Camera Rolls: 318:72-75
Sound Rolls: 318:38-39
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Stephen Kahn , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on December 18, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
Take number one.
We were talking yesterday about how there was, in some parts of the country, there was a real optimism around 1937, 1938. Were things getting better in 1937, where you were?
Well, in '37 I was in Portland, Oregon and the effect of the Depression was a little late in arriving on the West Coast, but when it got there it stayed there and conditions were, I say, from bad to awful, take your choice. There was a beginning of a hope, especially because of the promise offered on the great river developments that President Roosevelt had undertaken back in 1935, and somewhat earlier, patterned after the Tennessee Valley Authority. But the Depression continued in the Northwest I would say until the advent war, about 1940, '41. Then there was a great influx.
What did you see around you in '38 that told you that it was still bad, that people were struggling? You described some things for me yesterday, and your own situation as well.
- Well, I came back to Oregon in '36 from the Tennessee Valley Authority hoping to start a similar development in the Northwest, the Columbia Valley Authority. In 1937 we actually started the power administration there, and I remember one of the first things I did was take the administrator down to a bridge just three or four blocks from our headquarters, and there was an encampment of perhaps eighty or ninety men with children and wives living in paper shacks, roasting potatoes over open fires or in empty barrels. Anything to keep out of the rain, because it rains eight, nine months a year in Portland.
What was the administrators reaction?
He was slightly shocked. He had come from a sheltered life as head of the Public Utilities Commission in Illinois and he wasn't used to, I guess, getting down to the Hartopoli [sic] in the areas under bridges.
You had said something about, that you were writing menus or something? Can you tell me about that?
Well, when I came West again, back to Portland to take the bar exam, I was very much interested in bringing the public power movement to life in Oregon, which I had engaged in some years previously without much effect. We started the People's Power League, and we ran a surgeon named Dr. Haas for Governor of the State on a public power program, and that really captured the imagination of people throughout the state. I remember I had just completed a biography of Senator Norris, who was the Father of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and I was very much inspired to see if we can't do the same thing in Oregon, in Washington, in Idaho, in Montana. But they were hard times. I remember my lunch often would consist of "all the buttermilk you can drink for five cents" at the buttermilk corner. But then I got a job typing menus for my lunch. The lunch cost twenty-five cents, and this went on for a month or so, 'till the fellow who owned this little restaurant said, "I'm sorry Steve. I'm going to start writing the menus by hand." So that was the end of my free meal. Oh, there were lines of people getting sandwiches at the local churches, but people took it a lot better, I think, than one would expect. They felt that everybody else was sharing the misery, and they helped each other out. I remember my father had a friend across the street who was a contractor, but there was no building. So he, my father went and brought a sack of beans and a side of bacon, and I'll never forget the thanks we got for that. But, there were all sorts of stories. When I was at college earlier in the Depression I remember people had started a co-operative farm just out in Eugene, Oregon. Unfortunately they had a high mortgage on it, and there were perhaps twenty people at this table eating bread with a white substance, and my roommate says, "What is that?" They said, "It's margarine." He said, "What's margarine?" I said, "Oh Dick your father has a fancy restaurant in Portland, so you've never seen it, but margarine is what most people eat who can't afford butter." And that shocked him and probably turned him from a very conservative person into quite a liberal and emotional person. He went on to become a United States Senator finally, and then we wrote this book together on Senator Norris. So it was a very interesting metamorphosis.
What did the building of the dam represent at this time amidst all this hardship? What was the significance of the dam?
