Most of us find reminiscing about the Good Old Days irresistible. And we all carry with us certain memories validating that those days were indeed wonderful. But, when someone suggests that, at some point in our past, this country and its citizens were in a far better place and position, we should all roll our eyes and collectively groan. Today, small wars are being fought all over the world, but nothing like the number and style of wars in the past. Yet we believe that the here and now ranks among the most violent times in world history.
Likewise, although traffic fatalities are up slightly over the past 2 years, driving has never been safer. In fact, your grandparents were 25 times more likely to die in an auto accident back in the 1920s than you are today — yet we think driving is incredibly unsafe. We also believe there’s too much poverty today, but there’s not as much as during the Eisenhower years. Stats then showed 25 percent were living below the poverty line, yet we believe the Fifties were, economically, the good old days.
Human nature, apparently, tends to yearn for a mythic past that we’d like to go back to — only because we remember the best parts and none of the worst. In the end we love the past because we don’t have to live there anymore. And nothing proves that point more than the story of Walter Chrysler.
Chrysler was born in a small railroad town just west of Kansas City. When he was a boy his father moved them 192 miles due west to Ellis, Kansas, because that was one of the Union Pacific’s repair yards.
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He was great in school, particularly at math. He worked odd jobs as a boy, earning a substantial $10 a month in his early teens. But when he graduated high school, Chrysler’s real passion was to work for the railroad as a mechanic. After all, his father had moved them to Ellis to ensure that his boys could find good employment with the railroad as adults. But as older brother Ed had already found work there, Walter Chrysler’s father forbade him to do the same. Instead, he informed his wayward son, Walter was going to college for a better education.
At the time, if you wanted to work with the best railroads in America, you had to be recommended by a respected current employee; and Walter’s dad refused to do that. But Walter had been helping other mechanics at the rail yard all during his teenage years, asking all the right questions, even talking his way into doing minor repairs alongside the master mechanics. So, while they couldn’t hire him without his father’s permission as a mechanic’s apprentice, they did say he could sweep the floors for 10 cents an hour (around $2.60 in today’s money). Not six months later, though, the railyard’s master mechanic went to Chrysler’s dad and told him he was going to give him his apprenticeship, with or without his dad’s recommendation. Walter Chrysler was just too good to deny him the position. This time his dad gave in.
Chrysler finished his four-year apprenticeship in a little over three years and then, again against his parents’ will, set off west to find the best jobs he could on the railroad lines. And find work he did, but in those days not much of it was potentially life-long employment. Mostly because many smaller railroads hired and fired depending whether business was good or failing.
For the rest of his life Walter Chrysler would discuss what it was like in those days as an American railroad worker. When the job was suddenly over, one simply hopped a freight car to somewhere else, hopefully a place where shipments by rail were going strong. He spoke of not eating for days on end, having to walk up to farm houses’ back doors and beg for something to eat. In small towns where the people were unusually kind to unemployed drifters like Chrysler, he would carve his initials into the local train station’s water tank tower as a reminder in case he was out of work again.
Three decades later, now one of the richest men in America, he often took trips with his friend, Alfred Sloan of General Motors. Chrysler would show Sloan his initials on the water towers of many railroad stations across the West, regaling his friend with tales of his days without food as a young man. That was a world Sloan had never known, as he had been born and reared in a well-to-do family. What a strange pairing, one man born with a silver spoon in his mouth and the other with a greasy monkey wrench in his hand; but they were best friends until Chrysler died.
In 1901 Chrysler’s financial situation had stabilized enough that he could return home and marry his sweetheart, Della Forker. The people of Ellis, Kansas, were stunned that she could marry so far below her station in life; in 1924, when the Kansas City Star was running a puff piece on Chrysler, they quoted one longtime Ellis resident as saying, “It is too bad for Della, isn’t it? Why couldn’t Walter have gone into a bank or been a doctor instead of deciding to spend his life fiddling around engines?”
It was shortly after he and Della married that Walter Chrysler made his real reputation out in Childress, Texas. At the time, railroads had to rework the engines they purchased to improve their performance, and the Fort Worth and Denver Railway was no exception. They turned to Chrysler to work on their locomotives, to make sure they could tow full loads up into the Rockies to their final destinations. His Texas-earned reputation as one of the finest railroad mechanics in the nation got him work with the Chicago Great Western just two years later.
