Wolfer shares memories of Great Depression
In this fifth column, I am speaking to Governor Hans Niessel of Burgenland, Austria, and a delegation of officials in the Atlas Cement Company Memorial Museum. We are discussing Burgenland heritage in the Lehigh Valley.
In my last column, we continued to look at the American experience of Mr. Frank Wolfer, who came to America in 1922. At age 14, he was hired by the Atlas Portland Cement Company in the cooper shop at 26-1/2 cents an hour.
The “golden ’20s” were an era of prosperity in the country, and the local cement plants were operating at full capacity. In 1929, the economy collapsed with the advent of the Great Depression.
Frank recalled, “My father and I walked to work each day from the Bank Row on Main Street in Northampton. We were shocked when we were told, ‘No work today.’
“We persisted and walked out the following week — to the same response. We did not have a telephone, so we went to Polzer’s Tap Room on Main Street each morning and called: ‘This is Frank Wolfer, No. 1064, calling about work.’
“Same reply — ‘No work today.’
“What could we do? There were no government benefits. My brother Joe and I went to New York, boarding a boxcar. When we arrived, we walked the streets. My brother did get a job in a restaurant and was able to secure employment. We were stopped eventually by a police officer, who said, ‘Boys, go home. There is no work here.’ So we boarded a boxcar and returned home.”
This writer’s father, Anthony, did the same, to no avail, but was able to work on Smith’s Farm in East Allen Township until the economy improved. Frank told me a story, which I have used in many of my speaking engagements.
During the Depression, they received an interesting letter, which sparked considerable emotion. The letter was from a government agency. They were very hesitant to open it. Finally, Frank opened it, and he was shocked — a check for $13.20. A second letter contained a check for $13.75. Where did the checks come from? It was something called unemployment compensation.
Who sent it? They went to a neighbor, who said, “It came from Franklin D. Roosevelt to help your family.” Frank and his father never forgot that day; as a result, they had a great love for FDR, their president for life.
During the Depression, Frank, his father and sister hung wallpaper for those who could afford it. Their fee was “two dollars a room and eats.” The work ethic they brought from Burgenland was lifelong.
Frank was one of the few men I interviewed who worked at all of the Northampton Atlas plants, working at plant Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5, the last plant that closed in 1982. Frank and my father both worked at the plant, with Frank ending a 48-year career there. My father logged 35 years. They actually loved their jobs and shared work stories their entire lives.
Frank was very active with his Burgenland heritage. Do my readers remember the old St. Joseph’s Beneficial Society in Northampton, which hosted some of the greatest bowlers in Lehigh Valley history? The club is gone, but the building remains on Newport Avenue. Presently, the Northampton Liederkranz remains active.
Another favorite was the Edelweiss, where Austrian and button box accordion music entertained folks for many years. Many clubs are gone, but memories remain.
In two weeks, we will conclude the series.