The 1930s: Still Delivering Through the Great Depression

As we celebrate our 130th anniversary, this series chronicles Freese and Nichols’ achievements decade by decade. These posts are based on A Century in the Works, written by Deborah Sizemore and covering 1894 to 1994, and Continuing the Journey, covering 1995 to 2015.

The Great Depression gripped the country in the 1930s, and Hawley, Freese and Nichols wasn’t immune. Still, the firm ushered on: meeting clients’ needs across the region, including New Mexico, Oklahoma and throughout Texas; partnering with communities through the Public Works Administration; venturing into the cutting-edge area of air conditioning; and sending off founder Major John Hawley into retirement.

Corpus Christi Dam Break

On Nov. 23, 1930, a fisherman spotted a crack open at a Corpus Christi dam, and Marvin Nichols and Simon Freese drove through the night to reach the dam site at 4:30 a.m. They found that the north spillway abutment had been undermined and washed out along with some 200 feet of the adjoining embankment.

Damage to the dam was estimated at $100,000. Repairs to La Fruta Dam would be completed in July 1934, and the dam would serve satisfactorily for the next 24 years, until replaced in April 1958 by a dam with a buttress-type spillway.

Assignments Across the Region

Engineering assignments came from several Texas cities in 1930. The firm designed improvements to the Holly, Arlington Heights and Berry Street pumping stations of the Fort Worth water system.

As Beaumont’s consulting engineers, Hawley, Freese and Nichols designed the city’s first modern water filtration plant. The firm consulted on a multimillion-dollar program of sanitary sewerage improvements for Dallas. Other sanitary work included a 0.75-MGD Imhoff tank-trickling filter disposal plant for Big Spring and a 0.3-MGD Imhoff plant at Refugio.

In addition, the engineers kept busy with investigations, appraisals and reports in a geographic area encompassing Oklahoma, New Mexico and virtually all of Texas.

At Chickasha, Oklahoma, an investigation was made of the city water purification and softening system. Oklahoma City retained the firm to represent it in damage suits arising from flooding on the Canadian River. In association with Daniel Mead, Hawley made a study to determine the most economical way to protect Oklahoma City from future floods comparable to the severe October 1923 flood. Bridgeport Dam was completed and turned over to Tarrant County Water Control and Improvement District Number One on Dec. 15, 1931.

Public Works Administration

One of the firm’s major Depression-era assignments was at Austin. Hawley, Freese and Nichols had the consultation on the city’s new 6-MGD, $400,000 activated-sludge sewage plant and other water and sewerage improvements.

With applications from the states continuing to pour in, the volume of PWA-financed public construction picked up during 1934. At midyear, the regional office in Fort Worth forwarded to Washington new applications for loans and grants totaling nearly $8.4 million. Among the larger projects was a municipal gas system for Lubbock, $1.3 million.

Keeping tabs on the firm’s far-flung assignments took Simon Freese across most of Texas’ 267,000 square miles and into each of the state’s 254 counties. One of the firm’s major Depression-era assignments was at Austin. Hawley, Freese and Nichols had the consultation on the city’s new 6-MGD, $400,000 activated-sludge sewage plant and other water and sewerage improvements.


In the mid-1930s, the situation was grave for the business owner and the self-employed professional. For Hawley, Freese and Nichols, the dearth of engineering work forced painful belt-tightening. Business fell off so sharply that the firm needed a $50,000 loan to meet the payroll and keep afloat.

When Simon Freese requested the loan from Harry Wilkinson, then-president of Continental National Bank in Fort Worth, Wilkinson asked how he expected to repay it. “Damned if I know,” Freese replied. “But we’ve always met our obligations in the past, and I expect we will in the future.”

He got the loan.


In November 1936, the Major agreed to go into the air-conditioning business with his younger colleagues. Window units were installed in Fort Worth’s Hotel Texas and the Burk Burnett Building downtown, making these the first air-conditioned buildings in the area.

West Texas Water

Dams to catch water for Big Spring in West Texas were central to one of the firm’s last major projects of the 1930s. The firm designed major extensions to Big Spring’s water works, including two dams (Moss Creek and Powell’s Ranch) and a filtration plant. Construction was completed in 1939-40.

On June 22, 1940, Simon Freese helped start up the new Big Spring filter plant, pumping 200,000 gallons per day into the city. Freese’s pioneering work in the design of earthen country spillways, allowing reductions in the size and cost of the main concrete spillway, made possible additional economical water resources in arid territories like West Texas.


Major returns to France, later retires

As the Depression worsened, Major Hawley chose to return to France for 16 months, from June 1932 through September 1933, in part to placate his doctors, who prescribed “professional inactivity” for the 66-year-old Hawley.

Though urged by his doctors to rest, Hawley spent his months in France visiting acquaintances from his World War I service, studying in the library of the French Society of Civil Engineers (of which he was a full member) and inspecting notable water and sewerage works of the country.

His love of learning seemed undiminished by 45 years of engineering practice. On Nov. 15, 1937, John Hawley withdrew from the firm of Hawley, Freese and Nichols and declined to participate in any new projects.

In 1938, the successor, Freese and Nichols, took over the accounts of the predecessor firms Hawley & Freese and Hawley, Freese and Nichols. Although retired, the Major maintained an active interest in scientific and engineering matters.

The period from 1938 until America entered the Second World War brought a welcome upturn in the firm’s business. Debt-free and busier than in many years, Freese and Nichols could confidently look to the future.

A version of this article was originally published Apr. 17, 2019.