7th in a 9-part series

By now, you may be wondering how Rochester became the subject of Fortune Magazine's elaborate 1936 article. The short answer is: because of its charm.

The long answer is that it came out best in a competition with other cities of the same size. Fortune's editors, having decided to publish a story examining life in a typical Midwestern small town, themselves selected Indiana as the state from which to choose one. In early May they sent a representative to examine Hoosier towns of about 3,500 population and recommend one to them.

Walter Graebner was Fortune's man and he spent an afternoon here before going on to five other cities not identified. When none of those five exceeded his favorable impressions of Rochester, he made the city his choice. Graebner later confided that he feared editors might reject Rochester as "too progressive" and therefore not typical. He was referring to the city's new hospital, its airport, federal fish hatchery, circus winter quarters and summer lake resorts. It's quite likely, though, that these attributes helped sway the editors to accept Graebner's choice.

Today's seventh installment of the article explores the city's Kiwanis Club leadership and Rochester's relationship with industry. FYI: The Kiwanis Club still thrives, Charles Campell was the grandfather of Mrs. Zanna Daniels of Lake Manitou, and, the circus left town in 1940 after its winter quarters burned down. Also, Judge Ewing, the justice of the peace mentioned in last week's installment, was William Ewing, grandfather of Joan Ewing and Katie McCarter of Rochester.

Sixty-five of the leading men of Rochester belong to the Kiwanis, meet together in joking familiarity at noon every Wednesday in the basement of the Coffee Shop. The Reverend Loren Stine of the United Brethren Church leads the opening song, "Boost Kiwanis," and follows it with the first and last stanzas of "America." One of the other ministers asks the blessing, and the members sit down at the long horseshoe table, eat the regular 35-cent dinner quickly. Resident Pontius strikes the bell for attention and turns the meeting over to one of the town's prominent lawyers, Charles Campbell, the vice president.

Mr. Campbell welcomes the out-of-town guests who have come over from Winamac because they had to miss the last meeting at home, and introduces the speaker, Mr. Perry, the manual-training teacher at the high school. Mr. Perry gives a short talk on his work and there are a few questions and another song, "I Want a Girl" or "Wah-Hoo." Dr. King, chairman of the public affairs committee, reports an almost complete lack of enthusiasm for the proposal to erect benches along Main Street for farmers' families to sit on when they get tired Saturday nights. There's a good deal of joking about that proposition and no action is taken.

The members of the Kiwanis joke today about the benches on the streets but there are times when they do not joke, times when they work seriously, along with the city council and the News-Sentinel, to try to persuade some outside industry to locate in Rochester. There doesn't seem to be any reason why a factory shouldn't do well here. Rents are low, and so are wages - you can hire a day laborer for $1 or $1.50 a day, and skilled labor doesn't run over $3 or $4. There is good transportation. Although the Erie ticket agent, Ed Sparks, checks out only two passenger trains a day, and the Nickel Plate operates none, there is freight service on both railroads, and the highways run in every direction.

It just never seems to have been a lucky place for industries. Plenty have tried and failed, the soap factory, brewery, ladder company, nipple works, the bridge company, and a dozen more. The biggest businesses in town now (both of them extensions of agriculture) are the Armour Creamery, which employs 100 men and does $1 million worth of business in a year, and the canning factory, which packs $250,000 worth of peas and corn in the summer. The only outside money comes from the lake trade in summer and the circus in winter.

The circus has brought in a new winter population of lions and tigers and white horses and 150 people, including the owners Zach Terrell and Jesse Adkins and Clyde Beatty himself. The Kiwanians feel that the circus has put Rochester on the map. They felt it so strongly that they all went up to Chicago for the opening last spring and they welcome the owners and principal performers into their city. But the circus isn't exactly an industry and everyone would like to see a nice big factory go up on the edge of town.

The Kiwanians do not forget that the lack of industry is, in a way, a blessing. There are almost no foreigners in town except good people like the Ninios brothers who run the Berghoff Cafe, where the circus people go. There is no labor trouble, there are no unions (except a barbers'union), no agitators, and no Communists. The Ku Klux Klan, when it was flourishing a dozen years ago, never had much to fight against, and the Legion doesn't have to worry about Americanism and patriotism. And certainly business is good now, filling stations and garages raking in money, cars selling at the rate of one a day, and farm machinery selling as well as it did in 1929. Chain grocers do about $75,000 worth of business a year, independents about $40,000, drugstores and shoe stores about $35,000. There's nothing the matter with business.

But how about the property tax of $3.85 per $100 assessed value? A dollar goes to the city, the rest to state and county. It's a high tax - higher than usual - because of the 88-cent poor-relief tax. On the surface it seems as if most people had gone back to work, but the fact is there are still a lot of men unemployed, 236 heads of families, more than a fifth of the total number. You don't think about them as much as you did three or four years ago because they're almost all on federal rolls. There are 140 men getting $40 a month from WPA for working at the fish hatchery and decorating the courthouse, 25 men blacktopping the state roads for PWA, and only 71 families left on local relief - getting a weekly average of $1.75 in food orders from the County Poor Relief office. Go over some day to WPA headquarters, the brick mansion where Dr. Robbins used to live, where the K.K.K. had its headquarters, and you'll see them coming in for clothes, sitting, waiting in chairs - still stamped K.K.K. - in the high-ceilinged, gilt-corniced rooms.

A lot of these unemployed men used to work for the bridge company before it folded up, and a lot of the old ones have been pushed out of jobs by the young fellows who, 10 years ago, would have gone up to South Bend to work in the Studebaker factory, or to Detroit or Chicago. Maybe the new security thing, the old-age pensions, will fix some of them up, but the commissioners aren't straightened out yet on how that's going to work. And taxes aren't going down in a hurry.

1936 Rochester statistics

3,518 population, 34 foreign born, 211 of foreign parentage, 1 Negro, 1,090 families, 3.2 average family size (U.S. average 3.5), 236 unemployed, 944 total dependents.

1,500 church members; 50 births, 44 deaths, 224 marriages, 32 divorces in 1935; 1,010 telephone subscribers; 1,103 newspaper subscribers; estimated 1,000 radio owners; 1,200 car owners; 625 home owners; 460 renters; $2,500 average home value; $17 average monthly rental; $3.85 per $100 tax rate.

9 churches, 88 clubs and lodges, 1 hospital, 9 doctors, 3 undertakers.$1,466,000 yearly net sales all stores; $225,000 yearly payroll; $1,420,000 total bank deposits.

Published March 20, 2001