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 of

Mom and Uncle Dick, Canton 1931

depression. 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.

drawing of McKinley High School, Richard Cook

I was reminded about high school yearbooks in a conversation at our recent family Christmas get-together. A while back I started thinking about the possibility of getting yearbooks for my parents – or maybe even my grandparents – as another way to fill in information about their lives. I went looking on eBay (thank you Lisa Louise Cooke!) and discovered that my mother’s high school yearbook might be obtainable. Mom, Elizabeth Ann Denman, graduated from McKinley High School in Canton, Ohio in 1936. She attended her 50th reunion in 1986, even though she was physically pretty restricted, and had a wonderful time reconnecting with classmates.

I started looking on eBay, and found a copy being auctioned, but wasn’t successful at my bidding. I was so disappointed! I kept my eBay search going, and finally this fall another one came up. And I got it! (I felt like I had won the lottery.) Of course it arrived just as Real Life was heating up, so I haven’t had much time to really go through it. Until I got reminded, at Christmas, of how much information might be in there.

So I got it out and spent some time going through looking for all the activities she participated in. The resulting picture of her senior year in high school captures both my mother as a young woman and provides a glimpse into what high school life was like in the mid-1930s in Ohio. This was the midst of the Great Depression, which had a particularly large impact on Canton, and which my mother talked about on occasion. Her father was lucky enough to have a job with a Chicago meatpacking company which he kept through the Depression although his salary was cut in half. The family lost their house and moved back into a rental, but between Grandpa Lyle’s job and Grandma Cena’s ability to make do, they managed.

Mom went to Lehman Junior High for the first 2 years of high school and then everyone got sent to the big downtown high school, McKinley High School. This was a pretty large school – bigger than the ones she had been at in the past, having about 4000 students for the three class years, and over 900 in her senior year class.

L-R: Elizabeth, Virginia, Jayne, and Sylvia, June 1936

She was particular friends with three girls: Virginia Dorland, Sylvia Frantz, and Jayne Puncheon. They had many of the same interests and participated in many of the same school activities. And they were all very active. Mom had the following listed in her yearbook description: National Honor Society, Booster Club, Friendship Club, Leaders’ Club, Choral Club, Swimming Club, French Club (she was secretary), Girl’s Service League (she was vice-president), and Volleyball. I only listed the ones she was active in her senior year. The descriptions of the clubs comes directly from the 1936 McKinleyite. In addition to all of these, Mom continued to be active in Girl Scouting throughout her high school career and finished her Golden Eaglet award.

The Girl’s Booster Club

“…the Boosters participated in all of the outstanding school activities. The year was a successful one and the Boosters were kept busy contributing their share to the advancement of ideal school spirit….total membership of more than 700, which was nearly double that of former years.” Appointed as chairmen for activities were Sylvia Frantz, Virginia Dorland, and Elizabeth Denman. Among the activities were pencil-selling contests in support of the football and basketball teams. There was the annual big party in the music room, with the theme of Nursery Folk Frolic. At that party there were prizes for various costumes, a walk through the “Land of Make Believe” where everyone saw snapshots from a Booster girl’s day, a dance review and a playlet and a mock football game. The Boosters faithfully supported the basketball team, having a section reserved for members and pulling stunts on opposing teams.

Friendship Club

“To face life squarely, to find and give the best” is the motto of the club. Their aim is to help those less fortunate than themselves. There were a total of 350 members this year. They made a large donation to the Scholarship Foundation fund and to the community fund. Baskets for the needy were prepared at Thanksgiving and Christmas. With branches in surrounding schools, there was an inter-club council played a large part in this club’s activities this year. There were dances, parties, two conferences, a white elephant sale, a faculty tea, a mother-daughter banquet, and an open house. There were meetings every two weeks through the whole year. There were interest groups for dramatics, music, nature, knitting, arts and crafts, and first aid.

Girls' Leaders' Club

Girl’s Leaders’ Club

Leaders’ Club had a membership of 80 girls, who had to have an 85 in gym and passing grades in all other subjects in order to be eligible. There were tryouts in the second six weeks [I assume this was a grading period.] based on a letter each one submitted telling why she wanted to join the club. At the tryouts each had to give a speech on “Why I Want to be a Leader” and was graded on that speech plus her athletic ability. Those unanimously chosen by the old members of the club were given probationary status until after initiation, when they became full fledged Leaders. Membership in this club meant spending two extra periods a week assisting teachers and those in classes who needed help. There were also activities: a formal dance at Christmas; a picnic in the spring that included the students’ mothers; an informal dance in the spring; and a demonstration at the gym exhibition that was “the highlight” every year. They also helped put on two sports competition games: a basketball game and a volleyball game.

Senior Choral Club

This is a large musical group that gave concerts and special programs “constantly through out the year.” They put on the Mikado for 2 nights. They did special concerts for civic organizations, vesper services, and a district teacher conference. Their final performance was at the commencement exercises.

Girl’s Swim Club

This club included endurance tests and competitions using different strokes and diving contests. There were about 28 members.

French Club

Eligibility for this club required a grade of 85 or better in French. Mom was elected secretary in her senior year. Activities included monthly meetings, a Christmas entertainment, a Mardi Gras celebration on February 26, and a picnic later in the year.

Girl’s Service League

The members of the league participate in many services. They are girls who had maintained a 90% or better through their three years of high school, selected while juniors. This year they aided students while changing classes in September. At Thanksgiving and Christmas they put together baskets with food and clothing for needy families. they visited a home for the aged. They ushered for a Parent Teacher convention. They were “Big Sisters” to all new juniors and sophomores. Social activities included an informal dance in December and a party in May for new members. Officers for the year included: Elizabeth Denman, vice-president and Sylvia Frantz, treasurer.

Elizabeth Denman, senior picture

When I read these descriptions I don’t see any direct reference to the effects of the Depression, but I do see a value placed on scholarship and on service to others. I also see characteristics of my mother that continued into her adult life and most of them for her entire life. She was concerned about the welfare of others. She was interested in being a leader, in the service of helping others or promoting things she believed in. She loved nature and the outdoors and using her body physically, playing a variety of sports and continuing physical activities like swimming as long as she could (before Real Life intervened).

© 2009-2014 The Genealogy Gals All Rights Reserved -- Copyright notice by Blog Copyright