I think it mainly represented hope for a lot of people, because there wasn't much to be hopeful for before. The main industry throughout the states was the forest products industry. There were saw mills and a few plywood plants that had started but unemployment was rampant. Douglas Fir for lumber was down to eleven dollars a thousand board feet. Right now it's about eight-hundred dollars, so you can see the difference in the price level of things. A loaf of bread was five cents. A can of Campbell's Pork and Beans was five cents. I remember when I was at college at Eugene we'd subsist on day-old pie, so-called. They were about four days old. They were all sour, but for fifteen cents you get a pie about fifteen inches in diameter and that would be, not a treat, that would be a meal. I remember there were people right outside of the edge of town who were compelled to saw through a whole log before they would be given a bowl of soup and a slab of bread by the Salvation Army or whatever the relief agency was. We would buy cans of vegetables for five cents or I remember school chums would raid the fields for winter vegetables like beets and potatoes and carrots, and one day I brought a can of corned beef around and I was king for the day. They hadn't;t tasted meat in weeks. Although you could get room and board for twelve dollars a week-a month, not a week, but a month. So they were hard times throughout the state.
So something like the dam represented a better future?
It represented hope, not merely for an immediate job, although that was very important because they were paying skilled carpenters fifty cents an hour,
** and they had to drive forty-two miles from Portland to the dam and to the dam site and back. But it represented the prospect of electrifying the whole Northwest
** and providing pumps for the farms so they could pump the water during the dry period. July and August are dry months especially in the [sic] Lima Valley. And there was the hope of bringing industry there to replace the single forestry industry that permeated the state. And they were quite successful in that respect. When the dam was completed and the first power was generated they signed contracts with the Aluminum Company of America, with Olin Chemical and half a dozen other plants to use this cheapest power in America. It was produced, it was sold for less than a third of a cent a kilowatt-hour. Now it's up around eight, nine, ten cents a kilowatt-hour hour. So you can see, that attracted the aluminum industry, the chemical industries, and of course the great bonus was when they found that they had a source of aluminum for airplanes when the war broke out in '41.
So this new thing electricity was really gonna be the big savior for the economy of the Pacific Northwest?
That's right. You see, there was no coal or oil in Oregon or Washington, and very little in Idaho, and the only fuel we had, pretty much, was either imported oil for the rich people up on the hill, or in our case our family had the slabs that came off Douglas Fir logs that were squared off and the good part of the log shipped to Japan. Called Jap Squares. And then we replaced it with saw dust finally. We thought we were doing well. But when I got back from the Army my wife got tired of shoveling sawdust, so we joined people all throughout the area in electrifying. I mean, electric heat in the homes. That became the great convenience, and quite an industry developed as a result.
So the energy source of the future, I guess, when it was first introduced?
People who had been quite conservative realized that the development of this great river system for water and for power and for navigation, for flood control could contribute to their lives in a variety of ways. But I think it was the inspiration of TVA, the Tennessee Valley Authority, that inviewed [sic] them with the idea that they could duplicate the same thing in the Northwest.
Do you remember anything very specific about the economic downturn in '37 and '38, WPA cuts...?"
Well, in '37 I remember my situation wasn't very good. Ninety-five percent of the lawyers in Portland were on relief, on WPA or some other type of relief, and I did odd jobs after I finished writing this book, for different lawyers, writing briefs. But I remember I went out to foreclose a number of gasoline tanks in a service station. I tried to appear tough, but the fellow smiled and said, "Sonny, you want those tanks, go take 'em." I didn't take 'em. But after that I went to work for the government, and I said, "We've got to do something about this." And I think we did.
So you telling me about the hardships that were still persisting in '37 for you, and it was difficult for lawyers.
