Chapter 12: The Great Depression

One way to show your age is to start talking about all the tough times you had during the 'Great Depression.' I hate to admit it, especially to my children, but some of the happiest times of my life took place during those years. It is true we had no money. Farmers were losing their farms. People in town were losing their jobs. The dust was everywhere. And to top it off, the summer of 1935 was the hottest on record. People who lived in cities say they will never forget the soup lines. But on the farms we always had plenty of food. We had chickens for eggs, we butchered our hogs, we had fruit orchards, and a huge vegetable garden. It was not unusual to find five hundred quarts of fruit and vegetables setting on the cellar shelves.

Canning days were busy days for mother and my sisters. When I was older, they were busy days for me too. Fruit, such as apples or peaches were peeled, cored and quartered, water added, and then cooked in kettles on the stovetop until they were tender. Sugar was added during the cooking. The fruit was then poured into quart jars and sealed with a rubber and zinc lid. Tomatoes were canned in this way too. They were cooked with a bit of salt and sealed. No need to add water since they made their own juice. Peas, corn, and beans were cold packed. We would pick the beans the night before canning day. We would then snap the ends off and break them in half. The next morning we put them in sterilized fruit jars, added a little salt, filled the jars with water, and put the lid on loosely. We then set them in the large boiler on the stove. We would fill the boiler with water until it comes almost to the top of the jars. Bring this to a boil, and let it boil for three hours. Carefully remove the jars from the water and seal the lids down tight so that no air gets into the jars. If air gets into the jar, the food will spoil. They will keep all winter and taste so good during that cold weather. A boiler will hold sixteen one-quart jars. We would probably can at least three boilers full during the fall season. Corn was canned the same way, except it had to be boiled four hours in order for it to keep. I never canned peas, since they spoiled so easily, and they were a great deal of work to shell. We probably had peas for dinner every day during the season.

Since we never had any fresh vegetables on our table over the winter, we were always anxious for fresh summer vegetables. Before the vegetables were ready, my mother and I would go searching along the fence rows for new little shoots of mustard, dandelion, lambs quarters and many other plants that I don't remember their names. These were washed and put in a kettle of water to boil. Oh, so good. They were a good substitute for spinach. I always looked forward to this outing.

Hobos and Pegleg

Let me tell you about hobos. The first thing you should know about hobos is that they weren't considered tramps. A tramp was a person who never worked and didn't want to work. A hobo was a person who was out of work but wanted to work. Many hobos would split wood and do other odd jobs in exchange for food or money. We always gave them some food, even if it was only some bread and jelly. We always had milk. Hobos were always appreciative of whatever was given to them.

I remember 'Pegleg,' as we all called him. I have no idea who he was or what was his name, but once every summer, he came in his old covered wagon, pulled by an old dappled gray horse, followed by an old dog. We called him Pegleg because he had one wooden leg. Or rather it was a round piece of wood, not much larger in diameter than a broomstick. This was fitted to the stump of his leg just above the knee. His pant leg was drawn tight around the wooden leg with a piece of twine. He always sold things like shoelaces, knives and other small items. Mother always bought shoelaces from him. He had long gray hair and a long white beard. He was always polite and we had no fear of him. Sometimes, he would camp out down the road from our house. He would build a small fire over which he cooked his food. You could see his fire burning at night. Some neighbors said that he asked them for food in exchange for his goods, but he never did at our place.

The Big Crash

The stock market was high, farmers were paying big prices for land, and everyone seemed to think the good life would go on forever. Because of this many farmers purchased two or three farms. My dad was very leery of the whole affair. Suddenly, in 1929 the stock market crashed, and the banks closed their doors. People began to lose their farms and money was scarce. I was only in the 9th grade, but I knew something was terribly wrong. My dad was able to hold onto his farm, and we didn't suffer as much as some.

Depression Prices

One time during the Depression I purchased two large bags of groceries. After getting them home, I thought the storekeeper had made a mistake. They were too expensive. He had charged me $2.40. Now, one can spend $50 for two bags of groceries.

Here are some Depression prices from the 1930s :

        pound box of crackers $.08

        dozen oranges $.25

        three cans of pork and beans $.19

        10 large bars of soap $.25

        pound of coffee $.29

        pound of raisins $.09

        box of bran flakes $.09

        pound of hamburger $.25

        pound of roast beef $.15

Every town had two or three grocery stores. There were no large supermarkets. The groceries were placed on shelves behind long counters. You stood at the counter and read your list to the clerk who gathered the groceries and put them in a sack. Many things we take for granted today were not found in stores then.

Some wages at the time were :

    monthly teacher salary $60

    housework for one week $3

    farm worker for one month $30

    doctor's bill for childbirth $25


Farm workers often worked for room and board during the winter months with no pay. The price of hogs dropped to a few cents a pound during this period. Corn sold at a dime per bushel. Corn was so low that many farmers burned it instead of coal. It did make good heat.

Prices of other items were :

    man's wool top coat $10

    pair of shoes $2

    a new car $600

    gallon of gas $.18


We still had fun even if we didn't have much money. Families took turns having house parties. We would just roll up the wool rug, if you were lucky enough to have one, and someone would play the fiddle or the squeeze box. We would collect money to pay for a fiddler. These fiddlers were only too glad to play for whatever the fellows could scrape together. Each man would put whatever he could into the pot, even if it was only a nickel or a dime. Then we danced until the wee hours of the morning. Everyone took their children with them, and when it was time to go home, you would find them curled up among the coats.

