“People today would be surprised to know just how desperate things were,” remembered the late Emeritus Professor Stanley Burns, M.D.’55. He was not, as one might think, describing his childhood in southern Vermont during the long,
severe economic slump of the thirties, or his Army Medical Corps experiences treating the wounded from the Battle of the Bulge or the survivors of Dachau. For returning vets of World War II such as Burns, the relief of being back home, out of
uniform, in a revitalized economy, was tempered by the post-war housing shortage—the most serious, widespread squeeze on living space ever seen in the United States.
From the war’s end in August 1945 through the end of
1946, millions of servicemen and women were demobilized and sent back into civilian ranks. The U.S. Army was discharging about a million men a month by the end of 1945, and the Navy another 250,000. As the beginning of the 1946-47 academic year
drew near, many of these veterans married their pre-war sweethearts and prepared—with financial help from the recently enacted G.I. Bill of Rights—to finish an education that had been abruptly interrupted by the war.
was virtually no place for them to live while going to school (a situation strangely reminiscent of today’s housing crunch in the Burlington area). For the ten years of the Depression, there had been very little home building in the country.
During the war, the economy rebounded, but all available building materials had gone into defense uses. With the war over, industrial construction used up most available resources. At least five million homes were needed right away in 1945: only
37,000 had begun to be constructed by the beginning of 1946. As historian William Manchester recounted, “North Dakota veterans converted grain bins into housing, and Benny Goodman and his band played for a Cleveland benefit at which citizens
pledged rooms for rent.” The cartoonist Bill Mauldin, who had risen to prominence with his drawings in the armed services newspaper “Stars & Stripes,” and who was now published nationwide, drew a savage depiction of
a landlady turning a former GI and his family from her door. A sign on the door reads “Rooms—No Children or Dogs,” and the landlady says “You soldiers just don’t seem to understand our problems.” It was a situation
in which horror stories were inevitable, and sad tales abounded. As Manchester noted, “In arctic Minneapolis a husband, wife, and their little war baby spent seven nights in their car. In Atlanta, 2,000 people answered an ad for one apartment.
Atlanta’s distressed city fathers bought a hundred trailers for veterans’ families. Trailer camps were springing up around every community of any size, especially those with campuses.”
* * *
And so it went at the University of Vermont. In the fall of 1945, the school enrolled a grand total of 1083 students. In October 1946, the student-run Vermont Cynic
reported that returning veterans had swollen the total number of
students to 2041. This near-doubling of the student body in the course of one year was only the beginning: UVM president John S. Millis announced that 400 more Vermont students would be admitted on January 1, 1947. The Vermont legislature appropriated
money to pay for new student housing. “This will be welcome news to many Vermont veterans,” reported the Cynic
, for crowded conditions at the university had forced many to postpone their entrance.
A few weeks later,
reported on one new development for married students—many of whom were enrolled at the College of Medicine—in an article titled “Community of Trailers for Veterans and Wives Forms City Within a City.” “Tucked
away near a corner of Centennial Field, Burlington’s most interesting housing project is providing homes for forty-six veteran UVM students, their wives, and children,” the article read. “It’s a going community complete [with]
everything except unit hot and cold running water and taxes. Both may come later.”
To the residents’ mixed relief and dismay, neither ever appeared. It’s almost impossible to imagine any campus resident today cheerfully
accepting a lack of running water in their housing; but in the midst of the housing crisis, it all somehow seemed livable. “How did we put up with it?” asked George Higgins, M.D.’55. “We were young! We were all in our twenties
and all starting out together, and we managed together.” The Cynic
gave a rosy description of Trailer Camp in its earliest days:It’s comfortable down there. The little community consists of fifty expansible trailers ... It’s exclusive, too. Only married service men who have served in World War II are eligible to live there. Each home unit contains two double beds with spring and mattresses, one studio couch, two folding chairs, a folding table, two burner oil stove with detachable oven, oil space heater, a 2 ½ to 3 cubic feet ice chest, and a fifty gallon oil drum with stand. Nothing elaborate, but all the essentials are there, and it only needs, as Edgar Guest would say,
“A Heap of Living” to make a home.
The paper went on to report the formation of a community government in Trailer Camp, one of whose officers that first year was the late Peter Czachor, M.D.’50. Years later, retired
and living on the Maine coast after practicing medicine in Portsmouth, N.H., he recalled that one of the tasks facing the new council was dealing with the lack of sidewalks. The residents of the camp used shower and bathroom facilities located at
either end of the camp. There was also a separate laundry building. But walking from “home” to any of these facilities was no easy task in mud season, particularly while hauling a large bucket of water or a basket of laundry. The camp
residents appealed to the university, which gave them lumber. “They gave us the materials,” said Czachor. “And it was up to us to build the ‘sidewalks’—really boardwalks—ourselves.’’ The university
also issued paint to the residents, and by the spring of 1947 a little village in multiple pastels—part suburb, part Dodge City—was firmly established. A few enterprising campers took the do-it-yourself ethic to greater lengths. When
the residents of three trailers discovered that the laundry building’s water line ran directly under their units, they dug down and connected their own makeshift kitchen taps. For the life of the camp, their trailers remained the only ones with
running water. The trailers themselves were folding structures that had been used during the war to house defense workers at a Connecticut factory, recalled Paul Demmick, M.D.’55. Each one unfolded into a square structure, approximately twenty
feet long on each side, that could be divided inside into kitchen, sleeping, and living areas. The round-cornered entrance section on the front of each gave the units a vaguely Art Deco appearance. Some residents built their own extra storage shacks
off the back wall. “UVM was building dorms up on campus,” recalled Czachor, “and they gave us some of the scrap lumber to build our sheds.’’ The trailers’ space heaters could only do so much when set against the
harsh Vermont winter. “I remember some cold days when there would be ice around the baseboards, and we’d keep our two young daughters in bed for as long as possible while things warmed up,” remembered Caroline Higgins, wife of George