That's right, and I had a chance to go work for the government. Let me say, preceding that I spent a great deal of time organizing this People's Power League, and there was a great division of opinion as to what should be done with the power from all these dams. Whether it should be concentrated at the dam for the benefits of large corporations or whether the transmission lines should be built throughout the area to bring the power to the valleys and mountains and other states that surrounded the Columbia River. And of course the People's Power League was endeavoring to spread the power benefits as widely as possible, just as they had done in the seven states in the Tennessee Valley. Dr. Haas ran for governor on that program, he dropped out, but they succeeded in defeating the very conservative government who was pretty tied up with the private interests. So, Franklin D. Roosevelt at that time, 1937, appointed a man who we all supported who was J.D. Ross, who had been superintendent of the Seattle City Light System and incidentally was a personal friend of FDR. And he was determined to spread the benefits of power throughout, not only the immediate area, states nearby, but he had the vision of long distance transmission of electricity that would benefit the entire nation. Particularly direct current transmission, which was unheard of. All transmission in those days was alternating current, AC, and he was going to build 500,000 volt lines that would reach down to California and across Idaho into the other states and he finally did that over the years. They thought he was a dreamer but he was quite practical, and yet he was a dreamer at the same time. He dreamed of people having heat pumps in their backyards where the heat would be extracted from the Earth, and they would heat their homes with their heat pumps. That has developed too. So it was quite inspiring to work for a man of that type, and I suggest we make a film about this, as [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] done with the Tennessee Valley. He said, "Yes Steve, we ought to do that, but I'd like to make the film." He would carry this old Kodak Camera around, especially when he went to see the President, to take pictures of his family. I suppose it wasn't until after he left that we finally started making a film or two ourselves.
Let's shift gears little bit and talk about the war, which was also mounting overseas at this time. Do you remember when you began to feel that it might be inevitable that the United States might get involved in the turmoil going on?
I remember very well, because we were making our first film called "Hydro" about the benefits of integrated development of the great river system. And just at that time, in May of 1940 I recall the German Panzer Divisions broke through the Maginot Line in France, and
for the first time America started to wake up, to realize that they had to face dictatorships, not only in Germany but in Italy and Japan, that might threaten to take over the rest of the world and would we be next?
** And so that alarmed President Roosevelt, so he started a program of trying to help the Allies, only there was a great deal of isolationist sentiment in this country, especially in the Middle West. So we at once turned our attention to what could be done to speed up the development of industries that were essential to our survival. For instance, the production of aluminum became concentrated in the Northwest because of the cheap electricity which was available in large quantities. Also the construction of ships. They required a tremendous number of ships to move all the men and materials overseas, especially since the German U-Boats were sinking English and our ships almost every day. The first year of the war was a very gloomy one for a lot of people because we were not doing very well, but we were building the sinews of strength that ultimately achieved the victories that we finally got.
Talk to me a little bit about your personal feelings about what was going on abroad, and what you felt the U.S. responsibility was.
Well, I had been aware of the German situation for a long time. Senator Newberger, when he was in college with me, he went to Germany and saw what was going on, and he came back quite a liberal and we wrote an article for the Republic together about the dangers of the rising fascism in Germany. It had risen already, as a matter of fact. This is in '34. But for most Americans they were still asleep. There was very little in the way of armaments, and the Army was mainly a way of employing the unemployed. I remember during the depth of the Depression I was approached by a recruiting officer and he said, "Enlist in the Army and you get three square meals a day and you can see the world." I said, "I don't want to see the world, and I don't need the Army food. I hear its awful." But that was the nature of the Army in those days, and of armament. It wasn't, as I said, until 1940 that America really woke up. I remember, I was a member of a group called The Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. We had to counterbalance the isolationist sentiment that was still prevalent during that period in the Middle West. It was something like the First World War. I recall my research for this biography of Senator Norris. There was a lot of opposition to World War One with much less reason.
Why were you so active on this committee [Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies]? What did you feel was at stake? Why was it so important?
Well, because England was being besieged, and it was the last hope for saving the continent. Norway had been invaded, Denmark had been taken over, the Lowlands had been overrun. The Germans were down in Africa by that time, and over in Greece. It was quite evident, at least in my judgment, that we were facing a dictator who was really mentally unstable in that you could not depend upon him to keep his agreements, as indicated by the way he broke his truce-not truce-but his agreement with Russia, or the Soviet Union, I guess it was called in those days. In Japan the tide was rising too. We were on the Pacific Coast, we felt quite vulnerable to Japan. In fact, right after the war, after Pearl Harbor, a few months later Oregon was shelled in two places, although we weren't told about it until after the war. One at Astoria and down at Brookings on the coast.
