As we move further into 2020, I’m seeing more references to the Roaring ‘20s (the 1920s) and bringing them back. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Mason County in the ‘20s.
Swing dancing, jazz music, dressing to the nines, opulent parties, and more wealth than people could spend in a lifetime. Thanks to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” that’s probably what you think of when you think of the Roaring ‘20s. If that’s true, you might’ve missed Fitzgerald’s point.
Anyhow, while Wall Street made more money than ever before, life here in Mason County depended on where you lived. Point Pleasant certainly reaped the benefits of the Roaring ‘20s, but the rest of the county definitely did not.
I’ll start with Point Pleasant because it was significantly better off than the rest of the county. At the time, the economy in Point Pleasant was supported almost entirely by two firms, the Marietta Manufacturing Company and Malleable Iron Company. Still riding the World War I boom, these companies were doing just fine in 1920 and continued at peak employment. Those middle-class jobs provided a good living and allowed workers to build a new home (many of which are still standing) or buy one of those newfangled automobiles.
The rest of their paycheck, in an era before Walmart and big box stores, was spent downtown. Groceries, clothing, and toys could all be found on Main Street, along with restaurants and bars. The extra cash of the ‘20s also supported two new businesses: service stations to fuel and repair the new automobiles and movie theaters to show “Talkies.” One of the first service stations in Point Pleasant was on the corner of Sixth and Main, next to Littlepage’s law office, and of course the State Theater is just a few doors down.
Elsewhere in the county, business wasn’t quite as booming. The farmers weren’t necessarily any worse or better, but the Bend Area’s salt furnaces and coal mines are another story. By the end of the ‘20s, of the dozen salt furnaces once on our side of the Bend, only three were left at Hartford, Liverpool, and Mason. The decline in our salt industry was partially our own fault, having so many furnaces working against each other, and partially due to the fact that mining rock salt is cheaper than purifying brine salt.
Coal in the Bend Area is the same story. Our coal mines, unlike the ones further up the Kanawha Valley, were never that big. They mostly served as fuel for the salt furnace boilers, and as the furnaces closed, so did the mines.
It was hard times. I once asked my great-grandma, born in 1924, what she remembered and thought of the Great Depression. Her response of “What Depression?” says it all about the Bend Area. Her dad, my great-great-grandfather, was a coal miner in Hartford and had been going through hard times well before the stock market crashed in 1929. For their family, the Depression didn’t change a thing.
If you need more proof that the ‘20s were only good for the cities, look at the housing. Point Pleasant is full of 1920s housing, all the way from 22nd to 28th Street. Anywhere else in the county, you’d be hard pressed to find that same kind of house. In the Bend Area, there’s a gap between 1910 and 1940 when there just weren’t any houses being built. In fact, virtually the only improvement in the Bend Area during the ‘20s was the construction of the Pomeroy-Mason Bridge in 1928, the same year the Silver Bridge was built in Point Pleasant.
Moving forward into the 2020s, I’m all for bringing back Art Deco, swing dancing, and jazz, but let’s try to remember what came after the Roaring ‘20s and avoid the excessive greed and mistakes of the past.
The next meeting of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society will be held the first week of February, with a specific date and time to be announced soon.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.