Question of the Week: What are your family's Great Depression stories?

+15 votes
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One of, if not THE worst, worldwide economic depressions was the Great Depression which lasted from 1929-1939.  As we know, these were very hard times for individuals and families but there were many stories of hope as well.   

What are some of your family's Great Depression stories?

Here's one of mine:

My grandmother's father was a local butcher and one night he brought home two coveted steaks to share amongst their family. It all went well until they got down to the last piece and a fight ensued as to who would get it.  

It was decided that they would turn off the lights and on the count of three, everyone would make a grab for the steak and whoever got it first, got to eat it.  

So the lights were turned off, the countdown took place and on three there was a loud scream.  The lights were hurriedly turned back on.  My grandmother's uncle had gone for the piece of steak with a fork and got her father's hand instead.

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asked in The Tree House by Eowyn Langholf G2G Astronaut (1.2m points)
reshown by Chris Whitten
Weirdly, I don't think I ever heard any Depression stories! Most of my family lived in Mississippi during that time period, and as the song goes, "we were so poor we couldn't tell."
Not exactly a Depression story, but it was 1938 when the big New England hurricane (they didn't name them yet.) Big tree came down (oak?) but missed the house.
My father and his brother (both born pre 1920) would start talking about the Depression and how bad it was  .. my grandmother would stand so much and tell them that their father had steady employment throughout the depression and her children never suffered as others had ... my grandfather's steady employment was going from oil boom to oil boom  in Texas building roads, drill sites etc with horse drawn equipment ... my father, his siblings, and his parents  lived in a tent until he was 12 years old ... but as my grandmother liked to point out it was a good tent
If we three girls were trying to be picky at dinner or sneak food off the plate into our napkin so we could later throw away and were caught....we heard about the Great Depression.  Being born outside Chicago, both my parents were farm kids...they knew hardship, no one got to finish school.  My mom's mother died from TB when she was just going on 10, it was 1930.  My grandfather pretty much left the kids to follow the race track circuit....the oldest son (16) ran off leaving his older sister to care for the 3 younger kids.  She realized she needed to make money and after begging relatives to take in her siblings, she went to Chicago to work waitressing, factory work...whatever she could get.  She returned once a month on the train where she walked to the farms that her younger brother & youngest sister lived and at a separate farm/town where my mom lived.  She brought food or money if she could, she was concerned my mom was too skinny...gave my mom raisons...after that experience mom never ate raisons!  My mom never told me this, she never talked about those times but, every Mother's Day she sent Aunt Velora a bouquet of flowers.
ThomasElliott60

In rural Kentucky....On the maternal side , my grandfather worked for the railroad and rented a house close to the track. Hobos would come to the backdoor and my grandmother would feed them,In Louisville, Kentucky ...On my Dad's side, my great grandfather had bootleg liquor hidden in a 'special' made table that opened up to store bottles and another family member would deliver liquor around town on a motorbike.This part of Kentucky suffered a great deal from the flu epidemic but due to the climate ,consumption (tuberculosis) was rampant. Ever hear of 'fresh-air' schools and sanitariums?
I was born in 1936 the youngest of three children, my father worked as a plumbers helper digging ditches for $1 a day but could only get a couple of days a week. The only thing he could do was hop a train to Montana and work for the Civilian Conservation Core (CCC) and he was able to send home $3 a week... We survived and it lasted until 1939... It is surprising how many different meals you can make out of a pound of beans. Powdered milk and day old bread were a delicacy.

32 Answers

+8 votes
Daddy always told me about how they could get two big bags of groceries for $5.  I didn't realize then, how much $5 was during the Depression.
answered by Nan Lambert G2G6 Pilot (197k points)
+8 votes
My father was born in Oklahoma in 1936, the youngest of 13 children.  The dust bowl and the depression pushed the family to migrate to California.  Eight months after my Dad's birth,  they packed their belongings into a Model T and moved to Napa.  They were "Okies". John Steinbeck immortalized these families in his novel "The Grapes of Wrath".  I can't imagine living through times like those.
answered by Caryl Ruckert G2G6 Mach 5 (52.5k points)
+8 votes

My mother and her three sisters each had two dresses, a barn dress and a school dress. They would do barn chores, change dress, and go to school. They had a dairy farm and raised chickens. They had eggs for supper, and maybe a chicken on Sunday. 

