Whenever you put 5,000 or 10,000 or 20,000 raw recruits and defense industry workers into facilities next to communities with 1,000 to 5,000 residents, there will be strains, particularly when the newcomers look for homes. Throughout World War II military plants and bases were built in rural communities and each struggled with housing issues.
In Hastings, some residents opened their homes to newcomers as well. Reba Yeakle remembers, “Almost everyone who had a big house made it into apartment living… They would do anything possible to accommodate people.”
Another resident described living in a house with eight other people plus one more couple living in the backyard chicken house. They all shared two bathrooms, but the chicken coup people used an outside spigot for water.
For some people, like Sedgefield Hill (right), the search for housing worked out well. He was a young man from St. Paul Minnesota sent to Fairmont Nebraska. He was walking down the streets of nearby Geneva when a local couple ran up to him because he looked like their son. He lived with the couple throughout his training and visited them until their deaths.
But Freddie Oglesby remembers officers from Fairmont searching in vain for housing as far away as York, 20 miles north. “Well, they just couldn’t find any decent place to live,” Freddie says. “They would live in a couple of rooms, or most anywhere they could find a roof.”
But not everyone opened his or her door willingly. Some landlords decided they could finally make a little money after years of depression. Most rents in Hastings doubled almost overnight. Workers grumbled about it, but had to pay because the supply of housing was so much less than the demand. Eventually, the War Production Board built 300 new private homes in new subdivisions across the town.
Throughout Nebraska, many landlords took advantage. In Kearney, an investigation determined that 26 percent of the dwelling units in town had their rents increased an average of 40 percent.
For some in the communities, the housing shortage proved to be a boom. Elijah Leavitt was a businessman in York and owned the lumberyard before the war. He took a chance, borrowed money and built new houses for the servicemen. Alvin Apetz says that gamble paid off, both during and after the war.