The article was brief, tucked into the back of a paper packed with news of the ravages of the Great Depression. But if you looked carefully in the New York Times on September 27, 1931, the small news item might have stood out: “Hard-Up Missouri Folk Name Shack Colony Hooverville.”
Homeless people in St. Louis had banded together to form a colony of ad hoc houses on the banks of the Mississippi River, the article said. And they had named their homes after the president they blamed for ruining their lives.
It was just the second time the newspaper had printed the word “Hooverville,” but the word would soon come to stand for the miserable settlements formed by hundreds of thousands of Americans who could no longer afford housing. Just two years after the stock market crash, the Depression had already decimated millions of lives. But in St. Louis, the nation’s seventh-largest city at the time, the outlook was even worse. The city’s unemployment rate was far higher than the national average, peaking at over 30 percent in 1933.
Over the years, St. Louis’ settlement would become the nation’s largest, home to between 3,000 and 5,000 down-and-out victims of the Great Depression. Inside the colony, residents thumbed their nose at the economic disaster, giving neighborhoods names like “Happyland” and “Merryland,” electing a mayor, and taking on the trappings of a legitimate town. But the infamous Hooverville was also home to some of the Great Depression’s most acute suffering.
The settlement had roots in an already itinerant community: the houseboat dwellers who lived on the Mississippi River. As historian Martin G. Towey notes, police and landlords had long ignored the houseboat settlement, and the railroad that owned the land beneath much of the Hooverville rented it to the squatters for a single dollar a month.
As the Depression forced St. Louis residents out of their homes and their economic situations became more and more precarious, they migrated to the river’s banks. There, they built makeshift homes of orange crates, pieces of wood and what garbage they could scavenge from the city’s docks and alleys. Out of sight of most of St. Louis, the Hooverville was shielded from prosecution by police who looked the other way and landlords who didn’t bother to report the illegal squatters.
Today, many cities try to eradicate colonies filled with people struggling with homelessness. But city dwellers’ attitude toward the Hooverville was more permissive. “Hooverville residents are not ‘bums,’” the New York Times wrote in 1932. “They are victims of the depression period who live in shanties of their own construction on the river bank.”
The Hooverville residents countered existing stereotypes of homeless people—and modern ones, too. They were primarily blue-collar workers who had recently been employed, and they made up an increasingly large part of Depression-era society. By 1933, approximately 1.5 million Americans were homeless, and those who did have housing were well aware that, given the precariousness of the economy, they could easily be next.
Residents did their best to make the settlement feel like home. Gus Smith, a fruit and vegetable vendor and pastor who was one of the Hooverville’s first residents, appointed himself “mayor,” and residents lived in “neighborhoods.” In 1932, the settlement’s inhabitants dedicated a church made of orange crates—a sign that residents thought they were there to stay. That number grew to four by 1935.
Hooverville residents worked hard to maintain some sense of normalcy for the many children who lived there, too. They attended public schools and were given toys and clothing by local charitable groups. Crime was relatively low, and the Hooverville even had entertainment. “Lotta blues happenin’ out there along the river back then,” recalled blues musician Big Joe Williams. The settlement was one of “the few racially integrated areas in St. Louis,” notes historian John Aaron Wright.
Despite some of the trappings of a more secure life, most residents barely got by. Some survived on their earnings from picking up garbage or washing windows. Many others relied on charity for food and clothing and scavenged coal and materials for their homes. The Welcome Inn, a charity center organized by a St. Louis resident, served up to 4,000 meals a day and became the ad hoc town’s post office and community center. And Ruth Hornby, a 16-year-old St. Louis high school student, began another center called “Ruth’s Haven” that offered a kindergarten, entertainment and other services. Local businesses donated food, too.
Sanitation was a constant struggle. “I often watched the children of families living in those areas take a wagon loaded with empty jugs up to the closest fire hydrant and with a big wrench, turn on the water for the day’s supply,” William Leahy, a St. Louis police officer, wrote. With no running water, no electricity, and no security, residents were well aware their makeshift homes were only temporary.
That became even clearer when the Mississippi River rose. The Hooverville flooded three times over the years, washing away the shacks and forcing residents to start over again. “Much refuse and a number of dead chickens and dogs were floating in the swollen stream,” noted the St. Louis Post-Dispatch during the 1935 flood.
By then, though, the job market had picked up and many Hooverville residents were moving back into the job force. The St. Louis Hooverville had become so well known that it became a tourist destination; kids and adults sold popcorn and gave tours to curious visitors. But people were eager to leave it behind and get back into more stable housing.
As the population dwindled, the city of St. Louis worried it would become a slum and designated it an eyesore. In 1936, the Hooverville where people had gathered because they couldn’t get jobs ironically became a job site for Works Progress Administration workers tasked with tearing it to the ground. Today, the Hooverville is just a bad memory—a long-gone symbol of the struggles of the people whose lives were disrupted by the Great Depression.