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Postwar era best, worst of times

Happiest town
News-Sentinel file photo

Happiest town
Look magazine declared Fort Wayne "America's Happiest Town" in 1949.
By KEVIN KILBANE of The News-Sentinel

Relaxed and pleasant. People don't shout, rush, push or show "symptoms of irritation."

No extreme poverty, no crime problem and little open racial prejudice.

That's how a visiting doctor described Fort Wayne in an August 1949 Look magazine article headlined "America's Happiest Town: Fort Wayne."

The late 1940s were happy days for many.

The return of servicemen from World War II reunited families and started new ones. Factories had expanded and added workers to meet the war demands. The youth gangs roaming the streets consisted of large groups of girls or boys going to high school football games, soda shops and movie houses.

"There was so much more patriotism and following of your school," recalled Jeri Krebs, one of 13 smiling North Side High School girls whose group portrait dominates the Look spread.

But Fort Wayne wasn't the idyllic town depicted in Look. Like many other cities across the country, it shuddered and shook as it downshifted into life after the war.

One of the first challenges facing Fort Wayne and other communities involved housing.

During the early 1940s, most home-building materials had been diverted to the war effort. Servicemen returning home and marrying created a sudden and sizable need for affordable housing.

"Real estate was so scarce because nothing had been done for five years," said Hamilton Hunter Jr., whose late father, Hamilton Hunter, worked as a home builder.

To speed housing construction, many builders put up prefabricated homes, some of which could be assembled within a day. Most "prefab" homes came from General Industries' General Homes plant in Fort Wayne or the National Homes plant in Lafayette. General Homes' local plant, ironically, was built on the site of Camp Scott, which had held German prisoners during the war.

"It was like a mission to house people," recalled Phillip H. Shirmeyer, whose father, the late Ralph Shirmeyer, became one of National Homes' highest-volume builders by constructing prefab homes in southeast subdivisions such as Mount Vernon Park.

Prefabricated homes didn't offer much choice in size or style. National Homes' early models, for example, typically ranged from about 950 to 1,200 square feet, and cost about $6,000.

"Today, couples with kids wouldn't even have a look at them," Phillip Shirmeyer said. "Back then, it was appreciated."

The need for home lots stretched the city limits to the south and north. Subdivisions built during the late 1940s included Sherwood Heights, Mount Vernon Park, Harvester View, Anthony Wayne, Mauldin Amended and Woodhurst additions on Fort Wayne's south side. Building on the north side began with the North Highlands addition and exploded in the early 1950s. So great was the demand that the number of new homes built in Fort Wayne increased from 655 in 1946 to 1,003 by 1950.

The city roiled with social change as well. Women who went to work during the war years lost their jobs as factories and businesses hired returning servicemen, former North Side student Jeri Krebs said. While divorce still was not common, news reports say rates jumped nationally during 1946 as couples who married hastily during wartime found they couldn't get along in peace.

By 1949, newspaper headlines also began to report some of the first serious outbreaks of polio.

Local blacks also suffered overt racial prejudice. Many restaurants refused to serve them. Theaters banished them to the back or balcony.

"I refused, and they called one of their officers," retired educator Verna Adams, 70, recalled of a trip to the former Jefferson Theater. "I was told they would call the police, so I left."

Similarly, Adams received rebuffs at local hospitals when she applied to be a nurse's aide. Fort Wayne Community Schools told her "it was doubtful" when she asked about joining the then all-Caucasian teaching staff.

"The best job that seemed to be available was elevator operator, and that was only at W & D's (Wolf & Dessauer department store)," Adams said.

Her persistence eventually led her back to the education field. There she rose to FWCS' director of supplemental instruction.