Last week I got word that my maternal grandfather had died at the age of 102. An active man well into his 90’s, he was always quick with a laugh and a smile and never seemed to age in my mind. Although his health had been failing steadily since I last saw him on his 100th birthday, it was a surprise when my mother called with the news.
Having come into this world in 1906 on the farm his grandparents homesteaded after having emigrated from Luxembourg, he had born a century’s witness to our country’s emergence from willful adolescence, to world leader in middle age, and in recent years to what he saw as a regression back into an irresponsibility brought about by a people who had forgotten how to do for themselves. He was blue collar through and through and never set foot inside of a school house after the 12th grade but he loved to talk politics and would expound at length, in between lessons on hitting a baseball or how to correctly use a saw and hammer, on how he thought FDR had ruined the country by planting the seeds of looking to the government rather than friends and neighbors for a leg up in hard times. The last time I spoke to him he reflected a bit on how the children produced by his generation, the baby boomers, had been spoiled into believing that they could have all that their hearts desired without thinking that perhaps the devil might ask his due someday. He was afraid that with the best of intentions they had left their children untempered in the face of coming hard times as they themselves, forged in a tougher more self reliant time, had been.
Reproduced below is a draft of an interview my grandfather gave a few months before he died to my “sister from another mother” Jan Halliday reflecting on the Great Depression. It is a window to a simpler era when hard times were met with a stoicism and “we’re all in this together” attitude that we are unlikely to see this time around.
In October 2008, I lived next to Dick M, for three months in the Trailer Tether. One evening I asked him to reminisce about living through the Depression and took dictation on my laptop computer while he talked. The heat was on about 90 in his trailer. Dick was 102 years old, sitting in his favorite chair with an open book of fiction on his lap and happily stopped reading to share a few thoughts about living through the Depression. Here’s a transcript of our conversation.
I’d helped my dad build houses from the time I was six-years-old. In the summer time Dad was building in Morris Minnesota, a crossroads. We were never very far from home when building a house. When I was five and six years old, just five, six, seven blocks from home, I’d slip over to the job and hang around. He worked about four men at a time, so on the way home these big brawny men would set me up on their shoulders and carry me home. Branches from the apple orchard were all over the street, the limbs cut back behind the fence so you couldn’t steal the fruit from along the road, so I leaned over and picked the apples from their shoulders. The orchard manager came squalin out of there raising cane and we’d take off on him. Mostly I was a nuisance, but the men taught me little things. I learned a lot just by watching them. When I was 8 or 9 my dad bought me my first hammer. At 10 my first saw and he taught me how to sharpen that saw. Later, during the Depression, I’d get a dollar for sharpening saws. In a shop it was $2 so I got money that way.
I enjoyed building. I always liked to see something growing. Other jobs behind a desk, I didn’t want that. But if you manufactured something, or made additions, all that, it intrigued me very much. I went clear through high school in Morris Minnesota so I worked every summer for dad and as always we’d get about three plans going at once. First the basements, then we’d close in the houses about the time it would freeze solid, then go inside and finish them out. Three and four bedrooms most of them–people who could afford a house were usually big families. Our house was 2 stories with a basement. We moved in there when I was 3 years old. These were my first memories. We’d been living on the farm at my mother’s parent’s house and they had a couple of rooms for us. My parents grew up on farms that were on the corners. They spent their teenage years as neighbors. Mother went through high school, father through the grades. Those early years before the Depression were almost as tough as the Depression but the difference was that during the Depression you had to fight for every dollar you made. The farmers all worked together. No money had to be transferred. They only hired an extra man here and there. Someone who was coming through picking up any job they could get. You wouldn’t starve if you didn’t raise a certain crop. If one farmer had more sugar beets than he needed they’d trade the extra for grain. There were cows for milk and chickens for eggs and everyone had a garden to eat out of. All the eggs were raised by farmers or people who had chickens in town. They’d trade eggs for groceries. The currency then was food. I’ll bring you 500 lbs. of sugar you give me credit for that and I’ll buy groceries for the next couple of months. They put in long hours, happy work. It was friendly times. They rode their bikes to the dances and always there was chicken dinners and lively music. During the Depression city people had to worry from day to day if they could buy food for their family. We were lucky because we were in farm country. The whole area was surrounded by small farms. I had three or four uncles on each side. No one even thought about getting paid. If the road washed out the neighbors all got together and fixed it and that was that. You worked and people fed you. We weren’t poor. It was a way of life.
