It remains to be seen whether North Platte will face a major spike in housing demand from a possible beef processing plant.
Even if it does, the few folks who remember World War II might say, “Housing shortage? Well, let me tell you …”
After the war ended on Sept. 2, 1945, North Platte, Nebraska and the nation despaired over where to house their returning service members.
Even without a major war industry, the hometown of the World War II Canteen had to take extraordinary measures to accommodate those wanting to live here.
One was North Platte’s first trailer park, housing veterans and their families on city-leased land in shelters once part of the pursuit of the war’s greatest secret weapon.
It lasted two years before disappearing from West 11th Street’s north side. But the legacy of North Platte’s housing crisis lives all over town — because one of every four homes here dates to the first 15 years of peace.
Should Sustainable Beef LLC’s plant be built, company and city officials have said North Platte would have at least 18 months to get ready to house however many of its expected 875 employees move to town.
Wartime community leaders knew a crunch was coming, too — but they couldn’t prepare.
Housing starts nationwide were only starting to recover from the Great Depression when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor propelled America into the war in December 1941.
Home construction was stifled by strict regulations as the federal government labored to house troops in Europe and the Pacific.
North Platte still has 251 homes built in 1940, according to the Lincoln County Assessor’s Office. But only 152 current homes were built between 1941 and 1944.
The U.S. National Housing Agency in January 1944 approved a 37-unit project that would be privately built but house only “essential war workers.”
Only 20 would be new homes, with the other 17 units created by converting single-family homes into “multiple dwellings,” The Telegraph reported.
The limited project was welcome in light of a housing crunch that “has been becoming acute in recent months,” according to a Telegraph editorial on Jan. 8, 1944.
It had happened despite North Platte’s failure to land military airfields like Scottsbluff, Alliance, Kearney and McCook or defense plants like Sidney, Grand Island and Hastings.
“Today, North Platte is not sorry she has no major war plants and the resultant problems,” The Telegraph continued. “The city … is growing steadily and the growth is healthy — one that will last and continue far beyond the end of the war.”
By 1950, North Platte’s prewar population of 12,429 had swelled to 15,433. Only two decades — the 1910s (5,673) and 1970s (5,062) — have seen more net population growth in North Platte than the 1940s (3,004).
The crisis arrives
Local alarm bells were sounding as 1945 began. The Daily Bulletin, noting the city’s “acute housing shortage,” reported Jan. 2 that the NHA would let more single-family homes be turned into multifamily ones “so far as materials are obtainable.”
When federal approval came in late February, however, only 10 new units were authorized. A month later, the government imposed rent controls across Lincoln County, fulfilling a Jan. 5 Bulletin editorial prophecy.
Though “the overwhelming majority of landlords” had tried “to keep rents in line,” a few “have put their rental property on the auction block, with the bidding rising to fantastic proportions due to the housing shortage in this city,” the paper had said.
“Since 1941 more and more homes which formerly would have been considered ‘undesirable’ have been rented,” The Telegraph added May 9, two days after the German surrender in Europe.
Japan would give up three months later, convinced at last by August’s twin U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But with an invasion of Japan’s home islands having been expected in November, material shortages would continue until the first soldiers, sailors and fliers who would need housing were already on their way home.
Canteen fans come back
Assessor’s records show that 183 current North Platte homes date to 1945 — an indication that builders got busy once federal supply controls were lifted in October.
But the Federal Housing Administration had approved only 35 new homes in July and 17 more in August. Meanwhile, teachers were struggling to find rooms to rent.
“Until more homes are built, we are at a stalemate,” the Bulletin said Sept. 25. “People can’t move here if they have no place to live.”
Neither could potential employers or even non-North Platte veterans unexpectedly enchanted during one of 6 million wartime stops at the Union Pacific Depot.
“Several new businesses wish to locate here. Hundreds of persons would make this their home if they could,” said a Nov. 27 Bulletin editorial.
“Many servicemen are looking to North Platte as a future home because of the magnificent work of the North Platte Canteen,” which wouldn’t close until April 1, 1946.
North Platte, like countless U.S. cities and towns, would in time build its way out. The city today has 321 homes built in 1950, one of six postwar years through 1960 to welcome more than 100 still-standing homes.
But how would North Platte cope until then?