I told the story of my grandfather’s nephew Russell who herded sheep in Colorado during the dust bowl as part of the 52 week ancestors storms https://www.wikitree.com/g2g/594561/52-ancestors-week-16-storms?show=594561#q594561

answered by Kay Sands G2G6 Pilot (168k points)
I can relate to that, my dad would wait for his sisters to come home from early Mass so he could wear his sister's shoes to a later service.
+9 votes
In my grandmother and mother's stories from northern Kansas, the Depression blurred into the Dust Bowl. Rain didn't fall, crops didn't grow and static electricity was fierce. There wasn't enough food. My mother didn't remember hunger but she wonders about the slimness of my grandmother.  And she told us of the family who shared a big bowl of relish for dinner.
answered by Jo McCaleb G2G6 (8.7k points)
+9 votes
My cousin told me a story about all of her sisters and herself hating to go to school in their dresses.  It seems the head of the welfare agency for the
county decided to save money on clothes and bought a HUGE supply of
very ugly cloth.  Probably cheap because it was unsaleable being so ugly.
He also found an ugly dress pattern and someone made dresses for all
of the families on welfare.  They were identical in design and color.  Every child who wore one to school was immediately identifiable in public and apparently, in today's vernacular, bullied about the clothes and family financial situation.   As my uncles finances improved, she said those clothes were the major priority to be replaced.
answered by Beulah Cramer G2G6 Pilot (160k points)
+8 votes

My father https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Lovelace-589 was born in 1918, and his mother would take him to the bank to learn to save his pennies. He was very proud of reaching up to the teller and give her his pennies. When the bank folded he swore to his mother he would never put another penny in a bank, and his mother said that he never did. 

answered by Alexis Nelson G2G5 (5.9k points)
+9 votes
Well, my maternal grandmother's family was pretty poor - subsistence farmers plus a job at the handle mill. Her brother, my great uncle Clarence got a job with the CCC and sent most of the money home.

My maternal grandfather never really talked about it, his family was slightly better off.

My paternal great grandmother was a woman of faith. They had literally no food in the house. She sat and prayed while the children set the table and got dressed for a Sunday dinner at her direction. Just after the table had been set (and the kids were thinking Gram was crazy) there was a knock on the door. The Parish priest and a deacon, both with their arms full of groceries said they heard a woman and her children were in need of food. This was Chicago.
answered by Katrina Whitaker G2G6 Mach 3 (32.4k points)
+9 votes
Love reading the family stories. I never heard much about the Depression (lots about WWII rationing). The biggest story my Dad's family had was that just a few months before the Crash, my grandfather up and moved the family (him, his wife and 9 children) from New Brunswick, Canada to The USA. He had a job before he came and was able to buy a farm which my grandmother and the older kids took care of and he worked in the local woolen mill. My grandfather had been a hunting guide for the mill owner a couple of years and that's how he got the job. That left the family pretty well off during that period.
answered by Doug McCallum G2G6 Pilot (204k points)
+12 votes
My grampa was a depression era Southern black man. He knew wild things to eat. Dandelion, poke, wild mustard, lambs quarters, portulaca, hundreds of plants. He's gig frogs for frog legs, net crawdads, trap quail, squirrel, possums.  He's say that black Southern country folks could eat good and Northern white city folks were always hungry
answered by Eddie King G2G6 Pilot (359k points)
I read "The Cooking Gene" by Michael Twitty recently and learned a lot more about black Southern heritage. Michael talked about cooking like that.
I go out in the spring and get my fresh wild greens. And for gooood eating, puffball mushrooms, sliced thin , floured and tried in butter with a catfish
My grandfather was an oilfield driller in western Oklahoma, and the farmers had wild game and other foods. They wanted the oil wells on their land, so they often gave him food to take home. My grandmother actually went hunger more as a child than in the depression.
Hey Eddie!!!! Squirrel and rabbits make for good eating too. Possum is greasy. So Mama said.
You soak the "greasy" meats like possum and duck in apple cider overnight.  Pierce the skin a few places. The cider sucks the fat out.
+6 votes
My father was born in 1919 and was only 10 years old when the depression started.His father deserted his mother, leaving her to raise 10 children all alone. One of the things they needed most was coal for their stove for cooking and warmth. My Dad started walking the railroad tracks picking up coal that had fallen off the trains

