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Arthur J. Zemek Interview

Zemek, Arthur
Causby, Anna
Causby, Anna
Date of Interview: 
Depression, banks, banking industry, Chicago, stock yards, immigration
Arthur Zemek talks about working as a cashier in a Chicago, Illinios bank at the beginning of the Great Depression. He describes at length how the bank stayed open and solvent and the effect of the crisis on the city as a whole. He also relates his experiences as a teenager working in the Chicago stock yards.
Interview Setting: 
Interview as part of the WSOC-TV Oral History Project. Interviews conducted at either the downtown public library or the Midtown Shopping Mall.
WSOC-TV Oral History Project
Collection Description: 
The Oral History Project of 1979, headed by Dr. Edward Perzel, was an effort to gather and preserve spoken recollections. Interviews were conducted with older citizens, primarily over the age of 65, who were encouraged to share their memories and stories.
AC (Anna Causby): This is Anna Causby, May 23rd 1979, interviewing Arthur Zemek. And he's going to talk about the Depression.
AZ (Arthur J. Zemek): In 1929, when the depression hit the country, I was working in a bank in Chicago. The chairman of the bank was Colonel Dawes, who was Vice- President when Coolidge was President in the United, in, in when Coolidge was President. And when the depression hit, all the banks in Chicago came to Colonel Dawes and asked him to take a loan from them of five million dollars to tide them over the next day if the bank was to open and pay the customers and delay the payments so that it would last for the day. He refused that because he said that there could be no preference to the people who had money in the bank. So our deposits had dwindled down to that time to ninety million dollars, and there was no way of it opening up the next day or any other bank in Chicago because they were all waiting to open up. They were lined up in the different areas waiting so they could be the firsts ones to get their money out the banks. But Hoover was president at this time when the depression came. and when Hoover was approach by phone by Colonel Dawes, there was at that time an organization from the government called the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. This Reconstruction Finance Corporation was, money was being loaned for certain projects so Colonel Dawes called Hoover. They were both Republicans, incidentally, and he made a loan to cover every penny of the money that was left in the bank, ninety million dollars in deposits. Most of it, of course, was in savings accounts, and small amounts but enough to make a question. And in order to do this, he had to reorganize, they had to reorganize the bank, and from about nine o'clock 'til the next morning at nine when they open. That's 12 hours. They made a new corporation, organized a new bank, got a new name and started business at nine the next morning when they opened the doors to have 90 million dollars packed up from the government and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation with a three percent interest attached to the loan, which was at that time what was a prevailing rate. They opened the doors and the crowd rushed into the foyer of the bank and, colonel, one man got up and he waved the passbook and he says, "I want my money." So Colonel Dawessays, he took him out and he says, "You'll get your money." And he looked in the pass book and he was an agitator. He only had one dollar, he opened up an account for one dollar to be an agitator about the bank situation, whoever he was we don't know. So he said well, he says this is a situation we have got to contend with, with these agitators, he says, "If you people line up in order, you'll all be paid." He says, "We have enough money to cover all the deposits. We have at present time $90 million in deposits. We have a 90 million-dollar loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and as you people come in, we will pay every one of you whatever you have in the bank." And as amazing at it seems and as almost impossible to believe the thing reversed and they all walked out, hundreds of people. Never went and took any of their money out. Now over the years, this loan was his personal baby. He had to see that this loan was paid, and he carried in his hand a card where the loan was on. And then whenever he could through the profits of the bank, he would pay off this loan. And he kept this and whenever you would see him with, you would always see him with this, whenever he was ready to consider something, you'd see him with this card in his hand. You know heavy cardboard card with heavy packing. Then he would mark what he paid plus -- And as far as my knowledge is concerned, I believe unless some people have some outfits have paid it since. But I believe that he was the only banker, he was the only man, or only company that he was ahead, of that paid the whole loan back, 90 million dollars plus the interest. And you know about 6 months after that he was, it was paid up he passed away. But this was really one of the important things. People outside were trying to come into the bank ,and they 'd come up to us and ask us if we'd take, give them a $500 loan, and they'd give us property. Anything to get money for medical bills and money to live. And then, you know, it was, it was just pitiful. And, and people were just desperate for money, actual money. But this is what, part of what transpired in our area in 1929 during the crash.
AC: How long did it take him to pay the loan back?
