Local History  »  South Bend 1920-1930: The Emergence of a City

This decade history of South Bend was written by Jack J. Detzler in 1985 and published by the Northern Indiana Historical Society d/b/a/ Center for History.


No industry contributed as much to the growth and development of South Bend, Indiana, during the decade of 1920-1930 as did the automotive industry. The Studebaker Corporation was a pace-setter, and it made the city more automobile-oriented than most other communities were in an era when the automobile was becoming essential to American living patterns.

Studebaker’s automobile competitors had to struggle in this setting to achieve success amid the overwhelming publicity given in South Bend to the Studebaker. They did succeed, however, through quality products, national advertising campaigns, and aggressive salesmanship.

Over the years, some automobile companies have continued to flourish while other, unable to meet the challenges of this ever-changing industry, failed. But all of them were ground-breakers.  They set the quality and service standards which are an integral part of the industry today. South Bend’s “giant” Studebaker did not survive, but it competitors which still exist today owe much of their success to the efforts of these pioneers.

To these men, who thus gave the automotive industry its roots during the decisive decade of 1920-1930 in a major automotive center, this volume is appreciatively dedicated.

-Jim Detzler Pontiac, Oswego, Illinois


In looking at the history of South Bend during the decade of 1920-1930 one is struck with determination of the community to maintain a continuity with its past. The present would be, if possible, an extension of the past remembered as so very pleasant.  Not altogether successful in this goal, South Bend nevertheless reflected on the good old days and yearned for their survival.

Among the valiant efforts made to incorporate traditional values into the modern scene were the great respectful, yet spectacular, Memorial Day observances; the regular church programs supplemented by the exciting revivals; the attention given to the problems of their rural neighbors and the farm economy; and the promotion of traditional music and art events. The city would try (but all of the time knowing they really could not) to ignore the miseries of America’s international involvements.

Try they would by joining wholeheartedly in the American sports mania–amateur and professional teams held much of the city’s attention. The theater–the movies–the radio–all became expanding new recreational opportunities. Even more than any of these pastimes, the club movement created intellectual as well as service opportunities, reminding the community-established families of their civic obligations. This gave them comfortable feelings of security, mixed with pride in their heritage, amid the changing city scene.

The women’s club movement grew even larger and the club woman was often–with her club sometimes, and sometimes by herself–the basic driving force for the expanding health and educational civic programs. She became more active in many types of community affairs–leading crusades for such diverse causes as track elevation, female participation in politics, educational reforms, charity assistance in the relief of the poor. One of her major interests was in the Americanization of the immigrants. And, in this booming industrial center with its thousands of immigrant workers, she had a large field of service open to her. Women formed, in fact, a new community leadership group. She was the modern woman.

The Polish and Hungarian communities, the largest of the ethnic groups, grew enormously as the Studebaker and Oliver factories expanded with the prosperity of the decade. Both the Pole and the Hungarians developed business, cultural, and religious interests quite apart and distinct from the “old” South Bend community. And, while keeping close ties with their homelands and unique customs, both also made progress in integrating themselves into the larger community. The largest employers (most notably the Studebaker Corporation) made efforts to assist them in the process of assimilation.

These foreign groups created by their very presence some of the tensions appearing in the community during the decade–they were different and this disturbed many of the older residents. In part, this accounts for the base of support given in South Bend to the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan verbally attached this new large central European Roman Catholic population, as well as the growing Negro population. The Negro was even less welcomed than the immigrant, but together they constituted the needed large labor force recruited by the major manufacturers. This labor force and the new strong labor unions just did not lend themselves to older concepts of propriety in matters of labor-management relations. Older concepts of morality, too, were increasingly challenged from all sides and added to the community tensions.

In all of these areas South Bend was just reacting as all America was reacting to the new and changing problems plaguing all growing industrial cities. South Bend participated in and reacted typically also to national political discussions. Enthusiasm increased every  four years as many national  leaders came to the city on campaign tours. State and local political matters were also of course of interest. In particular, administering the growing city brought the mayor’s position into new community focus. He was now an administrator of a very large business, and as a result of the enormous problems faced by each mayor of the decade–each served just one term. The city continued to try to find the perfect administrator, as corruption seemed to be an inevitable evil of big city government.

The principal sources of this book have been The South Bend News-Times, The South Bend Tribune, and for the Polish community activities the Goniez Polski. They have been supplemented by the essential primary sources of Census Reports and the City council and Public School records.  Also of importance have been the records of the Progress Club which have been extensively drawn upon–for that group was the most influential women’s club of the city, taking a leadership role in both cultural and charitable community activities.