Someone reported to the railroad that my Dad was stealing coal off the train A couple of detectives working for the railroad were assigned to watch my Dad to determine if  he was stealing.  .After sometime,the detectives followed him home and asked to speak to his mother.

They explained to my grandmother about their investigation and they were happy to report that my Dad never stole any coal.
answered by Judy Hixson G2G1 (1.7k points)
+7 votes
During interviewing one of my gr grandparents great nieces, she told me that my great grandmothers parents, Marie Potvin and Henry Desbiens.
This is what she wrote:
Her father Henri was kicked in the head by a horse and was not able to work to provide for their family. The children wore carpet slippers for shoes and had no toys. They used the fabric bags that flour and sugar came in to sew their slips for their dresses. They had a little sled that was pulled by dogs to get their firewood. Each of the children worked outside the home to help. Some of the children worked as a servant and then worked in a laundry. It was the Great Depression so many families struggled but the injury of their father made their family struggle more.
answered by Danika Bisaillon G2G Crew (590 points)
My grandmother’s family was in western Oklahoma, and I had forgotten the stories about the flour sack dresses. Thanks for refreshing my memory.
I read an article about some companies using the patterned cloth
bags to increase sales of their contents.  The women apparently had
some say in the choice of purchases based on the use of the cloth.
Interesting sales tactic!
+5 votes
My grandparents lived in Southern NJ with their 5 children during the depression. My grandfather died in 1933 of heart problems due to chemical warfare in France during WW1 (Mustard Gas). He was an auto mechanic and had an Army pension. This left my grandmother with 5 children and no income. The family split up, my mother living with an Aunt, my other aunts living with their mothers father and my two uncles going to a home for orphaned boys - Girard College in Philadelphia. Eventually they reunited in their 20's and ended with jobs and families, but as children ages 12 -7 it must have been frightening. My mom would eat leftover baked beans on a piece of bread to remind her of the depression because that's all they had to eat  on many days of the week. A terrible time for the world.
answered by
+6 votes
The Depression hit the Merrimack Valley pretty hard. Makes sense when you consider all the mills in Lawrence, Lowell, Haverhill and Newburyport were so important to the region. There were shoe mills, textile mills and factories all up and down the river. Side note: Really polluted the river too and took ages for it to be cleaned up. Still, I wouldn't swim in the Merrimack.

My grandparents were kids living in Haverhill and Newburyport and I remember them saying how hard it was for their parents. Conditions in the mills were rough and since they often employed immigrants they received meager wages. It was a tough time to be Italian immigrants or even French-Canadian ones.  So, they had to deal with a lot of discrimination.

I'm not sure if anyone worked in those mills, though. I'll have to check the 1930 census. I do know for a fact Giuseppe worked as a janitor for a bank. We ended up getting a nice coffee table out of the deal. It used to be a lot taller, too.

Vincenzo was a laborer. Alfred Hamel was a mechanic in Newburyport working on cars and such. They used to call him "Mr. Fix it." He had a shop and fixed up cars during the Depression. Austin Felker worked in a similar car factory as a "mill hand". He was a wage worker and at the time of the 1930 census he wasn't employed. That was rough on him and the Felker clan.

I'll have to check to see what my great-great-grandparents were up to during those days. But, sufficed it to say life in the Valley was pretty rough.

