Camera Rolls: 311:40-42
Sound Rolls: 311:23-24
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Ray Smith , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on February 21, 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.*
OK. Let's begin by—
Why don't you begin by just telling me any memories you have of Henry Ford. Did you ever see Henry Ford?
Oh, most certainly I, I used to see him. Both, Mr. and Mrs. Ford liked to come out to receptions, wedding receptions, and then, I never saw him too closely, I mean, but then he'd have these parties down at Dearborn. First, it was in the, in the main part, the part of the museum, and then they built Edison Institute, and then the parties were there. I can't remember how we were invited, whether they, either it was a telephone [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] or a written invitation. And then the people would go, and they'd, the Fords would greet you when you, when we came in graciously. And then they'd do the square dances. Mr. Lovett would call off the, the dances, and some people were crazy about them. Other people weren't too enthusiastic about the square dances. But Mr. Ford and Mrs. Ford you could tell thoroughly enjoyed them. And he, if there was a very attractive girl came in in an old-fashioned dress, we'd all, we'd joke that he'd be dancing with her before the evening was over. And usually that was the case. We were not supposed to have even, we were not supposed to have liquor on our breath, and we weren't supposed to smoke their either. I got caught once smoking on the deck with a friend of mine, and we came out and Mr. Ford caught us, and we thought we'd never be invited again. But nothing resulted from it.
What, what did he say when he caught you?
I can't recall what he said, but maybe he just looked at us, I can't remember. [laughs] But, he, I mean, they, they were very much opposed to both drinking and smoking.
Was he a pretty conservative guy?
Oh, I would say so, yes, wiry, small, and very, he was a very, he loved to join in on that dancing. He went in there. Both of them did.
Was that dancing considered kind of old-fashioned at that time?
Well, there was square-dancing, well, they were all old-fashioned dances, I mean, the Virginia reel and all those things like that, I forget the, I forget the other names.
Were those, were they different from the dances that people were doing in the rest of Detroit?
Oh yes, oh yes. Detroit at one time had a great deal of dancing, a great deal of coming-out parties, so that was very different. These were old-fashioned, I mean, they'd be what you considered, compared, I mean, to the, to the dances. We didn't do anything like the fox trot or any of that down there. It all the square dances where, where the things were called off.
I've heard that some Ford employees were required to come to the dances. Did you know anything about that?
I don't know, I don't believe it, I don't know. We all, we went, as I remember very definitely we went with a black tie, and then they had valet service parking the cars. That's my recollection, that he had all that kind of service. And then after the, and that's pretty good exercise, too, and after we danced, why then they served a nice, little light refreshments. Then we all said goodnight to Mr. and Mrs. Ford, went on our way.
Great. Excellent description. Can you tell me if, if, if you were at the dance, looked around the hall, can you just describe to me what it would look like, what kinds of people you would see and what they would be doing?
Oh, there were mostly, I'd say the big majority would be from out here. But, I mean, that wasn't necessary at all, because the Fords had friends in Bloomfield, several from Bloomfield, and up north [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] , there were different ages, too. Now my group, the few that I went with, were the, were the younger group, really. And then, but there were a very, very nice selection of people, generally.
Were some people trying to sneak into the men's room with a little hip flask? Or—
Not to my knowledge. No, I think they all quite followed the, the requests of the Fords.
I see. Great, great.
There would, no—I'm sure they wouldn't be invited if they didn't.
Let's talk about, in the 1920s and the early 1930s, what was, what was your profession? What did you do for a living?
Well, I was with the Detroit Trust Company. I started with them. I graduated from college in 1920, and I went with Paine-Webber for a short time, and then I went with Detroit Trust Company. And, in those, I was very interested in real estate. I had different jobs there, and then I had, and then we got into real estate financing, bong issues, so forth.
In the, when the Depression hit, 1930, 1931, were there problems for people in real estate? What sort of problems were you facing?
Oh, the problems were desperate here, the real estate situation. Now, for instance, our own real estate that were, the leases, they had to foreclose on the leases. You were left with unpaid taxes, all kinds of problems. And all the hotels here, I think the Statler was the only one that didn't go through foreclosure during that, that period. Of course, that was after the banks closed.
In the early days of the Depression, were people able to, to pay their rents, tenants?
Well, no, some weren't able to pay. That's where, that's where the problem was. And people would work for you for almost nothing, I mean, if you'd give them quarters to live. In our own experience, we had a, back here, we owned the property back there, and our gardener, we were so short of cash, too, but he was getting before $140 a month plus his quarters and stuff, and then after the banks closed and they grabbed everything, why, he was very pleased to work for $40 a month.
This was your gardener?
Yeah. And it was, it was hard work, too, here. That was just during the, for, for a period after the banks closed. See, cash, nobody had, see, with 90% of the banks closed, see, everybody was so short of cash. Some people had some connections in New York and got money.
If you were a landlord and you owned a building, and you had, say, fifty or sixty tenants, and they could pay their rent, what would you do?
