Friday, April 27, 2012

Memories are fleeting...

I treasure the memories of the Great Depression.

That’s remarkable considering I was born in 1951.

But my grandparents, aunts and uncles all lived as young adults in the grim 1930s when banks failed and the unemployment lines grew longer and longer – and no one had heard of safety nets.

They shared their memories with me, and though all are now ensconced in heaven their memories are snug and comfortable inside my head.

What got me thinking about my loved ones and some very bad times they struggled through was a news release about Homestead Day on April 28, the commemoration that honors Penderlea Homestead Project’s Depression-era settlers. Penderlea Homestead Farms was the first of 152 homestead projects developed in 1934 under President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. They provided penniless tenant farmers, bankrupt farm owners and unemployed ex-farmers with a means of making a living.

The stories told to me came from my mother’s side of the family. I presume my father’s side persevered better. My Great-Grandfather Louis Iuppenlatz and Grandpa Bud Staton were depot masters in Indiana and Ohio and trains continued to run during the Depression years.

On my mother’s side of the family, a great-uncle lost an arm in the 1930s in a train accident. We’ve all heard stories of hobos hitching rides aboard freight trains and the company bulls who tried to catch them in the act. Well, Uncle Georgie Kurtz tried to board a train; he slipped and a wheel ran over his arm.

I’ve a photograph on my hard drive of Georgie standing in a martial pose … he’s wearing his World War I uniform. He looks quite handsome. I remember a much older Georgie sitting in a chair in his sister Ethel’s front room, his shirtsleeve tucked in where an arm should have been. Georgie liked to look out the front window at the doings on Rittman’s Main Street.

As the 1930s began, the small Ohio town of Rittman depended on two factories, a plant that made salt and a plant that manufactured cardboard boxes. When the Depression forced them to close, it left the town’s breadwinners without a livelihood. Back in those dark days, 25 percent of the work force were without jobs.

Grandma Mid told me hobos would come up to the back porch and ask for handouts. Just before the stock market crash in ’29 grandma had bought some stuff on credit and Grandpa Frog spent years working odd jobs to pay off the debt. It left a lasting impression…he never used credit cards. He even paid cash for new cars.

Grandpa Frog gained a lifelong respect for the union movement thanks to the Great Depression. He knew workers had to look out for themselves and not depend on the largess of factory owners. He was a union leader at the local salt company and even served as union president at the state level. When Grandma Mid died in 1995, I went through their walk-in closet and found the textbooks grandpa studied to become a boiler man at the salt company.

Grandpa Frog knew that only through hard work and perseverance could a man improve his lot in life. That’s what he taught me and that’s where I got my memories of the Great Depression.


  1. Those of us born in the '50s and who grew up close to their grandparents were probably the last whose spending habits were affected by the Great Depression. We carried their memories, if not in our genes, in our hearts. Thanks for this post, Mike.

  2. Great post Mike.
    My parents lived through the great depression and then later through the frugality and rationing of WWII and those events coloured their whole life.

    Mum still lived with her parents in Opotiki on their farm. Dad set off from his home in Te Puke, also in NZ's Bay of Plenty, on his bike and worked odd jobs where he could.

    He also did a stint planting pines in the central plateau. He always said that no matter how poor he was "a man was worthy of his hire" and he refused to work for no pay.

    I remember years later when we were in school and our teacher tried to tell us the huge pine plantations in the central North Island were planted by prison labour and my sister and I were highly indignant.

    Our Dad helped plant those pines and he was never a prisoner...well the upshot was the teacher did a little better research and found that a lot of those plantations were also planted under a Great Depression work scheme...and two preteens were very happy girls. No one, not even by inference, was going to label our Dad as a criminal.

    Dad would work for food an a bed but he refused to work for free. And during their life I never knew them to waste a single thing.
    They were generous people but also very thrifty. And nothing was wasted...particularly food.

    They were exceedingly tough times and now when things are again tough and finding a job is difficult...people are again turning to the old skills of those early days.
    Schools here have programmes running now called

    "Granny Skills."

    Where jam making, preserving, gardening, sewing and mending are taught to the young ones.

    It warms my heart when my grandchildren ask me how do I make pickles,how do I make jam,when do I plant vegetables to have a succession in the garden. My husband and I never buy vegetables, except for the ones like corn and pumpkins that take more room than we have in our town garden.

    And it's great to see.