Business Commerce History

Monroe was once the fastest growing city in the South

In the Spring of 2009, a groundbreaking ceremony was held in the eastern part of Monroe, near Interstate 20, for the construction of a new junior college, Northeast Delta Community College. Around the country, fears of a major economic recession were on the rise, and yet, in Monroe, the citizens were building a new school. Nearly eighty years before Delta Community College President Luke Robbins, Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, local officials and state delegates stuck a shovel in the dirt to usher in the construction process, another event took place. Mayor Arnold Bernstein, elected officials and local businessmen were putting plans together for another major junior college. It would appear that a legacy of building in times of economic distress would become a hallmark for Monroe, for like 2009, the latter years of the 1920s had major recession on the rise.

 
 However, Monroe was ready to build a school. The City of Monroe was affected financially by the Great Depression of the 1930s. It experienced bank closures, a reduction in revenues, a decrease in its long loved population expansion, a major flood, and a disruption in social life. But long before a New Deal was presented, the citizens pressed on and held the city together. Around the nation, citizens believed varying degrees of economic turmoil during the years 1929-1936, however, Monroe had a wealth of resources that allowed it to survive the Great Depression with minimal financial woes.

 
 The success in Monroe during the Depression years can be owed to its earlier profits from natural gas and carbon black. Although drilling north of the city only began at the turn of the century, the profits from local investors escalated and put Monroe in a position to be a major producer. Monroyans contributed to oil exploration and soon after outside investors joined in the campaign. It was an investment and a testament to their visionary outlook that would set in place an industry that would serve as a basis for their security from national depression. By 1922, there were 42 wells completed. However, in just two years that number was tripled to 109 wells. By that time, the Monroe area was not only recognized as the “World’s Greatest Gas Field,” but also as the largest center of Carbon Black production in the world.

 
 A publication in the daily newspaper attributed millions in payroll salaries in 1927. “There are about 20 carbon companies on the parish assessment roll…It is obvious that hundreds of men are given steady employment by industries of this size,” the article stated. With industrial payrolls topping at $7,000,000 annually into the Twin Cities, there were tangible natural resources in Monroe to provide for its citizens’ financial abundance during the pre-depression years.

 
 The 1920s’ abundance wasn’t just paper profits gained from Wall Street stock speculation. New residents flocked to the city and increased the population. In 1917, Monroe had a population of 10,500. By 1931, it had 29,750. In the same period of time, the assessed value of the city grew from $6.5 million to over $30 million by 1931. Monroe experienced its share of the Roaring Twenties. There was plenty jazz, musicals, theater, film, and national acts. A new airfield was opened in the 1920s. A group of Monroe businessmen invested great sums of money into acquiring the company that later would become Delta Airlines. Until 1996, the board of directors for Delta met in the same boardroom of the old Central Bank in downtown Monroe where the original acquisition took place. New streets were paved, new bridges were constructed across the Ouachita River, the Ouachita National Bank was erected to break Monroe’s skyline, and three new hotels were built downtown to rival any that existed in larger cities. In 1929, Monroe was the fastest growing city in the South and it seemed that the city had nowhere to go but up.

 
 A long legacy of survival exists in the will and determination of the Monroe people to use their natural resources and self-driven programs of assistance to help themselves in times of emergency. Whether it be a major levee breaking flood or a national economic depression, Monroe has been able to survive at least with minimal casualties. Are we who live in Modern day Monroe anything similar to those of the early 20th century? Are we continuing to build and thrive? Our population is below 50,000. What are we doing to encourage residents to return? Is that even our aim? What is our magnet? We have a shopping mall, an airport, and a major university. All three have existed since 1985. What’s next for us? Certainly we are not in the midst of a great depression, so  what will history say of our time?

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