Tell me about Pearl Harbor. Where were you when you heard the news?
I was riding up to the Columbia River towards the dam at about eleven thirty, and they broke into the symphony announcement that Pearl Harbor had been attacked.
** I didn't even know where Pearl Harbor was, or at least I had never heard of it before. I had never been to Hawaii. But that night we mobilized our staff and we all went out with shotguns and rifles,
** and anybody who happened to have an old pistol, to guard the transmission line crossings because we were afraid the Japanese would try to blow them up to disrupt the transmission of power to the aluminum companies and the chemical companies that were vital to our war effort.
What happened to the economy in the Pacific Northwest after...?
Well, it really almost miraculously boomed. Sixteen year-old girls were, for the first time in their lives, given jobs. Even I went to work in the ship yards at night after a full day at the office, and I'd work from eight in the evening until four in the morning, as I recall at the ship yards in Portend. There were sixteen year-old girls welding steel sheets and pulling cables and everybody pitched in. I also made eighty-seven cents an hour, as I recall, for my night labor. Henry Kaiser, who had been one of the builders of Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dams, recruited people from all over the country, from the South, from the ghettos of New York, and brought train-loads of people to work in the ship yards and we finally built ships in thirty days, and finally we were able to complete a ship in ten days. Of course, all they would do was assembling the ship, it'd be sub-contracted out. I think, if we could do that in those days, why can't we do that now to revive our economy, and to utilize the talents that we have and the willingness of people because when they get together and have a cause to work for, they'll do it.
It was such a tremendous achievement, that war effort.
Take three is up.
I want to shift gears back a little bit again. You went to the San Francisco World's Fair in 1940. I wonder if you can describe that a little bit for me. Tell me what you were most impressed with.
Well I had come down from Oregon to San Francisco, primarily to start a film on the subject of the Columbia River. And we went across to Treasure Island where this magnificent fair was going was on, and it offered quite a contrast with what was happening right outside of it, say on the streets of San Francisco or Los Angeles or New York, or even Portland, Oregon. They of course tried to hype things up and cheer up people and make them believe that a new era had arisen. I remember the Pacific Gas and Electric Company was especially vigorous in that field. Being interested in the power question I naturally gravitated toward their particular booths, but I was more interested in what was happening in the valleys rather than the cities, 'cause that's where the migrant problem had come into play. Hoards of migrants had come in from Oklahoma and Arkansas and Mississippi hoping to get jobs picking the crops because they had been "tractored-out" as Steinbeck had pointed out in the Grapes of Wrath, which by the way inspired me to see if we couldn't do something to help with that problem.
I visited one of the first labor camps there at Bakersfield and I heard some stories
** that really curled my hair about
** the mistreatment of the migrant workers, and the very low wages they were paid, and the bad health conditions of the children, the little children working in the fields. And I remember Bob Flaherty, the famous documentary film man, telling me of a scene he had shot the day before. He says, "There was a girl in her sleep, about seven years old, and she was moving her hands like this." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Well, she's dreaming she's picking peas."
** They had seven-year-olds and six-year-olds and five-year-olds working in the fields because a family couldn't exist on the labor of one man. And then these people, I had seen them come up to Oregon too, to pick hops in the Lima Valley and to pick apples in Hood River and Wenatchee and Yakima and places like that. And they all came west with the hope that this would mean a new life for them, because the west since the days of 49ers, the miners, always thinking "all gold and sunset", the opportunity that might present itself that they could never have at home. Maybe it will happen yet, because a lot of things start on the West Coast, like the winds and the clouds move east to the Atlantic and spread the word. Even our Congressman has become head of the Office of Management and Budget and I think he's going to stir things up. That's Leon Panetta. He believes that you don't have to buy—throw money at problems, but there are things that you can do to solve the problems and still maintain a sound economy.
