I was born in 1931 and my memories of
the depression years are of the latter part of the depression, 1935-1941,
when times had begun to improve a little. Since we lived on a farm
and raised our own meat and had a garden, we did not go hungry,
but there was little money for "extras" or luxuries. The
nation was much more rural than it is today and many people were
fairly self-sufficient and the impact of hard times was softened
somewhat. Many lived close to the land, and others lived in communities
in which they grew up and had family nearby--grandparents down the
road, an uncle in town, etc. They took care of each other as best
The idea of government being involved in the welfare of citizens--providing
jobs, medical care, income supplements, special job training, etc.
was new, and when government was involved in such things, it was
generally the local government or county rather than the federal
government. It was only with the coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt
and the New Deal that government began to be involved closely in
daily life and to have programs designed to aid people in distress.
I suspect that if there should ever be another depression of such
magnitude, most people would be much worse off than they were in
the 1930's since they are not self-sufficient and do not generally
have an extended family structure to help them. Many would be almost
entirely dependent upon government assistance.
We tend to think that the Great Depression began with the stock
market crash in the fall of 1929, but actually the agricultural
sector had been in trouble since about 1921 with low prices and
farmers losing their farms to foreclosure. Many believe that the
shaky condition of agriculture was one of the factors which brought
on the depression in the rest of the country. Many of those who
had prospered and managed to put some money away lost it either
on the stock market (far fewer people were stock holders in those
days than is the case now) or in bank failures. Banks closed suddenly,
and depositors lost all of their money. Most never got any of it
back. My dad was a director of the local bank. My mother's dad,
who lived in the next town, was afraid that the bank there would
fail, so he asked my dad if his bank was sound, and my dad said
it was. So my grandfather moved his money to that bank, and it promptly
closed its doors. I don't think my grandfather ever quite forgave
my dad. The impact on individuals who lost all of their savings
When banks closed and businesses failed all across the country
in 1929, many were without any income or support. There were no
jobs, and people lost their homes. Many thousands took to wandering
the roads and highways, looking for work and for something to eat.
We lived on a federal highway, a gravel road,about half way between
Kansas City and Omaha. I remember as a small boy that "tramps"
often came down our road and stopped to see if we would give them
something to eat. We had a "party" line--a telephone line
with a dozen other subscribers. You could just ring anyone on your
line without getting the operator. Someone down the road, an aunt
or cousin or my grandmother, would ring my mother and say, "There's
a tramp coming your way." The term "tramp" was a
bit unfair--many were decent people, perhaps a bank teller out of
work or a worker whose factory had closed. But there were some rather
rough ones too, If my dad was home, we usually gave them something
to eat--maybe a sandwich and a glass of milk. But if he was working
in the field, my mother would lock the doors and pull down the window
shades, and put us kids under the bed, warning us to be quiet. The
tramp would knock on the door a couple of times and go on. Now and
then, the tramp knocked and knocked, and we were very much afraid.
My mother remembered a young couple wheeling a baby carriage with
a small baby inside down the gravel road in the heat and dust of
a July day. They stopped and asked for milk, and my mother washed
the bottle out, which was caked with soured milk. I remember once
that a big, burly man, with scraggly whiskers, with a burlap bag
over his shoulder pounded on the door while we were eating breakfast.
My dad went to the door, and he gave the man some cherry pie my
mother had made. Later, during World War II when sugar was rationed
and you couldn't have pie, I often kind of wished I had eaten it.
But you did feel sorry for them and did what you could for them.
Gypsies were another matter. I remember that twice, caravans of
gypsies came down the road. Covered wagons pulled by mules. It was
said that if you weren't home, they would come on your property
and take whatever wasn't nailed down--chickens, tools, etc.
We had heard that they also stole little children. I remember that
I was playing in the horse tank when they came down the road once,
and I ran and hid until I was sure they were gone.
Farmers, such as my dad, managed to get by, but they did not have
much money to spend, and certainly nothing for vacations, new cars,
etc. We drove an old 1930 Model A car until about 1941--much to
my embarrassment when others began to get new ones. Of course, in
the 40's, we were at war and they stopped manufacturing cars, so
you couldn't get new ones. Fortunately, we had bought a new 1940
Dodge and looked "respectable." But our house, which was
built in 1925, did not get a badly needed interior face lift until
the 1940s, when we had money to redecorate.
Many young men getting out of high school could not find jobs.
Some hired out to work in the fields when they could. When the New
Deal programs began to take effect, some went to work for the CCC
(Civilian Conservation Corps) and WPA (Works Progress Administration),
which built roads, dams, introduced soil conservation practices,
built city auditoriums, etc. as a way of providing work at minimum
pay. These were operated as semi-military organizations, but people
were glad to work under almost any conditions. With the onset of
World War II, some began to join the Army or National Guard as a
way of getting employment.
