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The Way We Were Much Like it is Now


This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on March 2, 1980

The way we were much like it is now
By Dave Allbaugh
     As the “Roaring 20’s “ began in the United States, Dayton’s municipal leaders were keeping a watchful eye on a potential den of decadence, the city-owned Island Park dance pavilion.
     The year was 1920 and only the year before the nation had decided to improve its moral fiber with “the noble experiment” known as Prohibition, outlawing the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages.
     A report to City Manager J. E. Barlow warned of the “slow, sensuous character of the music” being played at the pavilion and the “suggestive movements” of the dancers.
     A Dayton Daily News article of July 10, 1920, carried the headline: “Shimmy Music at Island Park; Conditions Bad.”
     BARLOW DECIDED it was time to act.  He ordered the dance music “corrected.”  This was done by “making the tempo faster.”
     He also ordered five “supervisors” stationed on the dance floor to enforce the rules.
     The regulation of dance halls is but one of the hundreds of topics to be found in some 160,000 documents on microfilm at Wright State University, covering Dayton government from the inception of the city manager form in 1913 through 1936.
     The records address issues as outdated as the pasteurization of milk and a respectable tempo for the fox trot.  They also show the earlier municipal leaders fretting about annexation, the economy, crime, police protection, prostitution and other recurrent issues.
     Dayton had decided in 1913 to go to city manager government as a way of battling corruption in government through non-partisan, scientific management.
     WHEN PIONEER City Manager H. M. Waite arrived at city hall on Jan 2, 1914, to head the new regime, hundreds of messages from across the land awaited him from municipal reformers who regarded Dayton as a sort of Mecca.
     “The experiment at Dayton is being watched with great interest,” wired Theodore M. Vail, president and publisher of the New York World.  “Do you think city managership could be applied to a city of a million, or even New York?  Reply collect…”
     Siberia was heard from, too.  A poignant letter arrived following the initial uprising that toppled the Russian czar’s government in March 1917.
    On behalf of the “newly organized municipal government of Habarovsk.” YMCA Secretary George P. Conger, who was in Russia at the time, Made a request for “some literature on American city government.  “Russia, “ he explained, “ is studying up on these things.”
     LENIN’S BOLSHEVIKS had not yet seized control.  So city manager Waite echoed widespread sentiment when he replied, in part: “…your letter has given us a ray of hope that something definite in the way of good government is to come out of the revolution…”
     Waite also had to cope with the dance hall question, which periodically demanded city managers’ attention over a period of 15 years.
     In August 1914, the city health director reported to Waite that Dayton might consider establishing municipal dance halls.  He reported approvingly on the rules in effect for Cleveland’s dance halls: Four chaperones per hall, admission three cents per couple, and no one-steps or hesitations” allowed.
     That first year brought forward more than a few issues that would crop up in the future.  Firemen and policemen confronted Waite during his first week with a lawsuit, demanding full pay during a previous one-month layoff; the city Police Department appointed two policewomen, and assigned them to handle female law-breakers and social problems; licensing and physical examination of prostitutes was considered, as it was a few years ago.
     ANNEXATION WAS AN agenda item, too.  City Manager Waite reported on a meeting in the Belmont area (now in East Dayton) that he attended in February 1914: “There were only three people at this meeting (who) spoke in favor of annexation,” Waite related.  “I feel that the city should not annex any more territory until it is in better condition financially….”
     E. T. Banks, a prominent black resident who had served on the charter commission that converted Dayton from a partisan system to city manager government following the 1913 flood, wrote to city manager Waite in December 1914, asking that some blacks be appointed to “some of the responsible positions under this form of government.”
     Two weeks later, Waite wrote a memorandum to his civil service examiner that suggested “putting a colored man in a clerical position.”
     NO SIGNIFICANT integration of white collar positions at Dayton’s city hall was to occur, however, until civil rights groups exerted pressure in the early 1960s.  
     In 1915, the automotive age had just arrived and on Aug. 22 of that year, the Dayton Police Department’s shiny new Ford was parked in front of city hall—briefly.
     Police Chief J. N. Allaback had to report to the city manager later that day that it appears “as if the car has been taken by an auto thief,” probably the first theft of a Dayton police cruiser.
     The car was reported seen leaving the city.  Police put their vast communication network into operation.  Telephone calls went out to several neighboring cities.
     “We are also mailing out this afternoon 100 post cards to surrounding towns and cities asking for assistance in locating the machine,” the Police Department informed Waite.  There was no follow-up record to indicate whether the vehicle was ever recovered.
     A RASH OF RESIDENTIAL crime brought a citizen suggestion that impressed Waite: a “Citizen Police Reserve.”  The idea was to “have the mayor choose one person on each block who will cooperate with the police and… immediately report….any suspicious person seen in the neighborhood so that prompt action can be taken.”
     Civil libertarians might have protested.  However, they didn’t have to.
     “The privilege would be abused and cause dissension in the ranks of our regular (police) men,” objected Safety Director H. P. James.  And that was that.
     The idea did not stay buried, however. Neighborhood assistance officers were appointed and schooled by Dayton police in the 1970s, and assist the department today.
     The records for the World War I period were routine, except for reflecting steps to cope with the massive 1918 influenza epidemic and a major coal shortage during the harsh winter of that year.
     THE ERA OF Prohibition arrived in 1919.
     A report to city hall noted that from June through October in the legally wet year of 1918, 523 persons were admitted to the Dayton Workhouse.  During the comparable June-October period of the thirsty first year of Prohibition, only 283 persons were sent to the workhouse.
     The apparent dropoff in minor crime was reported to be statewide.
     Follow-up details of the history of Prohibition in Dayton are sparse in the microfilm record at Wright State.  Mostly, it shows isolated complaints of illegal sales and bootlegging activity.
     By the early 1930s, Prohibition was largely discredited.  A report stated that the Dayton police liquor squad during an eight-month period of 1931-32 referred only 10 persons to federal court here on liquor violation cases.
     DEPRESSION WOES HAD already supplanted concern with banning liquor consumption.  Each month after the October 1929 stock market crash brought succeeding economic shock waves, and Dayton was soon virtually inundated by joblessness and distress.
     At the end of 1930, the Dayton director of public welfare reported that private relief agencies had given out 700 percent more in aid that year than in 1929.
   Local response was heartening.  Dayton voters in November 1930 passed by more than 2-1 a one-half mill property tax levy for poor relief.  The city used part of the new revenue to employ 150 men daily, paying them with daily food tickets valued at $3.60.
     Private charity drives were supplemented by other activities to help people survive –  a college football game, wrestling and boxing matches, movies to which the admission was canned goods.
     Even city employees were not immune.  They went for weeks at a time without paychecks.
     INSTEAD OF MONEY, they were given scrip, a local substitute currency of limited issue.
     Tax receipts were pledged to redeem the scrip without interest at a later date.  Most local merchants accepted the scrip currency, and it tided over the workers for a while.
     In 1933, one of the few signs of a return to familiar, comforting times was a citizen complaint the followed the repeal of prohibition.  The problem was a now totally legal rathskeller on Linden Avenue in East Dayton.  Booming business and an exuberant German band were reportedly disturbing the neighborhood.
     In reply, City Manager Fred O. Eichelberger noted that “regulation of Conduct” in the newly legalized “beer gardens” was proving “an arduous, if not impossible task….”
     When residents of Dayton’s Oregon Historic District complained several weeks ago about the noise from night revelers frequenting the bars on E. Fifth Street, Mayor James H. McGee said the city is trying to attract some life back into the downtown area at night.  The noise, he said, is part of the price residents have to pay for the convenience of living near downtown.