Morningside Heights in Wedgwood: Prohibition, the Great Depression, and Walter S. Wood

This is the second article about the life of Walter S. Wood, an early resident of Morningside Heights in Wedgwood.

In 1927 Walter Wood turned forty years old and he was going full-steam ahead with all of his varied businesses in the Morningside Heights plat of what is now part of Wedgwood.   Walter’s city directory listing for 1928 gave his occupation as “real estate, fuel, building materials.”  The Wood’s house number was 9428 25th Ave NE,  so Walter had given his store/gas station the same number, 9428 Victory Way (Lake City Way.)   In 1930 his store’s name was in the city directory for the first time, Morningside Service Station, listed as selling oil, gas and groceries.   Since we know that Walter was also serving as Justice of the Peace of Morningside Precinct and he held court right there in his store, it would be fair to say that Walter Wood was doing a real juggling act and trying to keep a lot of balls in the air.

Walter Wood’s variety of activities to generate income may have been motivated by his inner drive to make something of himself, but it also was somewhat typical of the time period.  Because of low wages and employment ups and downs, in the 1920s and 1930s people engaged in various fall-back strategies, such as growing some of their own food or making things to sell.

In a 1920s real estate brochure for the Morningside Heights development, the glories of raising ones' own chickens was advertised using Walter Wood's home as an example.

In a 1920s real estate brochure for the Morningside Heights development, the glories of raising ones’ own chickens was advertised using Walter Wood’s home as an example.

In the 1920s what is now the Wedgwood neighborhood had not yet acquired that name.  The first real estate development to be advertised was Morningside Heights, and for some time that became the name of the neighborhood.

Many residents of the Morningside Heights plat, from NE 90th to 95th Streets, 25th to 35th Avenues NE in today’s Wedgwood, moved there because it was rural and less expensive than close-in neighborhoods like Queen Anne or Capitol Hill.   It was common for people in Wedgwood in the 1920s and 1930s to have an extensive “kitchen garden” and keep chickens for their family food supply.   They could have sidelines such as raising chickens to sell as the Woods did, to generate more income.

The stock market crash of October 24, 1929 was a shock to the economy which set off the national Great Depression of the 1930s.   A vicious cycle of spending cutbacks and job losses led to millions of people being without work, and at first there were no government assistance programs available.   Small groceries such as Walter Wood’s store got into difficulty because customers who were having hard times might buy groceries “on account,” but then never come back to pay.   People stopped driving their cars because they were unable to pay their car loans or pay for gasoline, so Walter Wood’s gas station business dried up.   Not knowing that it was the worst possible time to open a new business, Walter had opened a grocery store and gas station just before the start of the Great Depression.

Walter Wood’s juggling act finally fell apart because of the strain of his work as a Justice of the Peace of Morningside Precinct.   He had been elected to the position in 1926, and his Morningside store also served as his courtroom.  Perhaps Walter had thought that his Justice of the Peace duties would be light and would supplement his income.  But because of Prohibition (the national ban on alcohol) he was constantly busy with court hearings about the illegal sale and use of alcoholic beverages (“bootlegging.”)  This made his business situation even worse as his court duties took time away from income-producing efforts.

In February 1932 Walter confessed that he had been “borrowing” court funds.   Overextended financially in his speculative real estate ventures and desperate for cash to pay his creditors, Walter had thought he would just borrow some of the fines money which he had collected in the prosecution of Prohibition cases.   Walter had misappropriated approximately $10,000 of liquor fines collected from bootleggers convicted in his court in the year 1931 to 1932.

Walter Wood looked very grim when he was charged with embezzlement in 1932.

Justice Wood, as he was referred to in a news article of February 18, 1932, confessed that he first took a small amount – about $500 – and returned it to his fund the next month.  Then he took an additional larger sum, pyramiding from month to month until his shortage reached $10,000.   The King County Sheriff ordered an audit of Justice Wood’s accounts when he discovered that the amount of liquor fines turned in to the county treasurer by the Morningside court did not total the amount of fines levied.   The sheriff said that 60% of all the liquor cases were being tried in Justice Wood’s court.   Walter said he had been overwhelmed by having to hold court at all hours from 8 AM to 10 PM daily, in addition to attending to his other businesses.   Newspapers described Walter Wood’s Morningside Service Station as “a somewhat labyrinthine combined grocery store, service station, justice court and real estate office.”

On July 6, 1932 Walter Wood appeared at the King County Courthouse on the charge of embezzlement.   Walter had handled more than $100,000 in liquor fines since 1926 under a system his attorney described as “a loose system with no check and much temptation.”   Coincident to his private financial affairs becoming worse, Walter’s caseload in the county court increased due to the large number of Prohibition bootlegging cases sheriff’s deputies presented.   In desperation, Walter said, he had started using money from fines paid to the court to pay his creditors.   His attorney suggested a suspended sentence for Walter on the grounds that he had confessed and he had been cooperative in helping the county auditor reconcile the accounts.   Despite all explanations, the judge who heard Walter’s case was not inclined to be merciful.   Walter, who was approaching his 45th birthday, was sentenced to serve a minimum of three years, up to a maximum of fifteen years, in the penitentiary at Walla Walla.

Walter Wood's house as it looked in 1937-1938, the year that all houses in King County were first photographed for the tax assessor's office. Photo courtesy of Puget Sound Regional Archives.

