270.

We are looking for any photos of the Legion from this era on if you have anything to share with us. We will make sure we obtain copies and get your originals back to you. Anything you might have we are interested in.

Thanks again Barbara!  And thanks to those who might be able to help us out with photos, writings, anything Camden Legion related!



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