Albert Balch, developer of the View Ridge and Wedgwood neighborhoods of northeast Seattle, did not start out to work in real estate. As many college grads do, at first Balch struggled to find a suitable career.
Albert Balch graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle in 1926, and for the next two years he was employed by the national organization of the fraternity he had belonged to, Sigma Alpha Epsilon. In his job as travelling secretary he reviewed organizational records and the functioning of the fraternities, whose mission statement was to “turn promising young men into true gentlemen.” Judging from the activities of Balch and his fraternity brothers after graduation, it appears that having been in Sigma Alpha Epsilon gave the men social advantages as the men went on to respectable careers and civic involvement. In the period after his graduation Balch was many times noted in the Seattle newspapers as active in groups, such as UW alumni, the Municipal League, and business associations.
It is notable that even after travelling the USA for two years on behalf of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Balch found no other place he wanted to be, than Seattle. Primarily he worked as a salesman and one of the career-development techniques he used was to get himself mentioned in the Seattle newspapers as often as possible. In the month of March 1930 when Balch turned 27 years old, an article in the Sunday edition of the Seattle Daily Times described Balch as “A Seattleite to Whom “Busy” Signs Mean Nothing.” The article told of Balch’s autograph collection and how he often talked his way into the presence of famous persons in order to obtain their signature: “When Albert Balch, U. of W. graduate, “crashed the gate” into offices of America’s great and near-great, his disarming smile brought friendly grins instead of paperweights!”
The news article went on to say that Balch was a well-known Seattle bond salesman and he did volunteer work with the Municipal League. The Municipal League, which still exists today, started in Seattle in 1910 as a citizens organization to advocate for good government. The Muni League does evaluations of political candidate qualifications, advocates for reforms, and is a “watchdog” for corruption in city government.
There are other references to Balch having begun a hobby of autographs when he was in high school, but the news article of March 1930 told of Balch’s collections done in 1926 to 1928 while he was travelling for the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, and his opportunities to get signatures at the Republican National Convention of June 1928. Balch called his collection “The Book of Leadership.” His best time of collecting was done at the Republican National Convention, June 1928 in Kansas City, where he obtained autographs of many people in political office. Balch was able to get the signature of then-Vice President of the United States, Charles G. Dawson (serving under President Calvin Coolidge) and after that, when others saw that Dawson had signed Albert Balch’s autograph book, they were willing to sign as well.
Then-President Calvin Coolidge had declined to run for re-election, so the purpose of the 1928 Republican Convention was to choose a candidate. There were various factions and it was difficult to know which candidate would win out. In the days before cell phones, fax or other communication devices such as walkie-talkies, it was hard to gather information and know what other groups were doing. Those who had worked to promote Herbert Hoover as the next presidential candidate of the Republican Party knew that there were other factions, but they did not know how strong they were. The final selection of the presidential candidate was made by Republican Party officials at the June 1928 convention. When the time came for the nomination announcement, the convention delegates waited eagerly to hear it.
Albert Balch had been appointed a sergeant-at-arms, which meant that he was one of the people near the stage who helped ascertain the identity of people coming up to speak at the convention. There was no more advantageous position for an autograph-hunter, as political figures had to identify themselves to Balch when approaching the stage. A man named John McNab got up to make the announcement that the Republican candidate for president of the United States would be Herbert Hoover, who had served as Secretary of Commerce under President Coolidge. As soon as the crowd heard the name “Hoover,” pandemonium broke out. There was wild celebration by those who had worked hard to put forth Hoover as the candidate, so that for nearly 30 minutes the convention waited for the crowd to quiet down. Meanwhile, Balch coolly stepped up onto the stage and got the signature of Mr. McNab who had announced Hoover’s nomination. Later, Balch was able to obtain the signature of Herbert Hoover himself.