Walter Wood’s house as it looked in 1937-1938, the year that all houses in King County were first photographed for the tax assessor’s office. Photo courtesy of Puget Sound Regional Archives.

Census records show that as of 1930 or just before, Verda Wood’s widowed father, Samuel Bloom, had come to live with the Woods.   Mr. Bloom had worked until well into his 60’s as a night watchman on the docks of the Seattle waterfront.   He was 77 years old in 1930 when he came to live with the Woods, and he lived to be 87.  If he was still in good health for most of that time, Mr. Bloom might have been of real help to his daughter Verda Wood during the years that Walter was in prison.   City directory listings show that the Morningside Service Station remained open in the 1930s, and it is likely that Samuel Bloom and Verda Wood ran the store themselves.

By 1937, Walter was out of prison and back at home, and he was listed as an authorized B.F. Goodrich tire dealer, adding yet another sideline to his Morningside Station.   The continued listings of the gas station and grocery store, as well as the addition of tire services, indicates that car-related businesses may have begun to show signs of economic recovery toward the end of the 1930s.

We don’t know whether Walter Wood also sold beer at his Morningside Service Station and grocery, but he could legally have done so.   Ironically, Prohibition, part of the cause of Walter’s downfall, had ended on December 5, 1933, while Walter was still in prison.

The Woods in later years

In 1926 a private bus line, the Northeast Transportation Company, was organized by Morningside neighbors and Walter Wood’s name was on the list of original subscribers.   The bus ran from NE 110th Street along 35th Ave NE to NE 55th Street, where riders could connect with the Seattle city buses.   The 1926 Northeast Transportation Company subscribers had each put in a sum of money as stockholders.   In 1939 Walter Wood was mentioned in a neighborhood lawsuit about the rightful ownership and sale of the bus company.   When the bus route was to be taken over by another company, Walter was among a group of neighbors who brought suit claiming that the Northeast Transportation Company could not be sold without reimbursing them for their share.   His participation in the lawsuit indicates that Walter Wood was well-accepted in the Morningside-Wedgwood neighborhood as he was included in the stockholders group, and he had no hesitation about getting involved in another legal matter.

Reflecting on the lives of Walter & Verda Wood

Wlater Wood's house was built in 1913, probably the first in the Morningside Heights development, and was featured in a 1920s real estate brochure.

Wlater Wood’s house was built in 1913, probably the first in the Morningside Heights development, and was featured in a 1920s real estate brochure. The photographer is standing in NE 95th Street, with 25th Ave NE on the right.

Tracing the lives of Walter & Verda Wood shows us a great deal about the times they lived in and the earliest development of the Wedgwood neighborhood.   Walter & Verda were among the earliest residents of the Morningside Heights plat and they were involved in the life of the community, such as the real estate development of Morningside Heights and in the subscription bus service which residents organized in 1926.   Walter Wood knew that as a real estate agent selling lots in a development he lived in himself, he would have to keep up good relationships with homebuyers who would become his neighbors in Morningside.

Walter must have been well-thought-of in the community to be elected Justice of the Peace in 1926 and stay in office for more than five years.   After serving his prison term, Walter was able to return home and, although of course he was no longer Justice of the Peace, he seemed to be accepted back into the community.   Walter was able to continue to run his grocery store and gas station at 95th & Lake City Way, and he participated in other neighborhood concerns such as the 1939 bus company lawsuit.

It is hard for us to imagine the difficulties of making a living during the hardship years of the economic depression of the 1930s.   Like a farmer who plants a variety of crops in case one type fails, Walter Wood engaged in multiple enterprises: a grocery store, gas station, and real estate office; he also sold chicken feed, coal, and live chickens, and he became overextended financially by investing in real estate and building houses to sell “on speculation.”   To all these businesses Walter added his work as Justice of the Peace, and that proved to be too many balls to juggle.   Long hours, financial pressures and desperate circumstances caused Walter’s enterprises to come crashing down around him as he lost track of the accounting of his court funds.

In Walter & Verda Wood’s lifetime, the social standard was that there was a definite separation between men’s work and women’s work.   Men worked long hours, sometimes under inhumane conditions.   Especially during the 1930s economic depression when many men were unemployed, there was a tendency to disapprove of a married woman holding a job outside the home.   It was felt that men who needed to support their families should be given priority for employment opportunities.   In the 1930s the majority of married women stayed at home and nurtured family life by tending a garden, cooking from scratch, keeping house and volunteering in community activities at schools and churches.   The unsung hero in the story of Walter Wood was his wife Verda, who must have been his unfailing helper in all of his enterprises.   In later years, after Walter’s death, Verda spent more of her time volunteering for charitable work.    Walter & Verda never had any children, but Verda was a supporter of a school for girls.

Walter & Verda Wood lived in their house at 9428 25th Ave NE until their deaths in 1954 and 1970, respectively.   We see that through years of struggle, Walter & Verda Wood were able to keep their home and they also kept their marriage together.   Their lives exemplify the values of hard work, loyalty and devotion.

About Wedgwood in Seattle History

Valarie is a volunteer history writer for northeast neighborhoods in Seattle, Washington.
This entry was posted in 9428 25th Ave NE, Houses, Plat names and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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