These records reflect the attitudes, views, and adjustments of the people of South Bend as the community too new directions, inescapable with its enormous manufacturing and physical growth. No longer could the pleasantries of the past continue to flow unattended. To retain the continuity of a noteworthy past and way of life remained a goal of many–and it did survive but in the altered form of city life.

The small town which had been stirred by dreams of greatness in the 1900-1910 decade, the awakened town which had participated in the great progressive reforms and emerging industrialization of the 1910-1920 decade, now became in the 1920-1930 decade a city. As a city it entered a world of new experiences. The quiet town had become an industrial giant. Its transformation is characteristic of the midwest American town which passed from the life-style of a relaxed rural setting into the multi-pressured, fast-paced, quite different type of industrial city living pattern.

Chapter 1: Unbreakable Ties with the Past

In 1920 the people of South Bend were occupied with learning to live in the ever changing, quick moving, and complex postwar world. The city would change during the following ten years into a major industrial center, and the developments which created this transformation brought new ideas, problems, and activities. Though most of the people in South Bend were affected, the new patterns of life never completely destroyed the dominant themes of the previous decades.

Thus, South Bend continued to give attention to programs which closely bound the city to its past. One such event which drew city-wide attention was the annual Memorial Day celebration. Interest was maintained in art and musical events, although the earlier enthusiasm diminished. Actually it was the older residents who sponsored these activities and felt obliged to give the city cultural programs. Undaunted by public apathy, they worked with unceasing drive. Another group of dedicated workers were those absorbed in religious programs. While some were content with weekly church attendance, other were zealous evangelists conducting frequent religious crusades. Similarly, the farmers were aggressive in promoting their cause and flooded the press with information about national farm problems. Still another unbreakable tie with the past came through America’s political and emotional entanglement with Europe. Several of these areas of thought and activity were of great importance during 1920-1930: they absorbed much community time and energy. They were both rigid program commitments and ideological viewpoints associated with the past. They were not to be forgotten in the pressures of the moment, although their pertinency to the present was minimal.

During 1920-1930 South Bend would have preferred to ignore international affairs and the whole troublesome foreign world. The comfortable patterns of isolated existence before the great war were fondly remembered, and a return to those living conditions was a favored goal–recognized as unobtainable but not relinquished. South Bend had worked energetically to win the war, but the sense of urgency which had inspired that effort disappeared. Industrial readjustment to peace and a broad reassessment of attitudes toward America’s role in international affairs shifted community views.

“There is a definitely a feeling that if real danger to the republic ever existed it is absent now…” South Bend newspapers reported that Americans cared little that world unrest supposedly resulted from their aloofness and America’s failure to join the League of Nations. Business leaders were aroused form lethargy only at the thought that isolationism disturbed foreign trade, destroying business. Almost uniquely this segment of the community leadership suddenly realized that “We are not so much a people unto ourselves as we thought we were.”

Generally, South Bend remembered only that America had intervened in Europe for altruistic reasons, and Europe’s postwar attitude of suspicion toward us caused disillusionment. South Bend, the press noted, had been reluctant to accept as fact that Europe was distrustful, but once this was understood attitudes hardened. South Bend approved of withdrawing from all European involvements. This unyielding position was championed in South Bend newspapers throughout the decade, and observers sadly noted that “The world has lost the jaunty air…”

A bitter though approving tone dominated local editorial comment on America’s rejection of Europe: “The only place where ideals still thrive is under the Stars and Stripes.” “The big job for America is to keep her poise, to not permit the thought of possible foreign trade to engage us on any wild adventure of policing the world.” The alleged…”appeal…from Europe to participate in her quarrels, her wrangles and her troubles” exemplifies the picture given of European views and reflects the general distaste for any cooperative political working arrangement with Europe. Newspaper readers were instructed to “Ask yourself how much more you are willing to be taxed to support such adventures.” South Bend’s press advocated a strong national posture of political and idealogical isolation, since, it was felt, Europe would never absorb the American spirit of peace, friendship, and fair dealing. America should not repeat its earlier mistake. The policy of detachment from Europe seemed fully endorsed by South Bend in 1925.

A vocal minority of citizens kept everyone aware that, much as they might like, Americans could never divorced themselves from world attachments. America’s world obligations and the values in non-political cultural and humanitarian overseas ties were championed vigorously by a few prominent people. Heart-rendering appeals for European relief assistance flooded the city. Preferring isolationism, South Benders nevertheless contributed generously to the pleas endorsed by such outstanding men as Herbert Hoover. Hoover and other notable national leaders encouraged distinguished South Bend society and business people to accept local campaign responsibilities–the sponsorship of Mrs. Charles Arthur Carlisle (of the Studebaker family) assured a successful fund-raising campaign. The relief drives for European children were the most popular, but the Near East program was also supported by South Bend society leaders.

