I think my earliest memories of hearing about the Depression came from tidbits my mother shared when I was little. I don’t really remember her first reference to it – it may have been related to doing without something we couldn’t afford. My mother, as I have described briefly elsewhere, was a girl and teenager during most of The Depression (see this Wikipedia page for a general description of it). She was born in 1919 so was about 10-11 years old as it was beginning and her junior high and high school days were during the worst years.
The Denman family was living in Canton, Ohio during this time. Canton was a northern industrial city, although there was farm land nearby, dependent on such companies as Hoover and Republic Steel. My mother’s description of Canton was of many mills burning lots of coal, so that there was coal dust everywhere and you couldn’t open windows without enduring a layer of fine grit on everything.
The family had moved to Canton in 1925, first renting a house on one side of town, and then in 1928 buying a house in a new development across town on 22nd Street. There were about 8 houses when they moved in and my mother remembered playing with the other children, on a street with little enough traffic that they sledded down the big hill on the street.
Her description of the Depression: “We lived there for about six years [the house on 22nd Street] during the Wall Street Crash, the Bank Holiday, and first few years ofdepression. As the Depression deepened and the furnaces were allowed to cool in the steel mills, more and more people were out of work and there was real hunger in town. Some families lived in one room in the winter, hanging blankets in the windows and doorways to keep as much heat in that room as possible. Dad’s salary was cut in half and he could no longer afford the house payments so we lost our home and once more moved back across town – this time near the Junior High School my brother was still attending.” This picture shows my mother and her younger brother in the 22nd Street neighborhood. I don’t know why they had the small fire (although it was December).
To continue what my mother wrote about her memories of the Depression: “The whole country seemed to be in trouble. The big farm belt in the middle of the country was enduring the “dust bowl” years when the wind, and sun, seemed determined to completely remove all the topsoil from the land. The weather was hot and dry and families lost farms. These were the days of the “Okie”, when families and all of their possessions loaded into a broken down car to head for a city and hope of a job. They were the days in the big industrial states when plants shut down and unemployment was high and just kept getting higher. Young people without jobs could not marry. Without jobs they couldn’t rent rooms let alone apartments. Many of them left home to wander around the country looking for work because there simply wasn’t enough food at home to feed one more. “Riding the rods” was a phrase understood by a generation that stole rides in box cars on the trains or in some cases rode beneath the cars.”
“I remember one fall when one of my friends was happy because the shoemaker could put lower heels on a pair of her mother’s old shoes so she would have something to wear to school. Her aunt had an extra coat and her mother was making her a skirt out of another old coat. Another friend wore her spring coat all winter because there was not always money for food let alone a coat. There were times when Mother made cocoa and buttered toast for us and a couple of school friends in the afternoon when she suspected there wasn’t sufficient food at their house.” [I also remember my mother telling about a friend wearing cardboard in her shoes when the soles developed holes and her family couldn’t afford another pair for her. This was very common it seems, and a way for a child to be able to continue to go to school since you had to have shoes to go to school.]
I never asked a lot of questions about my mother’s experiences growing up in the Depression, and am left with impressions that the family was among the luckier ones with a job that kept a roof over their heads and ways to get enough food. My grandpa Lyle’s family lived not too far away and farmed, so I suspect that some food came from their gardens. My grandparents probably also had a garden. I know my grandmother canned all sorts of fruits and vegatables when I was a little girl and I think she must have done so from her earliest married days and certainly during the Depression.
I recently finished reading Ted Gup’s book, A Secret Gift, which I had bought because it was described in the review as being about the Great Depression in Canton Ohio. I knew my mother had grown up in Canton during the Depression, so I had to have it. Once bought, it sat – as other books do – in my to-be-read pile for a year or more, but there was always something else more intriguing to be read first. When I got the copy of my mother’s high school yearbook, and decided to write about her high school days, Gup’s book percolated to the top of the pile and I began reading it. I had expected a description of what The Great Depression was like in Canton and got that plus much more. Of course there have been other books written about the Depression but this one struck home for several reasons. His descriptions, using transcriptions of original letters written at the time, show just how bad it was for many families. They also show how proud people often were, and how difficult it was to ask a stranger or organization for help. I was left with a better understanding of why so many who lived through the Great Depression didn’t talk much about it, wanting to move on and wanting to protect the next generation from its deprivations.