The Depression Years

Feature Story March 2005
By – Keith M. Heim
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 they could.

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 was tremendous.
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 1940’s, 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 the military.

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 had work.

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 future—the 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.