LIVING THROUGH THE GREAT DEPRESSION
Being born in the mid-1930’s; I grew up hearing adults talk about the Dionne Quintuplets being born on the same day that my cousin Dick Donald was born and I came two weeks later. Every house had a calendar of the five little girls and a picture of FDR on the wall. Grandma was still worried about the people that died crossing the ocean on a ship. She told stories and songs about a race horse named “Man of War.” Although my grandfather only went to the third grade in school. By the third grade, students could read and write. The had to know how to make change when dealing with cash. They also could add, subtract, multiply and divide in arithmetic. Grandpa Kitchell told us kids O. Henry stories that he had read in school.
When our mom fretted about someone trying to kidnap us kids like they did the Lindbergh baby, my dad quickly dispelled the idea with the fact that they didn’t have enough money to make anyone want us. I had no idea what ‘kidnapping’ was but got the idea that our Dad figured that nether one of us kids was a worth-while commodity.
The Great Depression was one subject people talked about; how they ‘got by.’ Slapping two thin pieces of bar soap together, they were able to bathe. My mom’s parents were well-to-do farmers and business people in Atlanta, Illinois. Often, I’d hear Grandma Kitchell say “I told Pierce we shouldn’t buy that last farm.” Our grandpa had mortgaged four farms he owned free and clear to buy one last farm. His dream was no different from the goal most “Dads” at the time for each son.
Grandpa was unable to pay his creditors. I never heard Grandma or Grandpa complain nor did they blame each other. I would hear them say only, “Times were hard.”
As a child I did notice that those people who lost everything in the depression were not quick to spend any money they made unless it was absolutely a necessity. I’d hear them say that they’d squeezed a nickel until the buffalo bawled. Or they’d say that a person was tight fisted. Until banks could be trusted again, money was buried in barn yards or behind bricks in a cellar.
Grandma Kitchell (Katie) was raised by her Grandparents, She married Grandpa at fifteen years of age; so she had very little youth to talk about. She spoke fluent German in her early years and evidently her grandmother taught her to read and write. She did tell the story about going by covered wagon to Colorado from Illinois. She was four years old at the time. And she had a young cousin that was also included in the group of frontiersmen. Being four years old she remembered only living in a ‘Soddy’ and picking up cow chips on the desert for fuel for their grandmother to burn in the fireplace. She talked most about the “Jack” Rabbits with long ears and hearing the coyotes howling mournfully during the night hours.
Probably the best indicators of the life Grandma had growing up was the fact that she got along well with all her neighbors. She was honest to a fault, She never bragged on herself or her accomplishments, And seldom spoke ill of anyone.
Grandma got up before dawn in the mornings and sang hymns while she worked. She took a short nap following lunch time then continued working until it was time to fix dinner. She was in bed by nine o’clock. On Saturdays she walked to the grocery store, cleaned her house, took her bath in a sink and washed her long thick black hair.
On Saturday afternoon she read her Sunday School lesson and made sure her offering was knotted securely in the corner of her thin, colorful handkerchief. A quarter for Sunday School, one for church and a dime for the flower fund. I don’t remember Grandma ever carrying a pocketbook. She did have a little change purse she carried her paper money in which she tucked securely in her apron or dress pocket for her trip to the store. Attending Sunday school and church were the highlight of her week. “Golly-ding” and “Isn’t that a fright.” where Grandma’s only bi-words. She never used slang words and certainly didn’t swear. It’s was told that in her younger years, Grandma had a bad temper. With five ornery sons, and one self-willed daughter and a husband that was a wheeler dealer, what can one expect?
Along with loosing their home, retail stores and farms my Grandparents also lost their eldest son during the depression. They lost him not to death but to the spirit of greed and revenge. Their largest farm that their eldest son and his wife farmed, was included in the bankruptcy. Grandpa had passed away years before, when a knock came on Grandma’s door late one night, twenty five years later. It was her eldest son with his hat in hand and a satchel full of cloths. He had no place to go but back to his ‘mom’ when his wife kicked him out of the house. It seems Grandma’s two eldest sons; who had been given the golden opportunities during their youth, needed the comfort and shelter of “mom” loving home the most, in their later years.
