The Great Depression

April 13, 2009

by Jenni Sebora

The other evening, I was going through pictures and memorabilia that my mother had saved, and it seemed like she saved everything. I came across a paper that I had written in a social welfare class I took in college (20-plus years ago).

The paper’s title was “My Parents’ Experience with the Great Depression.” Both of my parents had lived through this experience as older children the paper focused on their experience. As we are now going through some tough economic times, I thought it appropriate to share my parents’ views of the Great Depression.

My mother, the late Iris (Pawelk) Schultz, was about 10-years old when the Depression first started. She lived on an 80-acre farm on the outskirts of the small town of New Germany, in Camden Township. Her family raised cows, chickens, pigs and horses. She and her brother were responsible for their share of chores on the farm. Families worked together.

My father, the late Walter Schultz, was about 16 years old at the start of the Depression. He resided on a 100-acre family farm on the outskirts of the small town of Lester Prairie, in Bergen Township. The farm is a generational farm. His grandfather farmed it; his father, and then my father farmed it, followed by my oldest brother, who is retired, but still resides on the Schultz century family farm.

When my father lived on the farm as a youngster, they raised cows, chickens, pigs and horses. Sometimes he would have to stay home from school and work on the farm.

When he did go to school, he had to walk to school and remembers freezing his ears because his parents did not have enough money to buy him a cap with ear flaps. Purchasing an ear flap cap was no easy task either, as shopping centers were not in existence at the time.

Money was tight during the Depression especially, and only limited, necessary items could be bought.

My mother remembered barely having enough money to eat, although, no one really “starved to death,” as my mother recalled. Most of the food many families had came from their own gardens and trees.

People used their own cream, milk, butter, and eggs. Farmer families also butchered their cows and pigs for meat. Most of the grocery money they did have to purchase items from the story was earned from selling eggs. Eggs went for about 5 cents a dozen.

Pigs were sold for approximately 3 cents a pound. My father recalled carrying the pigs to the railways himself.

As for other necessities, such as clothing, things were passed down from sibling-to-sibling or cousin-to-cousin, from one generation to the next.

Families did not have electricity. At my father’s family farm, carbite gas was used to run the lights. Candles and kerosene were other light sources. Milk and other products needing to be chilled were kept in cold well pits or in the cold cellars of houses.

Especially during the Depression, my parents both remembered not having money to go out for entertainment, so they stayed home and played dominoes and cards.

If my father wanted any spending money, he would have to husk corn for farmers all day long. My mother’s yearly treat was getting 50 cents for a picnic in the summer.

Army camps were set up, especially in northern Minnesota. People and children, who could not find work or did not have money or food, including my dad’s relatives, went to these army camps.

People lost their homes during this depressive time. My parents shared that their family farms played host to homeless people. People in need would stay for a meal and the night, sleeping in the barn hayloft, and would be on their way the next day to find another family that would help them out for a day. People helped each other out and did what they could to befriend people during these terrible economic times.

“People didn’t work against each other and compete as they do now,” my mother said as she spoke about her experience.

Wealthier farmers borrowed money to families in need. These farmers that borrowed money were lenient and waited until families could pay back whatever and whenever they could.

Foreclosures, as my parents remembered, did not occur during the Depression. Farms did not get foreclosed on until the economy got better, and farmers refused to pay what they owed.

People’s savings dwindled and were lost. People lost money when banks went broke. Many people emotionally and mentally had a difficult time dealing with the stress because of the economic hardships. People experienced emotional breakdowns, and suicide was also prevalent.

It was bad both in the city and in the country. It was bad all over, but my parents did not know specifically about life in the city during these times, because there was no way of obtaining information. They had no television or newspapers to inform them.

Farmers, particularly, had a difficult time. The Depression was accompanied by the drought in about 1934. Crops did not come up. The government bought pigs from farmers so the farmers had some money.

The government also shipped flax straw to the farmers, so that they had some roughage to feed their cattle to keep them alive.

The year 1934 was also about the time Franklin Roosevelt started welfare programs. My parents remembered such programs as CCC (conservation corps), WPA, and PWA. These were government programs started to give people work such as building roads, buildings, etc.

The WPA program is what got the Lester Prairie School built, my father shared.

My parents both agreed that these programs were helpful, were a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel for many, and they commended President Roosevelt for being instrumental in the implementation of these programs.

Through these, many people were able to earn some money and therefore, could buy farm products, which helped out the farmers.

In conclusion, my parents remarked that people spend their money too freely now and don’t save enough. But my parents both realized that there are a lot more places to go and spend money on. And of course, people then did not have the modern conveniences that we do now.

My paper was written about 20 years ago. I am amazed when I contemplate my parents’ childhood experiences. Although both of my parents have passed away, they continued to share stories with my family and me about their experiences growing up until they no longer could.

In the sharing of their stories, my parents never exuded a feeling of pity. It was just how it was, and it helped shape who they were as adults. They spent money frugally, but they still enjoyed life and all of the things that matter. I believe, as we as a generation are experiencing tough economic times, we can learn lessons from our predecessors, people like my parents.