One of the New Deal programs was the Farmstead program. I understand
that it was tried in only a few locations in the country, and one
of them was a few miles north of Falls City. A large amount of land
was purchased by the government, and simple houses were built on
it. Families were moved into the houses, and the men worked in the
fields. These farmsteads specialized in raising as single crop--maybe
tomatoes or cucumbers. I believe that the one at Falls City raised
pumpkins. But no one had thought to see if there was a market for
them, so most couldn't be sold anywhere! The programs were not always
practical and some failed miserably. The big joke of the day was
the WPA. We normally thought of these workers as men leaning on
their shovels and doing nothing. Instead of standing for Works Progress
Administration, we joked that it stood for "We Play Anytime."
The National Youth Administration had a program which paid students
to sweep out schools, etc.
While banking reforms and work programs did help many people weather
the depression, Roosevelt's New Deal did not end the Great Depression.
Times were still very hard at the time of Pearl Harbor in December
of 1941. My dad was on the local school board, and in the summer,
if there was a vacancy on the school faculty, there were many applicants
for each opening. We would be working out in the field, and young
men and women would come out where we were to be interviewed for
the jobs, and those selected felt lucky if they earned $90 a month!
Of course, a loaf of bread was only 11 cents then, so while it was
not a princely salary, it was enough to live on. Prices and times
in general improved only with the beginning of the war when many
of the available men (about 13 million total) went into military
service and workers were hard to find (women began to work more
outside the home) and there was a demand for food and other products.
Now there was a shortage and we were told not to waste food ("Food
Will Win the War" the posters said), and items such as tires,
shoes, meat, and sugar were rationed. We had "meatless Tuesdays"
when we were not supposed to eat meat so it could be supplied to
Some of the same problems which plagued Americans during the 30's
returned after the war--unemployment, labor unrest, etc., which
indicates that while the worst of the depression was solved by the
war, many of the underlying causes of distress had not been addressed.
Southeastern Nebraska was not in the so-called "dust bowl,"
but many of the years of the depression were also drought years
and we did have dust storms, some of it blowing in from Oklahoma
and Colorado! With prices for corn and wheat at a low, it did not
help that in years like 1934, my dad said our 160 acre farm did
not produce one ear of corn! I remember the hot winds out of the
southwest, huge cracks opening in the ground, grasshoppers, and
leaves on the trees all drying up and falling off. Dad said that
one year, the wind blew out of the southwest for 13 straight days,
with temperatures over 100 degrees. Since the pastures failed and
cattle no feed, the corn was cut in the middle of the summer and
shocked so it could be used for animal feed later. My dad bought
a corn binder pulled by a team of horses and went around the community
cutting corn for people as a way of making extra money. He often
worked 16 hours a day, coming home tired and covered from head to
toe with the dust the harvesting raised. It must have been a long
day for him, but people had to work hard and long to raise enough
money to feed their families. And they were the lucky ones--they
I remember the children of "renters," people who did
not own farms but who moved into the community to rent farms from
their owners They came to school with worn out shoes and tacky dresses
and shirts made out of flour sacks. They didn't have a whole lot
to eat in their lunch buckets or brown paper sacks at noon. Now
and then my mother included a banana in mine or my sandwich might
be made of "boughten" minced ham, but they probably just
had a couple of pieces of bread, maybe a piece of meat, or bread
with syrup on it. Maybe an apple if the farm had an orchard on it.
Some couldn't afford crayons or tablet paper. It must have been
very difficult for these children, who were "outsiders"
in a new and strange school and community. Many people tended to
look down on them and they didn't fit in. Often, they were poor
students, probably because they changed schools so often and frequently
missed school because of illness or having to work on the farm.
Many had to move on in a year or two, and a new family moved in,
poor as the first. Many, like the "Okies" you see in the
movies, picked up and moved to California hoping for work and a
better life. But often the conditions were no better there since
so many migrants came and conditions were hard there too. Nebraska
lost about 75,000 people during the 1930's, most of them to California.
This accounts in part for the hordes of Big Red football fans who
invade West Coast stadiums when the Huskers play there.
It seems to me that one of the main things that makes the "older"
generation different from the younger ones, that divides the generations,
is the fact that they lived through the depression. They remember
people who went hungry (even if they didn't suffer much themselves),
and they always have that experience in the back of their minds.
They don't take things for granted. They tend to be careful with
their money and try not to waste anything. Younger people who never
knew real want tend to think that things will always be prosperous.
They tend to focus on material--luxuries, fads, Pokemons, etc. They
don't really feel the need to plan for the futurethe government
will take care of them when things fall through the cracks. So we
look at things from a "careful," more conservative angle
and often have a hard time understanding the younger generation.
You often hear the oldsters say, "I worked hard and saved--I
didn't want my children to have to go through what I did."
They placed emphasis on sending their kids to college, even if they
themselves had had to drop out of school in the 30's to go to work.
And, of course, the impact of World War II is always with us too.
It is impossible to understand the "older generation"
without understanding perhaps the two most important, defining events
of the century, the Great Depression and World War II.