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There were several very hot summers during the Thirties. The summer of 1936 seemed worse than the others. Many businesses gave the ladies a fan. These were made of cardboard, about five by seven inches in size. On one end was a short but sturdy stick to hold on to as you fanned yourself. On one side was their advertisement and on the other side was a pretty picture. I think all funeral homes gave them away. In church the ladies would generally fan themselves as they listened to the sermon. A few stores had a ceiling fan. Only the towns had electricity.

Threshing oats was rough in the summer of 1936. It was so hot the men couldn't stand to work during the day. One time they decided to start threshing about three o'clock in the morning and stop when it got too hot. Then, they would continue in the evening. The wives would do the morning and evening chores, which included milking the cows, slopping the hogs, feeding the chickens, and gathering the eggs. And of course making the meals for the threshers.

To earn money during the Depression, all farm families took their eggs to town and sold them. This money was used to buy groceries and other supplies. We received about 12 cents a dozen for eggs. A twelve-dozen crate brought $3.60 and this went for weekly groceries. Going to town on Saturday night was the social event of the week. One could visit with neighbors and catch up on the latest goings on.

Sack Dresses

Chicken supplement came in cloth bags and some feed companies decided to put pretty designs on the bags. This was a great idea since we could make dresses from this fabric. It was a coarse weave but who cared. It was free. The last thing a man usually heard, when he walked out the door on his way to the feed store was, "Be sure to pick out a nice design."

Dresses weren't the only things made out of feed sacks. The white sacks were made into underwear, bed sheets, and table cloths. People used a table cloth whenever they had guests for dinner. The brand name of the feed was always stamped in big red letters on the white sacks, and sometimes it was very hard to bleach out. Some women didn't bother to do this when they made children's undies.. Sometimes you would see a little girl tumbling about in the grass, with Purina Chicken Starter across her bottom. We discovered if you boiled the sacks in water and lye soap, the letters would come out quite nicely.

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When shirt collars became worn and ragged, we used a razor blade to cut the threads and remove the collar from the shirt. The collar was then turned around and sewn back onto the shirt. After all, only one side was visible. When a child's dress became too short, the hem was let down. If the worn line showed, we would sew some rick-rack or pretty material over it. Ruffles could be added to the bottom of the dress to give it another year of life. We learned many things to dress up old clothes. Clothes were always purchased a little big so they could be worn more than one year.

There, how do you like it ? The sweater. I just hope it isn't too big. I'll drive over tomorrow and give it to her. I have to go through Curlew, you know. Maybe I should drive by the old place. You know we buried Spot next to a big rock right by the road. I wonder if that rock is still there ? Probably not. Don't worry, I'm not going to keep you much longer. But I can't let you go until you hear about the winter of `36. It all started to snow on the morning of ...


The Winter of `36

In addition to the hot summers during the Depression, there was also a very bad winter. If you ask anyone from those days the worst weather he ever remembers, he will always say the Great Blizzard of `36. The blizzard raged for three days straight, then there was three days of extremely cold weather, then another three days of blizzard. Some drifts were so big that they reached the telephone lines. The temperature fell to 25 degrees below zero for three weeks straight. Should I tell you more ?

Farmers hitched their horses to bobsleds and drove across the fields, going around the drifts, to town to buy groceries. Any man that made it through brought groceries for his neighbors. The cows were milked by hand and the men would come to the house after every cow to warm their hands. The snow blew so hard you couldn't see the barn from the house. The snow was higher than all the fences so trenches had to be dug next to them to keep the livestock from walking over them. The snow was packed as hard as dirt and all this had to be done by hand.

One day we were looking out the window, and we saw a calf standing in the haymow door of the barn. The snow was so deep he had walked right up the bank.

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Those storms did not stop the stork. One woman we knew gave birth during this time. Because of the storm the doctor was unable to get to their house. Fortunately, a neighbor was there and was able to assist the mother. Twins were born. One died.

The End of the Age of Innocence

In 1933 I graduated from high school, just a few months after President Roosevelt was inaugurated the 32nd President of the United States. (It was also the year the Prohibition Act was repealed, thus officially ending the 'speak-easy' days of the Roaring Twenties.) After inauguration, President Roosevelt began the New Deal, a series of work programs designed to help the country out of its economic woes.

Little did I know as I gave the salutatory address to the Curlew graduating class, that the country still had several more years of hard times before the Depression would spend its course. Nor did I know or much care about world problems and the political turmoil in Germany and Japan. Until now, my life had been centered around a small farm a mile north and three-quarters of a mile west of Curlew. But, within a few years, myself and the entire senior class, along with millions of other Americans, would be engaged in the struggle of our lives. And little did I know as I gave my salutatory address, that within ten years I would send a husband to fight in the Pacific. A husband that was also my childhood sweetheart, and the boy that always looked for the flatiron on the old base burner - "just to keep your feet warm," he'd tease me. But, as difficult and trying as the times would be, with the values and lessons we learned in childhood, we would all survive.

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