With no jobs of any kind available in Illinois, talk in town was; if you had a truck to haul grain, you could get jobs out west following the wheat harvest. Following the bankruptcy, Grandpa was allowed to keep his large Diamond Rio farm truck and Grandmas’ furniture and very little cash. Grandpa and Grandma set out, with their three teenage boys, my mom and dad and their six month old baby. Their truck loaded down with a large tent, bed, baggage, a chicken Koop filled with Rhode Island Red laying hens, several scoop shovels along with some hand tools for Texas.
The flock of chickens’ strutting rooster, refused to be caught by anyone, watched as the truck began to pull out of the barn yard. He made a flying leap into the air and flew on top of the loaded truck bed, where he perched, his pin-feathers blowing in the breeze. On and on he went down state highways and through passing towns. He was sticking with his harem. Little did he care if people were pointing their fingers and laughing at him. When the truck was unloaded ‘old red’ would fly down off the truck and stay with his hens. No sooner would the truck be reloaded and he would fly back up one his perch. A rooster does what roosters have to do. Even when times were the hardest, people found things to joke and laugh about.
Just when Grandpa had reached the end of his resources, with the last $20.00 bill in his billfold. A cop stopped them and ticketed them $10.00 for having a light out on the back of the truck. The group had to stay over one night to meet a court date with the small towns’ only judge. When Grandpa handed the judge his last twenty dollar bill. He told the judge this is all I have left. The judge sternly told him “See to it you get it fixed right away” as he reached in his draw for Grandpa’s change. Putting the returned bill in his billfold, the group left the courthouse. They spent another night in their tent before continuing their travels.
After the truck was loaded, grandpa reached in his billfold for what remained of their wealth. Without looking at it he handed it to grandma, telling her to go into the store for what groceries she needed. Grandma looked down at the money in her hand and let out a “Holiness War hoop” that could be heard across the state. In her hand she held a brand new one hundred dollar bill. She had a problem trying to convince grandpa that the judge knew exactly into what slot he was getting the change for Grandpa’s $20.00 bill. All agreed that God was watching out for them and helping them even though none of them had ever become followers of Jesus Christ. That didn’t stop Father God from knowing those that were his, at that moment.
As the days went by, when camp was set up in a place where there was water to drink and grass for the horses. Permission was gained from owners of a pasture to stop there.
Grandpa and one of the boys would go out looking for wheat hauling jobs, while grandma and my mom got a meal ready. Week after week they made enough money to keep the truck going and food to eat. They were quick to catch on to the fact that crews who had man experienced in running a combine, made the most money.
That opportunity presented itself and my dad lied and told the rancher that he was a combine man. My dad had never been near one of the machines in his life. But he had been the 16 year old that drew up all the plans for his dad’s two row corn picker that got stolen from their house and came out on the market soon after. Daddy was the only one among them that understood the mechanical mechanism of the machine. He told the rancher that he would not operate the machine unless her personally greased it up and checked all the chains. As he worked greasing the combine he quickly caught on to how it worked. Climbed on the machine and began harvesting wheat. Then Grandpa was making some real money with his crew as they followed the harvest up through Texas, Oklahoma and on to Nebraska. Doing odd jobs, they could make it until harvest time rolled around again.
My mom liked to tell of finding her great grandfathers grave in a civil war cemetery in North Platte, Nebraska. They tell how Grandpa Yonkers was with the calvary back then. He did his part in the ‘underground railroad helping free the slaves who were trying to make there way north into freedom. Grandma only remembered that her grandmother had it easier following her grandpa’s death because she lived on a pension that the government paid the widows of the Civil War veterans.
My parents went on to farm a patch of ground in Armington, Illinois where my Brother Bob was born in 1932.
Times began to get better in Illinois. Uncle Melvin had married aunt Vinie who was a DeSutter from Manito, Il. Her folks had been able to hang on to their farms during the depression and were able to set her and Uncle Melvin up in a small house in Pekin which had a telephone. People who had both electric lights and a telephone were considered ‘upper crust.’ Being a good mechanic Uncle Melvin got on full time at the Corn Products in Pekin, Illinois. He managed to move his folks and mine to Pekin. Although my grandmother was dead set against drinking alcohol, she took a job at the distillery putting pretty Christmas labels on bottles of booze. It was their only income when Grandpa was seriously injured in a truck/train accident. The truck was the only mode of transportation that my folks had. They had just used it to move to Pekin and loaned the truck to my mom’s older brother who was determined he could beat the train through the crossing. My Uncle Earl could have paid the folks what they lost on the insurance deductible but didn’t even say he was sorry for their loss.