In the period from 1928, when Balch returned to live in Seattle after his travels with fraternity work, through 1931, Balch’s name was in the Seattle newspapers several times per year, mentioned as chairman of the UW Alumni Association and in activities of the Municipal League. In a news article on April 19, 1931, the Seattle Public Library announced that “Albert Balch, local bond salesman,” had presented a book of “signatures of noted men” to the library. This is likely the book that he had filled with autographs since 1926, which he called the Book of Leadership. It may be that Balch felt the book was too valuable to leave laying around, and would better be kept at the library. There were also indications that Balch was getting ready to leave town, and perhaps he thought it best to put his autographs into the library collection.
The Great Depression had deepened from its start with the stock market crash in October 1929, and by 1931 there was real desperation and hopelessness across the USA. Many were without jobs, and since there was as yet no Social Security or other “safety net” programs, there was a lot of hunger and homelessness. It was ironic that Herbert Hoover had directed the US food relief program in Europe during the First World War, bringing help to starving peoples, but he didn’t see a role for the US government to help its own people. As President of the United States, Hoover was against federal aid as he felt that neighbors should help one another, and charities should take care of the poor.
We can wonder what Albert Balch thought of President Hoover by 1931, as it seemed that Hoover was unable to do anything to improve the economy. After three years, 1929-1931, the economic depression continued to get worse. At first people had not blamed President Hoover, but by 1931, unemployment rates were very high and encampments of the homeless and unemployed began to be called Hoovervilles. It was the policy of the Hoover administration to take a “hands-off” approach and let business and industry regulate themselves. But it wasn’t working, and Balch himself, though he was a good salesman, could not sell bonds to people who had no money to buy.
Towards the end of 1931 Balch began to experiment with other “sidelines” to generate income. With two co-investors he began working with plywood products, including paper-thin sheets which they called Slicewood. Balch arranged for a publicity item to be published in the Seattle Times newspaper in December 1931, a photo of a four-foot high Christmas card printed on Slicewood. Pretty UW coeds held the edges of the card, which had the inscription, “Seasons Greetings, President Hoover!” Balch and his co-investors were going to mail the card and the news article humorously explained that “letter carriers will need help if Christmas cards as large as this one become popular.”
Balch began sending samples of Slicewood to other cities’ Chambers of Commerce, with letters of suggestion on how the product could be used. In Tenino, Thurston County (about 15 miles south of Olympia on the old Highway 99) there was a crisis in December 1931 when the only bank in town closed, another casualty of the Great Depression. In those days there was no Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and depositors were left without their money when the bank failed. No one in Tenino could cash paychecks or get money to buy anything. As a remedy, a script plan was formulated on December 20, 1931. The Tenino Chamber of Commerce took the 25 sheets of Slicewood which they had received from Albert Balch and cut them into wooden money in denominations of $10, $5, $1 and 25 cents. Depositors were to be given the script, but the plan took an unexpected turn. Tourists were given script in exchange for cash, and they were to use the script in town. But what happened was that a mania developed for the script as a collectors item, so tourists paid cash for the script but didn’t use it – they took it home with them. Tenino collected more and more cash and started printing more wooden money as fast as they could, though they printed it themselves on thin plywood and did not continue to use Balch’s Slicewood. The plan was so successful that within a year Tenino had collected $7,000. They used the money to keep their town operating and they planned to set up their own bank to replace the insolvent one.
At about the time of the first Tenino wooden money (December 1931) Albert Balch was called home to Blaine, Washington, because of the illness and death of his father, who passed away on January 4, 1932, at age 70. There is almost no mention of Albert Balch in Seattle newspapers for the year 1932, except one which indicates that he spent most of that year in Blaine. In an article about the Peace Arch at the US-Canada border crossing at Blaine which was built in 1921, Balch was referred to as a “Blaine merchant and famous autograph fan” who was, in August 1932, organizing the community effort to complete the park grounds on Peace Portal Drive. The fact that Balch was referred to as a “Blaine merchant” may mean that he had taken over the operation of his father’s store. Balch’s brother George had died in 1927, so with the death of their father in January 1932 there was no one else to carry on the business.
Perhaps Balch also engaged in other business ventures including Slicewood, while he stayed in Blaine to help his widowed mother, Josephine. The year 1932 must have been a time when Balch felt pulled in different directions: he needed to help his mother in Blaine; he wanted to live in Seattle but he had not been able to find adequate employment there, so he considered other options such as running for political office.
