It’s enlightening to read the Kearney Hub’s account of June 21, 1938. That’s the date the Sonotorium was dedicated at Harmon Park. According to the Hub, there may have been thousands on hand for the event. Some in the crowd had been employed building the unique stage and bandstand equipped with a powerful loudspeaker system.
The Sonotorium was among the many make-work projects of the Franklin Roosevelt presidency designed to help the scores of Americans who were jobless. An estimated 15 million Americans — 25 percent — were out of work in 1938, so FDR set them to work building dams, roads and structures such as the Sonotorium.
Nebraskans had survived the Dust Bowl years, 1930 to 1936, but poverty remained a harsh reality in the Cornhusker State. Our unemployment rate was 30 percent, and farm prices had fallen 56 percent since 1929, the dawn of the Depression.
There was no market for agricultural products, which meant there was little money circulating in farm states like Nebraska.
Just as it’s likely some in the crowd who gathered to dedicate the Sonotorium had helped to build the structure, it also is likely that many in the crowd were starving for a diversion — any distraction — from their hard, desperate lives.
The Hub described the Sonotorium as a technological marvel, able to amplify sound so it could be heard from a mile or more.
The Sonotorium’s technology might have wowed the crowd in 1938, but most of the June 21 dedication centered on a host of invited speakers.
The principal speaker was University of Nebraska forestry professor Ward Jenkins, who admired Kearney’s amazing Harmon Park. He stressed the importance of preserving fertile soils and planting seeds for the future.
“I’m not so much a nut about trees as I am about boys and girls ... . We must do something for tomorrow, as you are doing,” Jenkins said from the Sonotorium’s stage.
It is a tribute to our city’s earlier residents that today residents of Kearney continue to enjoy Harmon Park’s pool, its beautiful rock garden and the bandstand with the unusual name. Even in the hardest times, Kearneyites built some of our community’s most cherished facilities.
With the announcement this week that a committee led by Kearney High School band director Nathan LeFeber intends to raise $683,000 to refurbish and enhance the Sonotorium, it’s an opportunity for the community to repay Kearneyites of the past by preserving and improving the structure they left for the enjoyment of future generations.