While on that job Chrysler went to a Chicago Auto Show. There he purchased his first vehicle, a Locomobile Phaeton, for $5,000. That’s around $133,000 in today’s money, and he had to beg a friend who was a banker to lend him that much cash. Chrysler, who could take apart locomotives and rebuild them much better, used his Locomobile for the same purpose. After tearing it down and rebuilding it several times, Walter Chrysler decided it was time to teach himself how to drive. Some of his first trips did not end well. Finally, the American Locomotive Company of Pittsburgh decided to bring Chrysler in house to improve their locomotives before they were sold to the railroad companies.
James Storrow came calling in 1911, just five years after Childress. Storrow represented the bankers who had taken control of General Motors away from its founder, Billy Durant. Charles Nash interviewed Chrysler and gave him the job of head of production at Buick, but he was ultimately made General Manager. Which is why Chrysler quit when Billy Durant came back in 1916 in a stock move and took control of General Motors back from the bankers. But Durant immediately went to Flint to keep Chrysler in his job. In today’s money he gave Chrysler $165,000 a month in salary and eight million in bonuses each year, to be paid in GM stock. Three years later Chrysler, who liked Durant but found him impossible to work for, cashed out. It took $160 million in today’s cash to buy Chrysler’s GM stock back.
From there you may know the rest of Chrysler’s story. He worked with Willys Overland, but couldn’t get the founder out of the company so he could fix it. Then he worked on saving Maxwell, which ultimately he did and renamed it Chrysler Corporation. He bought Dodge out from the trust the two brothers created before they died of the Spanish Flu just after the Great War. And in 1928 he started construction on the Chrysler Building in New York City. He figured it would be a great way to make sure his kids had an income, because they just weren’t ever going to be able to take over his automotive empire. But think about that one for just a second. Only 22 years after he and Della left their shack in the middle of nowhere outside of Childress, Texas, he was building one of the tallest skyscrapers in America. Like the Empire State Building, put together by former GM executive John J. Raskop, the Chrysler Building was completed just in time for the Great Depression.
It was tough enough to fill that much office space in Manhattan, but Detroit lay destitute. Not every automaker made it through that period without a bankruptcy, but Detroit’s Big Three each handled it differently.
Ford at first claimed that the Great Depression could be stopped by simply paying better wages to those still employed, which he did. For a while. But as sales continued to decline, Ford slashed wages and took to complaining about the worthlessness of his workforce, as if they were to blame for the nation’s economic woes. Additionally, Ford refused to backstop his son Edsel’s Guardian banking group, and when it collapsed that’s what led FDR to declare a national bank holiday during the start of his administration.
Alfred Sloan at GM just cut costs to the bone, quickly. Easy enough to do in those days; no unions existed, so workers could be fired at will and with no severance owed. One division Sloan planned to kill was Cadillac, but instead he put out an edict to Cadillac dealers nationwide: Now they were to sell their product to well-to-do African-Americans. Previously, in most cities no black could buy a new Cadillac from a dealer; they had to have straw purchases made by white friends. But that pent-up demand on Cadillac dealers succeeded; it brought in enough extra volume to save the luxury division.
Chrysler too had to slash expenses quickly; but, without telling the other division heads, secretly he told engineering that their expenses would be maintained. Yet, unlike Sloan and Ford, Chrysler was still that guy who had once carved his initials into railroad water towers. He knew firsthand what it was like to suddenly lose one’s job for something completely out of one’s control, such as an economic collapse. He remembered well what it was like to go for days without food because he had no job, no money in his pocket and a thousand miles between him and what may or may not be his next job. Ford denied it in his biographies, but both he and Sloan came from well-heeled families.
So, during the Great Depression, Chrysler made sure that families that had once worked for him but lost the job in the Depression’s downsizing, and who could still be found, received a large food basket at Christmas time. It wasn’t much, but all told it was expensive and just a quiet reminder to those individuals that their former employer hadn’t forgotten them.
During the Great Depression, those promoting a return to the Good Old Days likely outnumbered those doing the same today. After all, Bing Crosby’s “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” was the official national anthem of that mindset. But for those like Walter Chrysler, who had an exceptional memory, the Great Depression was a return to the 1890s. Unlike everyone else, he knew better than to remember that period of dread uncertainty as the Good Old Days.
© 2016 Ed Wallace
Ed Wallace, a member of the American Historical Association, is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, conferred by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA. He reviews new cars every Friday morning at 7:15 on Fox Four’s Good Day and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org