Throughout 1932 the Great Depression deepened and more and more banks failed and closed their doors. A year after the Tenino plan, Albert Balch proposed that Blaine try out wooden money, too:
Seattle Times, January 7, 1933: Another Washington city was on a wooden money basis today – Blaine’s city council authorizing payment of round, wooden money to unemployed in exchange for labor on city improvements. The plan, originated by Albert Balch, defeated candidate for the State Legislature, was inspired by success of Tenino in redeeming about $7,000 in wooden money within a year.
From the above news article excerpt we learn that during 1932 Balch had run for election to the state legislature from his home district of Blaine. We can only imagine how differently Balch’s life might have turned out if he had been successful in entering a career in politics. But instead, in early 1933 Balch returned to Seattle and news notes began to describe him as an “advertising and publicity man,” employed at Fisher Communications as a salesman of radio ads. Once again Balch’s autograph collection was in the news. It was reported that, because he no longer travelled for his work as he had done in 1926-1928, he now made most of his autograph requests by mail. With an autograph request he enclosed a letter stating that “the collection is esteemed and valued by the Seattle Public Library.” This was very successful in making authors, artists, and political figures feel that their contribution was going to be recognized and appreciated, and Balch’s requests-by-mail had a high response rate.
Ralph Jones and Albert Balch, fraternity brothers from Sigma Alpha Epsilon at the UW, worked together at Fisher Communications while going on to the next phase in their lives: marriage and family. Balch married in July 1933. Probably he had met Edith at the UW, where Edith had been in a sorority and in school activities. After graduation she had worked as social and club secretary of the YWCA. Ralph Jones was married in June 1935 to a teacher whom he had met while working for a newspaper in Ellensburg. Albert Balch was best man at the Jones wedding in a University District, Seattle church. Each couple lived in an apartment in Seattle after their marriage.
In their spare time Ralph Jones and Albert Balch liked to go out looking at property where they might build homes, and just a few weeks after Ralph Jones was married, they found what they were looking for. At the present site of the View Ridge neighborhood in northeast Seattle Balch & Jones obtained some undeveloped property, putting down $25 on the purchase with the balance of $1000 due in thirty days. It was a mad scramble, but they were able to cover the payment and they were on their way. In December 1935 the men filed a plat with King County (a layout of streets and house lots) for a subdivision to be called View Ridge. A few weeks after that, both men quit their jobs at Fisher Communications and put their full efforts into developing View Ridge. They recruited fraternity brothers to consider building their homes in View Ridge, and they made extensive use of newspaper publicity for the development. In 1936 Balch & Jones each built a house for their family on 50th Ave NE in View Ridge and lived there for the rest of their lives.
To be continued: Albert Balch, Part Three: Learning Real Estate from the Ground Up.
“A Seattleite to Whom ‘Busy” Signs Mean Nothing.” Seattle Daily Times, March 2, 1930, page 70.
“Signatures of Noted Men Become Public Property.” Seattle Daily Times, April 19, 1931, page 14.
“Tenino, Washington.” Wikipedia, accessed 4/26/2013.
“Wooden Money.” Seattle Daily Times, March 9, 1932, page 6.
“Tenino’s Wooden Money Buries Old Man Depression,” Seattle Daily Times, January 1, 1933, page 4.
“Peace Portal Drive has been completed through Blaine.” Seattle Daily Times, August 11, 1932, page 1.
“Blaine to Issue Wooden Money, Good as Gold.” Seattle Daily Times, January 8, 1933, page 3.
“Distinguished Names.” Seattle Daily Times, May 15, 1933, page 10.
“Depression-era Wooden Money Issued in Tenino, Thurston County.” Seattle Daily Times, January 6, 1969, page 5.
Albert Balch Notes of Ethel Madigan, Secretary-Treasurer, Wedgwood Corporation, 1978.
The Seattle Room, tenth floor of the downtown Seattle Public Library, houses the autograph collection donated by Albert Balch.