Take four is up.
It's interesting you're talking about the promise. It seems like the whole end of the decade there was this idea of there being a promise, promise for the future, and it was never quite realized until the war came.
That's pretty much the case, but you see we didn't have much of an opportunity because, although there was a tremendous amount of power in the Columbia River, the greatest power streamer on the continent if not the whole hemisphere, the transmission had not yet been built very far. The industries had just started developing and these were the primary industries and not the secondary ones that utilize the aluminum and the chemicals and the plastics. Right now I think we're facing a similar era in the Silicon Valley. I think here in California and down in Southern California and up in Oregon, Vancouver, Portland, Corvalis, there are large technological developments, especially in the computer field and the software field. I think that that offers great promise, and I think those things will spread east as the months go ahead if we have the collaboration between government and industry and academia and labor. In other words, we have to work together on it.
I was just about to ask you for some sort of summary thoughts about the decade and I wonder if one of the things that came out of that area was the different kind of role that government played. What are your thoughts on that?
Well, I raised that question with my economics professor Donald Erb, a brilliant fellow at Eugene who later became President of the University after a stay at Stanford, and he says, "Industry cannot exist in modern society apart from government. And the same is true with labor and with education. They all have to work together." And while he didn't express these things in the classroom he did tell us in bull sessions, in the evening when we'd go around and say, "What can be done to meet the situation?"
Is that something that came out more in the '30s?
Yes, because the great promise...there was immediate relief providing jobs for the unemployed with the WPA, the Works Progress Administration. In every field there were projects for writers and projects for artists. They were sweeping the streets, raking leaves as they called it, was much more than that, and people went to work for twenty-five or thirty cents an hour, but that was a lot of money in those days. When I was in school I was even on a project like that, revising the criminal code for twenty-five cents hour. The problem was I could only work forty hours a month, and that was only ten dollars. But you can live on ten dollars. So they provided immediate hope and at the same time they built these structures, diverted rivers and built dams and irrigated thousands of acres to provide...looking ahead to the future. And I think that's what we have to do now. We have to solve our immediate short-term problems and look ahead to the long-term structural problems that we must correct.
How do you think living through those years of hardship, economic hardship, changed you, changed your outlook?
Well, it fortified my view, what Donald Erb told me, that people have to work together. The government has to work not in adversarial position with either labor or industry, but we have great potential. We have an enormous country with a background that's, you know, the number one nation in the world. The hope of the peoples of Europe and Asia, and they came here to get the opportunity for a better life themselves and especially their children. And I became convinced that the government has a role and we should not belittle it and we should examine carefully what it does to see that the funds are not wasted. There are ways to employ the talents we have in this country, and the resources we have, to correct all the problems that we failed to meet before hand, and end the eras of speculation and have some honest financing, whether it's in the banks or in the public sector or the private sector. There's hope in America, and I think that I'm encouraged very much by the spirit which seems to be taking hold here, almost Christmas Eve 1992.
Stephen Kahn, take number five coming up.
Can you tell me that story again about what you did the administrative [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] ?
Well, in March of 1939, just after our administrator James D. Ross had died, and all his plans were up in the air, his great visions of the future, we had an administrator come out from Illinois to run the whole power program. Ivan [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] he was the economist, we were determined to figure out what we could do to inspire him and help solve some of the pressing problems that confronted the people of the entire Northwest, and perhaps set a pattern for the rest of the nation, just like TVA had done back in the early days. And to impress him with how bad the situation was, we said, "Just three blocks away from here we can give you an example." So he reluctantly got on his overcoat-it was always raining in Portland at that time of the year-March, and we walked down Grand Avenue to the big bridge that went over Sullivan's Gulch. And there look down we could see a whole bee hive of people-children, women, men-huddled under the bridge to keep out of the rain. They built little tar paper shacks there and they were cooking potatoes or what have you over open fires or in tin cans. I said, "This is just one illustration that is close to our headquarters," but the forest industry that prevails throughout this area is in bad shape. The price of lumber is down to as low as eleven dollars. That's unheard of. And the mills are closed. I said, "I used to have a job at twenty-five cents an hour helping a night watchman when I was at college, and that was four years ago."