AZ: Oh, I think it took him 'til, took him about, let's see we, '29, '36 about 10 years, maybe a little more. He took the board of directors to decide what they were going to do and then he paid these loans. And as far as my knowledge is concerned at that time, he was the only one who paid it off. You see they didn't pay it, the government absorbed it. But that was what happened. The First National Bank of Chicago pleaded with him. He said "We want you to take this loan, open up the next day because that's the only way we'll be safe." You know because they had the same problem. Every bank in the city, and you know, there was nothing really wrong except the money was loaned on, on real-estate and business and they were tied up they couldn't pay their loans. Now over the years those loans were paid. A lot of these companies, you see, what they did, in Chicago they had a club, a millionaires club. And all of these stocks that failed, you know like you had, these rich men had a thousand shares of Mercantile. They plastered it on the walls so and they put all these stock certificates as, as wallpaper in this million dollar room. So they called it the million dollar room, so then as time went on, around 1940, some of these companies began to make money, and they started paying these loans up, and started paying dividends and everything. Now they had to take off all those stock certificates off the walls in order to get something out of it. But that's what they were doing, stock certificates weren't worth anything. In that's what you know, but I don't think there is anybody that went through that would ever would ever worry as much about it as they did then because now you've got your government with all this they don't care what they spend you know. You got, at that time I've forgotten what the, what the budget was, but now it is 582 billion. And you realize that the billions that they are paying in interest to get to have this money out. You know the amazing thing about it is, that they never pay anything on these principals. And, of course, the theory is, and now I've been in banking for now 50 years, and if you'll notice in there I only had grammar school education. When I was 14 years old, we were given a certificate to work. You had to have a certificate to get a job. My father died when I was 14 just when I graduated from school, from high school, from grammar school, and there were nine of us children. And we all had to chip in someway. And the only one in the family who went to war, was my brother, and he enlisted the rest were all younger. We were, the younger boys, we were all younger than the, the enlistment. See I was during in 1917, when they started hitting everybody I was only 15 years old. I worked at that time at with Ellis Swift in the stockyards. You see I don't know whether I should mention this to you. Do you have any way of bleeping anything out of it?
AC: Well, just go ahead and if it is anything then-
AZ: Well I want to say is that, in 1917, I had a job, now I'm 15 years. I had a job decoding telegrams for stock purchases and things from New York for Ellis Swift Sr. who ran the Swift and Company in the stock yards. That's you know where the killed the cattle prepared the beef and everything for sale. Now we had, he had trouble getting help because they were, everybody was being drafted everybody volunteering, you know, they were giving it their hard sell at that time, you know. You're a slacker if you don't join. They used to stop me going to work every day, and say you're a slacker, and they were pulling you in, now these men that were pulling you in weren't joining the army. They were helping you get go into it but they weren't there themselves. But I couldn't join because I was only 15. And I had a mile and a half to walk to the to the place where I worked and I'd pass about 8 of these recruiting stations, and they'd all be outside and grab you pull you and why aren't you joining, why aren't you recruiting. Because I was as big as I am now I mean, at 15 some kids grew higher than others, taller rather. And so that was one of the things I used to do. So I had to finally get a validated certificate signed so that I could pass these people and show them the certificate so they wouldn't bother me, so I could get to work every morning otherwise I was late half the time. You know they'd pull you in, and they wouldn't let you go and they wouldn't sell and they'd say you're telling a lie and so forth. But those were things we had to do when -
AC: When you worked in the stock yards were the conditions like in the jungle?
AZ: No they were well organized. They had, they had a butchers--
AC: You think it's over exaggerated?
AZ: Well at that time now, you know, this is what I want to tell you about. He couldn't get help so he was recruiting all the blacks from the south that could get to Chicago. And they all congregated. Instead of spreading around because there weren't any of them before. See until '17, there wasn't a black in the, in the in in we could see anywhere. In fact, there was a black outfit that lived about 7 doors from us, and we never saw the man in all the years we lived in that house, which in that house was about 10 years. We never saw him, he worked at night, and he always came home before. He, he left before anybody saw him, and he came back before any body saw him come in, and he stayed in the house. But there were others, when, when, when they needed the help, they came in and they started to set them up in an, in an area, because they had to have, instead of having two here and ten here and 5 there, integrated, they desegregated them close to the stock yards. Now in that area there were a lot of first year, first year people from Europe, first year immigrants. Couldn't talk anything but the language they came from. Italians moved here, they are all Italians so if you're, if you're came over from Europe then you would move in the Italian neighborhood. And get a job you had to come here because jobs everything, jobs were frequent there you know, easy to get for these certain things. Then the Germans had a section, Polish. They all had, they all had nicknames. The Irish were Shandy Irish; the Germans were Huns; the Italian were Wops, that's right; the Lithuanians were Lugans; and they the United, the citizens of the country had no, had no names, see. But everybody else was identified with their own roots. So when I was growing up, you had to stay on your street. You didn't, you couldn't get off 5 blocks because maybe this area is a different ethnic group. They'd say what are you doing in this area. You have no reason for being there, you'd get ploughed in the jaw, you know. That was all that we called a jungle. But outside of that everybody was lived in their own groups see. So we have, we have gone through this and a lot of people don't know what some of them have gone through. But now, of course, the stock yards is no longer there.
AC: How about the sanitary conditions of the stockyard?
AZ: Very, very good.
AC: Very sanitary?
AZ: Oh sure. Now when I say I worked when I was 15, 16 years old in the stockyards, that's no lie. 17. I didn't, I didn't work there, I didn't work there for a salary per se. I worked for an education, see. I worked, I worked half a day. I had a job, before this I had a job in a factory that made cots for the soldiers, the springs for the soldiers so they could lay a mattress on. They're little cots you know just for one man to lay in and sleep in. I worked that at night, and I made $26 piece work. We worked, we were on these big pony machines, and all these clips we had to stamp down. You know how they held, you know you've seen them where they hold one here and one here.