Well, you were stuck. You couldn't have a vacant building, either. So you just work it out that that's, you don't know what you'd do. I mean, the same way quite a few people that invest their money in land contracts, of course, those are subject to mortgages. Those land, the mortgages were foreclosed, so that wiped out the, the land contract interest. And that hit many people hard. There were so many vacant properties and it was, it was, it, it was just terrible. And of course the food lines. A lot of people didn't have food.
Was it occasionally necessary to have people evicted from properties?
Can you tell me about that?
Well, they, I don't know too much, I didn't have much to do with that, really, but I know lots of people were evicted during that period. I mean, you see were they were evicted by different ways, either by, if they were tenants, they'd be evicted, or they were evicted if they were buying on the contract and the people foreclosed on the contract. Many were evicted, and lots of your big houses were for sale for almost, very, very reasonable prices.
What sort of, what sort of place was Grosse Pointe in those days?
Well, Grosse Pointe was kind of a little different from now, wasn't built up so much. You see, these, these, along here particularly, the big places have all been cut up and subdivided.
Back in, back in those days, what was it, compared to the rest of Detroit, let's say? What was it like?
Oh, well, it was just a lovely residential suburban area, although there were a lot of little small houses out here, too, which there should be. And, of course, in those days we always had the, the big shots, they, they lived pretty well, too. They had all their big houses and their chauffeurs, butlers, and stuff like that. There were quite a few of those. That—times have certainly changed. Now—
Hold on one second. We have to change film, here. You're doing great.
Did you ever meet Frank Murphy?
Yes, I knew him fairly well, not intimately at all. But I was in several gatherings with him quite frequently. And had very, some very close mutual friends.
What sort of man was he?
Well he was very, quite likeable. He's a bit controversial, of course, but—
Why was he controversial?
I don't know, of course his politics and different things. But the, this one friend of mine, the two of them liked to go to boxing matches together. Frank seemed to like those. And he used to date quite a few of the girls around town, too, and he'd come to the parties.
Tell me what it was about his politics that was controversial.
Well, well, of course, he was a staunch Democrat in a way, I suppose that would be part of it. And, but, I, I can't say too much. I think, I think in general he was late, personally, too. You know, that would be my opinion of him. He lived, of course, he was born in Michigan, he, he came from Harbor Beach. Now there's an association there, summer resort, but he, they lived right in town, and the house is still there. And there's kind of a little museum. I haven't been there for several years, but there was a little bit of a museum in connection with it. They had a little shop, too. [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ]
Now he was mayor of Detroit when the Depression hit, and he was involved in lots of, of tremendous welfare payments that went out to people.
Oh, we had heavy welfare payments during that time, you had to have, to feed the people. Now, now I'm just saying, that, that was as tough a time as I can have any recollection of in Detroit. And the bitter feelings, too, I mean, some of the people'd tell that the bankers were just thieves, that they took the money. I mean, it was a bit, there was a lot of bitter feeling after that. I mean, they were all wrong in their, what had happened, but, but at least they were—it, it was a tough world.
Why did people, you said that people felt that the bankers were thieves?
Well, they couldn't get their money out. See, it was all tied up, and then it was all liquidated. They got it eventually. And in those days, too, if you had bank stocks, you were liable for an assessment. Course now, you, you, if you have bank stocks, you don't have to, you don't have that assessment, anymore. That was a different thing. That was another blow to a lot of people.
What were, what were some of the real problems that bankers faced when the Depression hit?
Well, they have the same problem we have today, the real estate problem, well now, stocks, just give you one example, their loans would be underwater. A Burroughs adding machine was up to 95 or 98 nearly $100, $100 a share. It dropped down to $7.50 a share. Now, if you put that up as collateral, you can see that, how, what your difficulties would be, and the difficulties of the bankers, too.
Where there difficulties with people not being able to meet the interest payments on their loans?
Oh, sure, loads of that, great deal of that. That's right. And the bank, and then the banks probably were, well, of course there, they had some problems with Washington, too, the banks. In those days, there was a scramble over, I can't remember what that was.
Tell me, so that a ten-year-old child can understand it, explain to me the chain of events which happens when a fellow has a loan and then he loses his job and can't pay the interest? Explain that chain to me, starting with—
I don't know how I can. If he's, if he's signed up, agreed to buy a house at a certain figure, and he can't pay, why then they, of course in those days they worked with them, they tried hard as the Dickens, because they didn't want their property back. But eventually, if you couldn't pay anything, his, his, the tax would be accruing on it, and so they, they would have to foreclose eventually, and see if they couldn't salvage and get another owner, even at a much lower figure, but to cut down on the losses so they can go through. Then, of course, it took time to foreclose. And then, of course, as I say, the city, the city bonds went down to about 35 cents on the dollar on municipal bonds, and the, the city had to use scrip to pay bills. I know when I worked in the Trust Company, we'd gather scrip and take it over to the, pay taxes on some of the properties.