So these people were living just down the street from your office?
That's right, and the contrast was, right above the bridge was Sears-Roebuck, the big store where you could spend your money if you had any. Stores were pretty empty in those days. There was something we had to do to inspire the people to believe that they had more than just a public utility operation to do. They had to relate this whole construction program, development program to solving some of these pressing problems. That could justify the expenditures that were being made by the federal government, because the state government couldn't do it, the cities couldn't do it, and if the communities could help each other they took in each other's washing, but they couldn't help provide the meat on the table or the bread for the kids.
Take number six, Stephen Kahn.
Will you tell me again about your visit to the fair, and what you were most impressed and struck by?
In the spring of 1940 I left Portland to go down to California. I had just read and re-read Steinbeck's book The Grapes of Wrath and I wanted to see for myself how bad conditions were. I had heard about it during the earlier years of the EPIC Plan when they were having the elections in California. I was up at college in those days, and I wanted to see if they actually changed much, whether conditions were still bad or whether it was just a fanciful thing Steinbeck had written about. But it was there. The great contrast was between the magnificent city of San Francisco, the new bridges they were building and the World's Fair that was being held on Treasure Island when they predicted a rosy future and thousands of people had come from all over the country to see what the west could offer again. They had dreams of days of '49 or the World's Fair of 1914 in San Francisco. It was the hope that it would be a new era. That was in '39, the fair started, but in '40 I looked and conditions were still bad. It wasn't until the Germans actually crossed the Maginot Line and were threatening Paris and finally taking it, that America started to wake up, that there was a threat that faced them, not only England and the rest of the continent, what was left of it, but the entire world because we were suspicious of Japan at that time. They had a military dictatorship. Italy had a military dictatorship. So my viewpoint changed somewhat as to what we ought to do with our great federal projects, and became evident that we had to develop the industries in the Northwest to provide the sinews of war and also opportunities for employment in the piece that was to follow, because you can't be strong in one field unless you're strong in the other. You can't be strong in the military and have a weak economy, and vice-verse. Or the strong health of your people and the education of your people. But there were immediate problems in those days and I said, "Perhaps we can inspire some of our people to realize them and show this a shining example just like I learned back at TVA two or three years previously." Maybe I was just an incredible idealist, but there was a determination and an opportunity to do something. I said, "Let's go for it."
Was there greater idealism, do you think, for a brief period in the thirties? Was there a great idealism?
Yes. We hadn't been subjected to the "Go-Go Era" of the '80s. There had been speculation in the '20s, but most people had not been directly concerned with it. But in the '80s we had greater expectations. We had television, for one thing, that showed all the goodies that people could have, two cars in every garage. In those days it was only a car in every garage. Unfortunately in this era we have problems that didn't exist at that time. We have more problems of education and health problems, AIDS epidemics, loss of our manufacturing industries. All of these factors didn't exist in those days. We were at the edge, end of a business cycle back in the '30s, or beginning of the '30s, but now we're more than at the end of a business cycle. We're at the end of a period when structural adjustment is obviously necessary and our government has to work with out people. We can't continue to have an adversarial relationship of business and labor, government and academia, but I'm confident if we all work together, that if they co-operate the spirit that has made us indomitable will rise again. And I think of the pioneers who crossed the plains and went across the mountains and came down to San Francisco, and this was all reflected in the World's Fair that day. It gave us a glint of the future and inspired us to see what we could do to make it come back.