Prefabs and trailers
Prefabricated homes were part of the answer. Sears, Roebuck & Co. had sold simple house plans and building materials as a “kit” before the war, a practice the Gambles hardware store chain would take a step farther.
A Bulletin ad on June 4, 1946, offered a 16-foot by 24-foot “Cottage Home” for $1,182.50, featuring “cedar siding which effectively eliminates all joints and eliminates any prefabricated look.”
Some opted for a 12-foot by 36-foot corrugated-steel home offered by Montgomery Ward & Co. Others turned to the Quonset huts familiar from wartime bases.
But building materials remained scarce. Some people were buying rental homes and evicting tenants so they could live in them themselves, the Bulletin reported Nov. 6.
A day later, its “’Round the Town With The Prowler” column began: “We knew the housing situation was in a stage of an acute shortage, but the report yesterday of a returned serviceman, purchasing an old furniture van and truck to remodel into living quarters, should dispel any lingering doubt in anyone’s mind.”
On Nov. 24, The Telegraph started a housing editorial on its front page, first telling about two veterans who had stopped at its office.
“All they wanted was just a sleeping room — some place to bunk at night,” it said. “But rooms, like houses, are a very minus quantity in North Platte.”
The editorial urged residents to consider renting rooms in their homes. “Anything, any method, which will help alleviate such conditions is worth prompt and serious consideration.”
Yet another answer was emerging from City Council and North Platte chamber meetings and a weekly “Dutch Treat Forum” gathering of community leaders.
On Dec. 21 — the same day North Platte’s own William M. Jeffers announced his retirement as U.P. president — The Telegraph reported the federal government would send 80 trailers to North Platte from McCook for exclusive rental by veterans and their families.
When they began showing up five months later — federal red tape having entangled the effort in the meantime — they had come instead from a notable location.
Sixty-four single trailers and 16 double ones — plus three restroom and two laundry trailers — were sent from the temporary wartime community at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, one of three U.S. “Manhattan Project” sites where the first atomic bombs were perfected.
Some 2,600 trailers had been shipped from Oak Ridge to various states by March, with 2,500 more to be repurposed once vacated, the Knoxville (Tennessee) News-Sentinel had written March 10.
Like an ‘auto trailer’
Don Klingenberg, owner of Platte Floral at North Jeffers and Fifth streets, had given the city a $50-per-month lease on 10 lots on the north side of the 900 and 1000 blocks of West 11th Street.
City services were available at the site one block south of the North Platte Cemetery. Single trailers “similar to the ordinary auto trailer” could be rented for $6 per week and double units for $7, according to a Telegraph ad on Dec. 8, 1945.
“The housing situation in North Platte is really critical, but an honest attempt is being made to provide temporary relief,” said the ad, which asked residents to loan money to a $15,000 fund for shipping the trailers.
Though the chamber collected only about $5,000, it returned the money in March 1946 when Congress made the trailers free to the city if rented to veterans.
The trailers slowly trickled in from Oak Ridge throughout summer 1946, with the first veterans finally moving in as August ended.
“The 80-trailer housing project is oversubscribed,” The Telegraph wrote Aug. 26. “Some veterans and their families have found living quarters during the time the trailers were being prepared for occupancy, but with a waiting list, it is expected the trailers will be occupied as soon as they are ready.”
Crisis fades away
Meanwhile, city officials were kept busy approving permanent building permits. After a Sept. 28 meeting at the Hotel Pawnee, the chamber formed a “priority housing committee” to help veterans secure federal priorities to help build 320 new homes.
“Get the priority, place the order, get the lot and build the foundation,” Federal Housing Administration Nebraska Director Holger Holm said in an Oct. 3 Telegraph story. “The government will see that the building materials will be made available.”
Veterans Day 1946 (then still called Armistice Day) brought a story in the newly merged Telegraph-Bulletin of the Busy Bee Women’s Extension Club and its members’ husbands helping a veteran build his home on Burlington Boulevard.
“At every opportunity, the men get together after work and go out to the location” to build with help from floodlights, wrote reporter Margaret Brown.
“The foundation is complete and so is the frame, while the siding and roofing is going on steadily at an increased tempo.”
Slowly, the West 11th trailer park emptied. After two years, the city sold off the trailers during September and October 1948.
Nine homes sit on the site today, the majority of them built after their once-leased lots helped North Platte get through the toughest housing crunch in its 155-year history.