Scrip, yeah. It was that, I mean, things were that bad.
How bad were things?
How bad was it?
Well, I mean, just horrible. So many places people losing their homes, out of jobs, and the whole deal. It was awful.
When you were—
And of course you, you didn't have all the, you didn't have all the welfare problem, you didn't have all that to help people as much as you do today.
When you were in the middle of it, the middle of this Depression, did you have any idea that it would ever end? Did you think that?
Oh, I think so. I think we were fairly optimistic. I, I think so. I've always been a reasonably optimist [SIC], because we were hard hit, too. We were very hard hit, because we had bank stocks, and we had real estate that we had, and loans at the bank. So, I mean, were hit very hard.
Were you ever in danger of losing your home or losing your--
Well, yes we were. We were in danger of losing most everything. Of course, in those days, people, now, nowadays, people in corporate, have different corporations for different activities. In those days, everybody signed everything in obligations, so you were, so you were obligating everything you have to pay those bills. That's—
What effect did the coming of the Depression have on some of the large estates in Grosse Pointe?
Well, of course, they marked time, really, I would say, course quite a few of them, a few of them were foreclosed, too, some of that, I mean. Because sometimes those rich people get just as involved as the poor ones, too. I mean, with bigger figures, but the same problems. But not down to the point, probably, of food.
Down to what point? What measures did they have to take?
I mean they, they, they'd have something to salvage from. Not to the point of getting hungry, I mean. They wouldn't get that poor.
That was a time when there was lots of, lots of new ideas, some crazy ideas floating around America. Father Coughlin was here, and Huey Long was broadcasting from Louisiana, the Communist Party was organizing around here. Were you aware of—
Were you aware of communism and communists in Detroit?
Not particularly, no, I don't remember much of that. If I had—of course, I wasn't tied in with the manufacturing hardly at all, and that would make an awful difference. I was tied in more with this real estate stuff and the Trust Company. But not, we, we had loads of things there for sale, they all went default. We'd, we bunched a bunch of mortgages and then issued notes on them, and that was six percent mortgages, and the six percent got just as much trouble. [laughs] And, I mean, I often wonder today what the percentage is. I mean, what will happen if...we got terrible trouble with six percent. So—
I only have a couple of other questions. Do you remember in 1932, this is a question we're asking everyone in Detroit, do you remember hearing about the Ford Hunger March? There were about 3,000 unemployed people who marched out to the Rouge Plant.
I—seems to me I have a very faint, but, no, I don't remember that.
OK. What about, do you have memories of Greenfield Village when it first opened?
Yeah, I liked, yeah, I've been there. I liked Dearborn Inn, too. It's very attractive.
Do you remember the opening of, the dedication of Greenfield Village, when it first, first opened?
No, no I don't. No.
Tell me what, the times you've been out there, what would you, what, what would one find at Greenfield Village? What's out there?
Oh, I mean, of course, all these, of course, it's tied in a lot with Edison and some of Edison's old houses. And then it is, it's early American. It's all American history. And the museum, of course, has a wonderful collection of old cars, a fine collection of furniture, American, it's all American. It's, it's, that's probably the best visited of any of the attractions around Detroit, Greenfield Village.
Going back to Henry Ford and bankers.
Yeah, oh, he had some trouble with the bankers, of course. I think in New York. I don't know much about it, though.
What was, did he like bankers? What was his, his, his feeling about bankers?
Well, I think he had a little trouble, something with the bankers. I forget what it was. I can't remember, but I have some recollection—
—there was some problems with the banking. You'd better check into that, I think.
I'll check that. We have to change film.
Now let's talk about Prohibition, just for a little bit.
What, what would you do for entertainment in Detroit in 1926, '27, during Prohibition?
Well, I think normally, of course it was a group that were pretty temperate, but, I mean, but there's, plenty of liquor was flowing around. I mean, not so much at the balls, except some groups would have their own rooms there to, to get it. But we, we didn't get it too much.
Tell me about the bootleggers.
Well, there were bootleggers and, in fact, where I lived, a lot of it came in. And I could see them signal, and see the boats land on the dock, and they were, they had some signal, now, it was short, so they weren't caught. But then they did do a lot of bootlegging, too, quite a bit along the whole shore, here. Small boats would come into the sea walls usually, I mean, and of course there's bootlegging. The porters on the trains coming from Canada, they'd bring in some liquor, too, good liquor. So that there was, there was, there was, there's a lot of liquor. And then of course people were drinking. They'd buy this alcohol, and puts some drops in and water, and make gin. And there was quite a lot of that. So I mean that there was, there was a reasonable amount of drinking just going right along just the same. But of course you could, the breweries could make beer, but they made ice cream and different things.
So Detroit was a jumping town.
Well, I wouldn't say that. I don't think so any more than any other city, you know. No, I, I think it was as reasonably temperate as any of them.
That's it. You're free. [laughs]