Oh and my parents still have that coffee table. Used to play with my toys on it all the time growing up. And later my nephews did. The circle is now complete.
answered by Chris Ferraiolo G2G6 Pilot (149k points)
edited by Chris Ferraiolo
+5 votes
While 25% unemployment pushed millions into poverty, the Great Depression didn't affect everyone in a negative way. My grandfather, Lawrence Triesch (triesch-6) was a  shrewd businessman who made a fortune buying property in the Pacific Northwest at rock-bottom prices. This includes timber stands, wheat acreage, dairy farms, clam beds, oyster beds and so much more. A generous man, he shared much of his wealth with others. Yes, most stories about the Depression are full of bleak times and loss. But there are many stories like this as well.
answered by Bart Triesch G2G6 Pilot (180k points)
Thanks for sharing this. While these were bleak times for so many, others had a different experience. In fact, there were some places in America that didn't have an economic downturn at all. This included towns where gold mines were the biggest employers.
+5 votes
In Australia, my grandfather, paid for the funeral of the local storekeeper. In gratitude his widow gave my grandfather her deceased husbands stamp collection.  

In the meantime my dad had to sit at the table for 3 days until he finished eating his meal. a hare that had been left by a swag.  His mother tried to coax dad, she reheated it as necessary and added  what she could to disguise it.  In later years he would eat rabbit and always tell that story.
answered by Rionne Brooks G2G6 Mach 3 (34.3k points)
+6 votes
The one that has stuck with me  was one my father told, when he was a boy him and his father would shovel coal by wheel barrel full for .75 cents a week. His father would let him keep a nickle to save.
answered by Al Adams G2G5 (5.2k points)
+5 votes
My parents married during the depression, in 1934. All they ever said about the depression was that my father always had a job. I do know that when they first married their weekly rent was $7.00. That rent receipt was one of the few things my mother had saved.
answered by Carol Conroy G2G Crew (350 points)
+5 votes
My father said that, living on a farm, they were OK for food. In addition to the chicken and pigs they raised, he and my granddad would hunt for deer, rabbits, ducks, and other wild game. Grandma dried and canned food for when there was nothing growing (winters in Pennsylvania). But, in 1934 Granddad could no longer make the mortgage payments, and they lost the farm. He went to work for the WPA as a stone mason.
answered by Beverly Benfer G2G6 (7k points)
+5 votes
Both sides of my family have stories about needing medical care during the depression. My paternal grandfather was in a tractor accident and broke his leg. My grandmother said the doctor refused to set his leg until he saw that they had money to pay him. My maternal grandmother had appendicitis and the family couldn't afford surgery. The doctor said her only hope was to put ice packs on her back and just drink water. She survived the attack and never drank plain water again! When I was little she would only drink iced tea or coke which she referred to as her medicine.
answered by Connie Davis G2G1 (1.5k points)
+5 votes
My maternal grandmother and her younger sister were born during the Depression. Their family was ok during the actual Depression. My great-grandfather worked as an auto-mechanic in a Ford factory in Detroit; instead of laying people off during the Depression, the factory manager instead decided to make all his employees part time instead so that everyone could work at least three days a week. They were still poor after the Depression was over, though, and in the early 1940s, my great-grandfather wrote a bad check to pay for groceries. He went to prison for a year or two, I think, while my grandmother and her younger sister had to live in a Catholic orphanage in Detroit. It was run by nuns who would take them on trips to the beach occasionally. My grandmother said that the children would be taken to one part of the beach to swim and play, and the nuns would take turns watching them so that the nuns got a turn to swim and sunbathe at another part of the beach. This was back when all nuns wore the long habits and veils, and you could only see their hands and faces. My grandmother and her sister would sneak off to try to see the nuns in their bathing suits.

ETA: My grandmother also likes eating sandwiches made with peanut butter, bologna, and mustard, which was a popular sandwich back then.
answered by Emily Yaden G2G5 (5.8k points)
My father and his friends went "on the bum" and rode the rails for a few years. They rode from Washington state to Minnesota and back, and made a few trips to California from Washington as well. They would stop along the way and find whatever small jobs they could to be able to buy food, or work in exchange for room and board.

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