In 1925 I graduated high school and my buddy and me we just decided one day to head south. We fixed up the original cross-country vehicle, a model T pickup with a small tent that went over the whole thing to sleep in at night. We had an old mattress in the back, and with my carpentry experience I built a box on the side for dishes and silverware, pots and pans. We decided we’d just pick up some groceries on the way, fix ourselves something to eat, and head south. It was October. Every time we saw a sign “help wanted” we stopped and worked and picked up about $2 a day. We stopped in Kansas to stay overnight in a park there and as I was driving in I hit a stump or rock and dented the flywheel, click click click click. I thought what in the hell, parked that night. Next morning drove into the livery stable, click, click click. I started it up and the livery man crawled up under with a hammer, click click click, tapping until it quit. We had a big dent in the housing and the livery man, he hit around the edge of the dent until he cleared it. Said we owed him nothing. No garages then, you went to a horse stable for any information about cars. We met a lot of nice people on that trip south. We knew we’d done the right thing to go to Oklahoma! We got down there to Oklahoma City and got a job, gave the old pickup to my cousin and bought a Chrysler roadster about three years old. It had panels in the doors, was a bright color and had a jump seat in the back where three could sit. The girls really liked that car! We got jobs where ever we could. I got a job at a Ford assembly plant. My buddy in a bank. I was loading cars onto box cars. For some reason the boss liked me. They got a big rush on Fords so had to open up another track. They called me over there and I was the boss of the gang on the second track, 20 years old. About the time I got through loading the last of those cars he asked me, because I was a carpenter, how would you like a job in the tool crib? I’ve had three wealthy college graduates trying out for the job and not a damn one of them knows a screwdriver from a hammer he said. I worked up there a couple of months. There was concrete on the second floor where they kept the tools and every Saturday night they put a coat of paint on the floor. The floor was built up a couple of inches of paint and every time you dropped a tool you dented the paint. The next week I cleaned up the floor and repainted it. Got me a job I thought would be the rest of my career. Night superintendent of that tool crib from then on. That’s how it was supposed to happen.
I met my future wife at a teacher’s dance in Oklahoma City. My buddy and I had been there about three years, no special girlfriends–too expensive. There was a big ad in the paper about a dance upstairs in a dance hall and I talked my buddy into going along with me. We put on our dancing clothes. He’d gotten a job in a dime store as a supply clerk and had met these girls working there. He didn’t tell me they were coming. I thought I’d talked HIM into going. At the dance these two girls showed up right away, over there sitting together on the bench. We wandered over there and he introduced my future wife though I didn’t know it right away. We danced with them a number of times during the evening. We never could afford to date every weekend. Didn’t have the money to do it. I made $2 an hour. Good wages but still not enough. We didn’t date so we did the next good thing. We got married— just before the Depression hit. And when the Depression hit they closed the plant down and I had no job. The jobs back in those days before the Depression you expected to live the rest of your life in if you lasted the first year. But then after the Depression hit it was just tough times and you did whatever you could, whenever you could. Right after we got married we both lost our jobs without warning. One morning I went to work at the plant just like everyday and there was a whole crowd around the door. They just shut the plant down and you were out of a job. A week later she lost her $10 a week job in the dime store. Shortly after we lost our jobs she became pregnant with Marilynn. We couldn’t afford to stay in Oklahoma. Fifty percent of the people had nothing coming in. We drove the roadster back to Minnesota.
Fortunately, Dad had already traded their home for a farm near Detroit Lakes. If you’re on a farm, if you have good sense you’ve got something to eat. While I was there over a period of two years we built four houses. One house was for people who had a chicken ranch. This guy gave me a job taking care of his chicken ranch while he went to Fargo to run the Elks Club. This guy brought us back food and beer from the Elks club. And leftover drinks. He gambled too in the Elks Club and one time he won $300 or $400. He’d come in about midnight, and invited us to have a picnic. Marilynn was about a year and half old then. The guy who owned the chicken farm, Henry Johnson, he and Marilynn got along great. We had good times back there. No money but made out okay. People helped each other tremendously. When we got low on cash in Minnesota I asked my doctor if he had a job. He had an old couple taking care of his farm and it was getting run down. He put them in a home at the edge of town and turned it over to me. And so I cleaned up the house to live in. I took care of that farm for about two years. Got acquainted with people in town. I started making home brew. When I went into town to buy stuff to make home brew I’d invite people to bring something to eat and we’d have a picnic. Everybody brought a little something. A big picnic and a lot of beer! We had fun by making fun. We wouldn’t give in—no matter how bad it got it never got so bad we couldn’t have fun. The rest had it as tough as we did, some even tougher. Everyone brought something to the table but we gave the ones hardest up all the extra food. I gave away so much in the Depression. I just couldn’t stand for people to be hard up. I’d get them a job or if I had a good week give them a few dollars. I couldn’t stand people to be broke. And very few took advantage of me. Some of them could have drained me dry. We all squeezed by some way. Some moved in together, mostly with relatives. At one point we moved in with somebody too and later when members of my family needed help we all lived together. With some people it was fun, with some it was a problem depending on the personalities. When you’re going through a Depression like we did you recognize the people who just aren’t going to make it. You’re tempted to squeeze a little more out of your income or adjust to help them and it’s a good feeling to help. People’s personalities really show themselves in a time like that. The good and the bad.
What worries me is that people don’t have the resilience now that they had in the first years of the country. So many of the jobs I went out on I did extra. I made a special effort to contribute something extra. The only thing that was and still is important is taking care of the people I know. It’s the company of your family and friends that matters most. Without them what have you got? The government says they can help the Ford Company by giving them all this money but the people won’t see any of that. It’s all backwards. Most people today have no land, and no knowledge. Not the kind that matters anyway. This Depression if it happens again, and I never thought I’d live long enough to see another one, is going to be harder than the last I think.
We had to get into a war to get out of the Great Depression. Everyone says what a great president Roosevelt was but I couldn’t see it. You lose your kids and your friends lose their kids, thousands of people die just to save the economy? That isn’t right. I hope the people understand enough to not let that happen again. Everybody needs to just pitch in and help each other no matter who they are. And remember to have fun doing that. Helping each other is the best thing I know to beat a Depression. The money kind and the feeling kind.
Rest easy in green Minnesota fields old man. You’ve got it coming.