When work in Pekin began to open up, my dad would get a single days work at the Corn Products. But he had to walk from their apartment house to the factory every morning and stand in line. When he didn’t come home, mom knew he had received a day’s work. They could manage to pay their rent and electricity and even buy a few groceries on a couple days work a week. A full time job meant that the depression was over for that family. People appreciated what they were given and what they had in those days.
Before my folks moved to Pekin, my mom was very sick with a high fever and continued to try to nurse her baby boy. He cried non-stop from hunger. There was very little to eat and no milk for a baby. My mom had heard people talking about getting on their knees by their bed and asking God to help them. She had no idea how to pray or even if there was a God that he would hear her prayer.
In total desperation she got down on her knees and told God that if he was listening, she and her family needed coal for their stove and food to eat. A neighbor had known mom was sick and the family needed help. They contacted the local government office. A lady knocked on the folks’ door. Within hours of my mom’s prayer to a God she didn’t know, a truck delivered a load of coal. The lady came with boxes of food for the family and milk for the starving baby. The lady even brought mom a warm coat, slip, panties and a dress so she could go to the doctor. In the bargain, my dad received a new pair of work shoes and boots along with a new pair of coveralls. That’s what he wore to stand in line at Corn Products for a day’s work.
Just as God knew who his children were standing trembling on the banks of the Red Sea, a judge gave grandpa back a hundred dollar bill rather then a $10.00 bill, in change. That judge took compassion on Grandpa and his family. Just as Father God look on over that bunch of Israelites standing scared stiff on the bank of the sea.
The folks had moved to Pekin, Illinois with the hope of bettering their lives. They found a cheap apartment in an large apartment house called the “Beehive” on Cynthiana Street in Pekin. The walls were thin and offered no sound barrier for the loud, laughing, family arguments and loud snoring at night. With doors between all the apartments, it was near impossible to free ones space of the abundant crops of crawling roaches and bedbugs. It was a place to live and dad’s day job paid the rent and light bills there.
It was socially unacceptable and shame during those days for an unmarried woman to find she was pregnant. Young girls went to visit relatives in another state to find a job. Even close family members were not informed of such indiscretions. It just happened that a Florence Crinton home for unwed mothers was located a block from the bee-hive apartment house.
My dad’s mother Grandma Boehme was not one to sit on her hands when emergencies arose in the family. She herself was a expecting her first child when her family who were well off farmers arranged for Grandpa Boehme to marry her even though he was not the babies father. For a chance to get started farming on his own, he was a willing partner.
Grandma, decided that since Phyllis and Ed, were not able to have children and no respectable family gave away their babies to strangers, they would be the proud recipients of the
new infant. Thus the baby’s birth mother could remain close in the family and see and visit her child as desired. Everett a son lived the closest to the home. It was arranged that Anna would go to the unwed mother’s home in the closing weeks of her pregnancy. When the baby was born the home would call Everett. He would go to the home and fetch the new born. Thereafter, telephone his sister in Kankakee, Illinois to come and get her new baby.
The birth mother had already signed her name to a paper stating that her baby was to be given to a family member. The doctor delivering the baby at 2 o’clock in the morning was unfamiliar with the families plans for the infant, did what most doctors delivering illegitimate babies did in such case. He filled the syringe with extra pain killer to inject the birthing mother. Helping the woman in her stress and also with the hope of relieving her of her problem.
The baby was born having serious heart attacks. The home was aware of the legal problem they faced since this child already had parents waiting to come for it. They called my Uncle Melvin, who had the telephone, he went to the Bee-hive to get my dad who was the one scheduled to pick up the baby. The baby was dieing and neither the doctor or the home wanted to explain a dead baby. They quickly put the diapered baby in a shoe box along with a blank original birth certificate. Handed the baby over to a family member. The birth mother was told that the baby was very weak and probably would die.