AC: Uh-hum.
AZ: Well, these beds were made by piece work people, and girls worked at night who put them in frames, in the frames and two of us ran them through the pump through the stapling machines see, so I don't know any time you want me to.
AC: Oh no go ahead.
AZ: So I worked there, and then, of course, the stock yards, Swift and Company advertised that we were gonna put some young men through a training program, to make them eligible to go to their foreign managers, as foreign manager in their, in other, in other countries. Like South America was starting a big cattle industry, and they were gonna own this so they had made up different companies. One was International, let's see what was the name of it? Swift International, that meant they were going to, when they trained us we were going to go out there as assistant managers, and managers to run these big outfits they had.
AC: Ok, how old were you by now?
AZ: Well I went, I went to school when I was 15, 16 and then of course I worked from 16 to 17. But for one year I had two jobs. I worked at night at this ( ) Place on 39th and Iron, and I punched a mattresses, springs for the mat-- beds. And then I worked at Swift and Company. I went to school in Swift and Company for 5 hours, and this is the way I was trying to get my education so then my two sisters got jobs. So there were three of us working with 9 children and my mother. So then I said to my mother if I if you can manage on their two salaries then I would like to quit the spring job ( ) and take up the job at Swift and Company permanently. So when we started, we were, we were paid five dollars a week, for the education. Well then they offered you a job after your schooling to kept up the slack. You got ten dollars for that. So instead of making twenty-six dollars a week at ( ), I was making fifteen dollars a week at Swift and Company with the understanding when you graduate from the school, you were going to get a big increase in your salary and you know all of this stuff. Well, it all depends, like everywhere else, who your boss is. When I had, I had a Colonel from one of the wars, Persian, you know, Persians War, and Mexico, and he was a tough guy you know. So when I graduated I came up, and I was interpreting, coding these letters and doing all this stuff, you know. I had, I had quite a responsible job for my age. Of course, my size did that so. And so when I asked him about the increase in the salary he says, "Why, why you whipper snapper," he says, "You're too young to be asking me for raises that you haven't earned yet," you know. So I said, "Well, excuse me, sir, have you got a piece of paper, a blank piece of paper?" "Help yourself." So I took a piece of paper, and I resigned as of such a date. I gave him a weeks notice and said, "Here you go, I quit." Well, they were down there you know, personnel department was trying talk me into staying. I said, "No, I wouldn't work for a man like that." And I said, "Well you're not going to move me." So I said, "I'm leaving." "Maybe we could do something." "No," I said, "I'm, I'm leaving. " And then I went and got another job out of, out of the stock yards and moved up into the loop downtown. I worked for Hag- for Hart, Sanford and Marks as a, we did another job there, something different. Are these people all waiting to get on do think?
AC: That man over here yesterday, I guess.
AZ: I saw.
JW: Take your time. ( ) finish. You got about three more minutes.
AZ: Ok. OK. So this is what, the important thing was when I finally got into the banking business in 1919, when there were selling apples on the corners to veterans. In 1919, I joined the bank, and you'll notice I'm only a grammar school graduate. Now if you were a grammar school graduate today, you would never be an assistant cashier in a bank,
AC: Right.
AZ: Because you have to have a college education and a specialized. I, I took a AIB courses to improve my knowledge of banking, but outside of that's American Institute of Banking. And you would never be, you could never be an assistant cashier, or and off vice president or assistant vice president or any of those higher jobs if you didn't even a manager.
AC: Right.
AZ: If you didn't have, no matter how many years you worked, it didn't happen. ( ) was the same as I was, he never. He's the president of the chairman of the board of the First National Bank in Chicago. It's a ten billion, fifteen billion dollar bank or maybe twenty billion. He, he even went up and made that statement himself. He said that it wasn't that we were, we were thinking of these things it actually happened. Now I, I don't know I know that these are the things that developed that a lot of people don't know. You didn't know too much about that.
AC: No, in fact, you know I've studied this very same subject, but you've really enlightened it.
AZ: Yeah, but that's you see Hoover was blamed for a lot of it. ( ) the situation and was coming in does the same thing now.
AC: Uh-huh.
AZ: See now all of these faults, all of these situations, like the oil and all this, is not the fault of, of Carter. You know what I mean. It's a worldwide situation so if something happens they are all going to blame the administration. I'm not, I'm not a Democrat. I'm a Republican. Our family was always split. There were four of us Republicans and 5 of us Democrats. And we always had this continual political division. For all the years I can remember because they were all, out of the nine people eight of them, none of them went to college, they were all managers or officers of whatever they did over the years. So I think we did a pretty good job when you think that none of us went to college. Not even to high school.
AC: Really.
AZ: Yeah. See so I, I would like to call, three of my sisters were all managers of companies, big companies, they had, of their departments, and my brothers were head of their departments, and I was assistant cashier of a bank so, you know, all of these things. Ok
AC: Ok. Well thank you very much.
AZ: All right.