July 26, 2008

Remembering the Great Depression, My mother's Account

Living through the Great Depression is a remarkable story to tell, by all those today that can still remember . Working in the nursing home I have heard of the tremendous hardships so many faced. Most outstanding, was the certainty in future years, that food would always be available in the house. My mother and dad went through the Depression, and remained as frugal with food , their entire lives. . It was a sin to waste a shred of food and you were forced to consume everything but everything on your plate. We ate for the starving children in China! We cleaned our plates at every meal and that was almost obligatory. I often would ask mom questions about the Great Depression. I wish now, I would have written down things she said, but will try to give an account of what i do remember her talking about. She and dad were married in 1926, so they were fairly much newlyweds yet when the depression hit. Here s a lit of things she told me. The decade was full of extremes: blizzards, tornadoes, floods, droughts, and dirt storms., including the "Dust Bowl". She remembers seeing dirt mounds behind her fathers barn that hadn't been there before., that had blown up northward, starting from areas like the farmlands of Kansas.
A bit of history. first...Economics dominated politics in the 1930's. The decade began with shanty towns called Hoovervilles, named after a president who felt that relief should be left to the private sector, and ended with an alphabet soup of federal programs funded by the national government and an assortment of commissions set up to regulate Wall Street, the banking industry, and other business enterprises. The Social Security Act of 1935 set up a program to ensure an income for the elderly. The Wagner Act of 1935 gave workers the legal right to unionize. John L. Lewis founded the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and conditions for blue-collar workers improved. Joseph P. Kennedy, a Wall Street insider, was appointed Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commissions.
By the beginning of the next decade the United States had gone from a laissez-faire economy that oversaw its own conduct to an economy regulated by the federal government. The debate over which is the best course of action still rages today.
The country was in despair.
Mom sewed everything and made do . She remembered sitting by the hour darning our socks on a darning sock ( a semi round wood support for the sock). They would repair shoes with nailing the soles back on or using rubber cement. Nothing was thrown out but fixed and made to do. Perhaps this is where we find the term "make do" .
She would wash the clothes by hand on a old fashioned scrub board. and ironed everything so that all would all have clean clothes . She had to use cistern water she would carry in a bucket. For drinking water, she walked two blocks to the town well every day. The youngest kid would wear hand me downs . This practice continued through out the years and my advantage was that I was bigger than my older sister!
Mom would milk their cow and said they owned the only cow in town, often trading fresh milk for eggs, etc. She made her own butter from cream and made it at first using a jar. she said she would dance around the house, shaking the sealed jar until it would start to thicken. she later got a butter churn. she spoke of how grandpa Hank made her a new paddle for the churn but the butter wouldn't set. they later realized the paddle was made from walnut, which emitted a substance that prevented making butter. she said the butter was white and that they added food coloring to it in later years.
Dad put in a big garden of corn, beans, carrots, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, turnips, etc..and had an orchard with peaches, apples , cherries and an apricot tree. Dad's favorite apple was the Whitney #20 and also had a nice large Jonathan tree, a nice crisp Fall apple. Incidentally, this tree would become my sister, Karen's, favorite place to climb up and "perch" she would read books there as she grew older...or would just to go sit and contemplate things( or hide from me, if wearing her plaid green and brown dress) . She had "her spot" in that tree and it was off limits to anyone else!
Mom would can everything in sight and the family would all help out on canning days. I remember dad talking about picking dandelion greens and mustard greens early spring when they were first coming up..apparently a real treat and full of iron..., though not up there on my list...LOL
Dad would hunt for meat. Usually it would be pheasant , rabbit or squirrel, but he would go fishing in the Green river as well. Mom canned rabbit meat during the depression. Later years, we would still have meals of fried rabbit or pheasant that dad and the boys would hunt for in the Fall.
Mom described one Christmas as putting a single orange and metal toy car from the "dime" store, for their first born, Howie, under the tree. that year she cut out cookie shapes by hand , using a paring knife and decorated the tree, in Snowwhite and the Seven Dwarf decorated cookie shapes.
There was no help received from anyone... not a dime or any help of any kind whatsoever. That includes the Federal government, the State government, the Red Cross, the church and the local community. She said everyone was in the same boat...broke. To take federal money, was considered shameful to my parents. Even at age 99 yrs, I think mom was proud that she didn't have to go on public aid for assistance. Back during the Depression there was a welfare food project (WPA)where you could work for them and get food... and said " We didn't accept charity". Yet they raised five children and kept them fed well.
Dad drove a truck , hauling cattle and pigs to the Chicago livestock yards for 50 cents a day. He was fortunate to do that as in the early 1930's: Eighty-five per cent of the young men said they were seeking work; for the African-Americans the percentage was even higher at 98 per cent. Most had been unemployed for two years or longer
For entertainment, mom said they would attend events at Woodman Hall . There would often be a piano player present. Sometimes the community had ice cream socials, card parties, or there would be picnics.
. Kids would play outside hopscotch, stick ball, fishing, or other yard games.
How times have changed. We now are so wasteful. We have to have the latest technical toys and gagets, yet are there that many people that could handle a depression as my parents did back in the 30's? I doubt it. ... One thing is coming back to haunt me...a very unstable economy. I see families losing their homes, their jobs and even, hope for the future.
I thank my parents for teaching me not to be wasteful nor expect more than I should receive. They taught me life is not about material things but family and time we spend together. I appreciate the hours I spent with mom learning skills in canning vegetables, and learning to make-do , things for my home to make it a comfortable one. How to save money for the lean times?
Start by writing down every cent you spend. Take stock of your spending habits for at least a week. This step alone should be an eye opener. We all spend money on things that are non-essentials. As you keep a record of what you are spending, hopefully patterns will emerge of ways to cut down. My sister was the queen of coupon clipping as she raised her kids, and had a great filing system for them. I wasn't so frugal, but did use a few coupons. It seemed so many are for products i never use..and quit looking. Perhaps i should start again.....
Mom used to say if a family does things together , be it work or social, you find you are talking more to each other. This is so true. I remember sitting at moms table snapping beans for the freezer, just a few years ago...what a memorable day...we talked and laughed non stop

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