Evidence of the inevitability of America’s participation in world events was further emphasized by the public drills of the Indiana National Guard. Organized in 1921 as a machine gun unit, the local battalion was a symbol of America’s readiness to meet local and national emergencies. Its presence was an ever present reminder of the vagaries of peace.

While all citizens were made aware in these ways of America’s world commitments, South Bend’s foreign population was personally affected by them. The Friends of Irish Freedom, for example, held meetings and called on all Irishmen to work for the fatherland and buy bonds. Similarly, the Jewish community petitioned England to halt the Arabs’ attacks on the Jews in Palestine. With great excitement the Hungarians discussed their homeland’s Civil War, and the Poles talked endlessly, helplessly, about the suffering in their homeland. These foreign loyalties were considered by many citizens a major community problem–what was the proper relationship between the immigrant and his homeland? This vital interest in the problems of Europe clearly set the immigrants apart from the older residents of South Bend, and antagonism was evident between the groups.

The concern over European affairs demonstrated by the Irish, the Jews, the Hungarians, and the Poles resulted from close personal ties with their homelands. In addition they saw a broader view through their daily newspapers. Thus, they read of the democratic reforms promised by Mustapha Kemel to the unhappy Turks; of the rise of power of Mussolini in Italy; and of the early career of Germany’s Hitler.

By 1927, however, the primary foreign news emphasis was focused on America’s problems with China and Mexico. Readers watched anxiously as American gunboats fired on China and landed American marines there. Although war was abhorred in principle, sentiment favored full protection for Americans and the government’s caution was applauded. Similarly, attempts to solve the Mexican problm without war won favor. That dispute over American-owned Mexican oil fields was complicated, and The South Bend Tribune believed “A tremendous volume of mudied [sic] thinking…[was] being done about Mexico.” The solution worked out by Ambassador Dwight Morrow introduced an era of good feeling between the countries, and Herbert Hoover’s 1928 tour of South America augured well for future relationships. On that occasion The South Bend News Times editorialized that “…the Latin Americas will find Mr. Hoover a ready listener and an eager student. He wants to know South America and that is the forerunner of a mutual understanding which will mean extraordinary mutual development.”

South Bend and U.S. Isolationism

South Bend newspapers rejected such sanguine views of European developments and upheld the demand for full payment of the allies’ war debt. To cancel just debts was an act of immorality, serving only to encourage Bolshevism. “The United States should be like a conservative person or banking institution  that is a creditor. It should not be harsh or impose unreasonable terms. But it should stand for the honoring of contracts. A debt is a debt and cancellation amounts to the same thing as repudiation.” Especial indignation flared at the thought that debts be cancelled since European lives had been lost on America’s behalf. The South Bend News Times labeled this an imbecilic position and “…to preach that we owe our security to our allies borders not only on the asinine but on the treasonable.” All such discussions returned to the point that “…Europe measures us by her own diplomatic and political standards. She attributes designs to us that are wholly foreign to our real purposes.” This distrust remained strong during 1920-1930; if anything, it grew in intensity.

This dislike and distrust was further demonstrated in attitudes toward the League of Nations and the World Court. In 1920 the League was viewed an innocuous and with a sense of regret that we had not joined. Wilsonian idealism conveyed a felling that good League actions would eventually cause Americans to demand membership. “Americans admire and respect success. They will be more disposed to join the League if it shows that it can get along without them. And it will.” In the meantime our isolationism brought concern: “Our circle of associates in the world of international relations continues to grow less. We may soon stand alone.” The theme came to be that no matter how odious the League may be, America could not stand apart from the world.

Local Veterans Organizations

Armistice Day and Memorial Day were two occasions when South Bend willingly thought of war and peace. Bells and whistles at 11 a.m. on November 11–Armistice Day–brought all city activities to a halt. The community honored its soldiers with patriotic meetings, colorful parades, lengthy speeches, and the proud display of the flag.

Flags were also displayed on Memorial Day. This holiday carried the tone of a memorial service as a solemn parade of uniformed war veterans marched their way to the City Cemetery [South Bend], leading the school children who decorated veterans’ graves with their bouquets of roses and irises. Ball games and marching bands were the joyful aspects of the day, but the spirit of reverence for the past was never lost. By 1920 the American Legion was handling arrangements (the G.A.R. veterans were disappearing) and they zealously guarded the old traditions. City officials and citizens both sough to preserve a “proper” observance of the day. “South Bend’s Memorial day is right, true and fitting.” “South Bend has a simple, dignified and impressive Memorial day observance which retains the traditional calm and respectfulness of earlier days.” The American Legion gained additional community approval with its sponsorship of the Memorial Tree Project. The proposal was to line the Lincoln Highway [now Lincoln Way East and Lincoln Way West] with “living memorials”–trees purchased by families and friends of men who had died in the war.

The Legionnaires were considered a happy group, as demonstrated at their annual state conventions. Eight thousand veterans came to such a convention in South Bend in 1927–businesses and homes “…display(ed)…the colors out of respect for the men who were in service during the world war.” The Legionnaires sponsored dances, card games, and dinners and these activities created a need for a permanent clubhouse. These recreational programs absorbed the Legion energies, but they also sponsored worthwhile community projects. They led in a campaign for a public coliseum and collected relief funds for former servicemen.

The surviving Civil War veterans, however, always held the spotlight as the most honored of the veteran’s groups. Their annual reunions became smaller each year, but their morale was high as they sang their honored battle melodies. “These ‘boys in blue’ are highly comprehensible symbols of an intact nation; and full appreciation of that fact makes for better Americanism.” “We, today, are merely building on foundations which were laid by the men who founded the nation and which were strengthened for the most part by civil war veterans. Our debt to them is incalculable.” ” ‘May time never come when we shall cease to remember them.’ ”

Although these noble sentiments were repeated each Memorial Day, they were forgotten the remainder of the year as interest in community history declined. The demanding present and the promising future held more interest for most citizens than did the musty past. “The new times have their faults, but they are the golden age when contrasted with the ‘good old time.’ ” With this spirit predominating, historically-minded citizens found great difficulty in their self-appointed tasks: placing a historical marker on the site of Schuyler Colfax’s home was one noteworthy accomplishment. Many other projects were discussed, but with few results. Congressman Hickey attempted to secure a Colfax memorial statue and then sought postage stamps honoring LaSalle. The Fraternal Order of Eagles was active in promoting–unsuccessfully–a World War memorial, and the Common Council talked endlessly of erecting various memorials to the soldiers. The Council felt that the “People of South Bend do not fail to honor the war dead but for some reason neglected expressing their feelings for those who gave their lives in the world war.”

This ambivalence was reflected by the scant interest of South Benders in the Northern Indiana Historical Society. The Society carefully collected relics for their museum and sponsored lectures on local history. Promoting the Society’s program was difficult for “Public interest in the Northern Indiana Historical Society and its work is at low ebb…” Little appreciation of the Society existed among South Bend’s new and large foreign factory worker population–they were not part of the city’s past. “South Bend has become a commercial center and will soon be a much larger one. In that transition the old landmarks go and new monuments to the energy of man are created to replace them.” Unsentimental realism prevailed.

Not only were the familiar landmarks disappearing, but the pioneer settlers were also passing from the scene. The merchant Moses Livingston, the builder Alexander Staples, and the editor John B. Stoll were among the long-time residents lost to the community. Stoll, especially, had carved for himself an honored place in the civic archives: “In his day and hour he interpreted the message of the common man, who had hope and aspirations and a purpose to be better than he was yesterday and to have his children better than he was in his best.”

The old time residents were the chief promoters of the South Bend Centennial observance. This 1923 event, supervised by the Chamber of Commerce, involved most prominent citizens. Professional decorators bedecked downtown streets in gala splendor. Without sleazy side shows this “clean” centennial appealed to the whole family: an automobile show, a horticultural exhibit. a spectacular parade, a fireworks display, and a historical tableau were among the attractions. This was a festive civic celebration. Street dancing every night made the week-long celebration a splendid holiday for both children and adults. The placing of a bronze plaque on the site of LaSalle’s landing concluded the week on a historical note.  [Who is Robert LaSalle?  Click Here]

The Centennial program was the major historical celebration of the decade; although 1929 the Northern Indiana Historical Society, the American Legion, and the South Bend Lions Club sponsored a program commemorating the 250th anniversary of LaSalle’s sojourn in Indiana. Featured in these ceremonies were the usual parade, day-long meetings, and speeches by both the French Consul General from Chicago and the national Commander of the American Legion, Paul V. McNutt [learn more]. These events created only momentary interest in the city’s past.

Both art and music were an integral part of these programs, although the standards of neither had approval of professional artists. The results satisfied most citizens, however, for they held no basic knowledge of cultural values. South Bend had become an industrial center and her new foreign-born residents generally lacked a background necessary for an appreciation of the arts. Public schools sought to remedy this situation by stressing art appreciation in every classroom, but the educative process was slow and uncertain.





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