Tech-Media-Tainment asked senior correspondent James Seitz for his observations of growing up during the Great Depression, which began in October 1929 with the stock market crash and lasted until 1941 when the U.S. entered World War II.
James A. Seitz, born Jan. 18, 1929, talks about growing up during the Depression era:
Beggars going door-to-door
Our town – Fairchild, Wisconsin – was on a train line. Tramps would get off the train and walk from house to house asking for a bite to eat. We shared what we could. The hobos camped near the railroad. This occurred throughout the 1930s.
During the Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps had a camp that was almost like an Army barracks north of town. They brought in young men in their teens and early 20s from Chicago and Milwaukee to work. They housed them and fed them. They worked planting trees and building roads. They’d replant trees after forest fires.
Depression-era meals: Homegrown veggies, chicken
Food was distributed weekly in towns for poor people who couldn’t afford it. They handed out the basics – flour, potatoes, eggs and butter.
Most homes in town had gardens and people grew their own vegetables. Several of the homes had apple trees. People would work in the gardens in the evenings and talk to their neighbors.
I would go into the woods all by myself sometimes and pick blueberries in the summer – June and July – and my mother would bake them into pies and make jam.
I don’t recall any Depression-era meals. The local cafes generally had chicken dinners on Sundays. Hamburgers and hot dogs were popular luncheon meals because they were cheap. There were no elaborate meals. Most families had vegetables from their gardens – sweet corn, peas, beans, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, etc. Pies and cakes completed the dinner. Corn flakes and Rice Krispies were popular for breakfast because they were cheap.
We also raised chickens. In March, we’d get a box of 100 chicks for a penny a chick. We’d raise them inside until it warmed up outside. In April, we’d put them outside in a coop. By July, they’d be full grown and ready to eat.
Hunting for squirrel, rabbit and deer
When I got older, Dad and I went fishing during the spring and summer and hunting during the fall. We fished for trout and bluegills with cane poles.
During the fall, we went hunting for squirrels and rabbits. Dad liked to go hunting. He had a .22 caliber rifle.
My dad went deer hunting with a group of friends. He went hunting as much for the companionship as anything. He was running a drug store by himself for years.
My mother didn’t care for venison.
Hunting with a rifle is a dangerous sport. There was a lot of deer hunting in the forests north of Fairchild. Each year there would be a hunter shot.
I remember one year I was walking to the drug store and I walked by a car in which there was a man who was shot. It was obvious to me the man was dead. He was slumped over. I ran to our drug store and told my dad about the dead man in the car. The car was parked in front of a bar. My dad learned that the driver of the car parked the car with the dead man in it and then went into the bar to get a few drinks. It was an accident. The man was deer hunting with his friend and a stray shot came through the window of the car.
The simple life, without modern amenities
We lived simply. Dad ran a drug store in Fairchild from 1926 until about 1950.
Each home had its own water well and generally hand pumped the water pump to get their drinking, laundry and bath waters. There were no water pipes, so the pails of water were carried into the house. Generally bath and laundry waters were heated on top of the kitchen stove. Weekly Saturday baths were generally done by most families. Sunday mornings were church time.
No indoor plumbing also meant no indoor toilets. Every house had an outhouse.
Lawns were hand mowed, generally by the teenagers. There were no power mowers. Homeowners generally did their own repairs and painting their houses. There were a few carpenters and painters, but they cost money so we learned how to do the work.
Accept the life you’ve got
You have to accept the life you have. No one was rich. But we had a roof over our heads, were eating well, and had friends to play or work with. It was not easy for the unemployed or sick but they adjusted to the situation. The weekly movie, radio shows and the Sunday afternoon trips to visit our relatives in Tomah and Eau Claire were things we looked forward to.
During the Depression, very few families had extra money. All the money they earned was needed for food and clothing. Clothing was generally very plain. You had only one dress-up outfit. Toys were simple and inexpensive. A girl would have one small doll, for instance.
Because some families had six to eight children, clothes were passed down to the youngest. A new dress or jacket was a treat. During the summer many of the children were bare-footed and only wore shoes to go to church on Sunday.
In our town several of the large families didn’t have a father. Several were killed in the First World War, or the fathers worked in the larger cities. Some drove 30 miles every day to work, so they were gone for most of the five days and only home for part of the weekend.
Summer jobs working the fields
Teenagers did small jobs during the summer – working on farms to harvest strawberries, beans, cherries.
I picked strawberries when I was in grade school. There were several children I’d go with. I’d bring my lunch pail and spend the day there. The goal was to pick 100 quarts of strawberries a day per person. They had to be heaping containers because they’d settle during transport.
When I was in eighth grade, my father suggested that I ask permission to grow beans in the lot across the street. The old woman who owned it used to have a garden there, but she was too old to tend to it. Rather than it go to waste, my dad said, “This would be a terrific project you. If you earn enough money, maybe you could buy a bike.”
Dad made arrangements to get the seeds and I planted them, tended them and picked them. I would walk four or five blocks and bring my beans to the canning factory where I’d sell them.
That first year, I was so successful growing beans on that lot – which was probably a quarter acre – that my father suggested that I do a one-acre lot. I planted the whole acre in beans that second year. I was a freshman in high school then.
The acre lot had never been farmed before, so it had never been plowed. Dad had it plowed for me. After I planted the beans, the lot was almost overwhelmed by weeds. We did a lot of weeding. My dad had someone plow the soil between the rows of beans and that was a big help.
Two of us, a friend and I, would each fill a bag that had been used to hold 100 pounds of potatoes. We’d start on a row and go down the line until we each had filed a bag of beans. We had a wagon and we’d bring the two bags, totaling about 150 pounds of beans, to the canning factory. The next day we’d do it again. It took a month to harvest all the beans. We harvested until school started.
I only did bean crops for two years.
When I was in high school and turned 16, I worked in canning factories. I worked the line as the beans were put into cans. They cooked the beans in the cans. The beans were cleaned really well before they were canned.
Both of the canning factories I worked in were small companies.
It was a summer job. A group of us would drive to work together. I did that for two years.
Teenagers generally found some jobs during the summer. Some of them wanted to buy an old car for $50. These cars didn’t have a starter and had to be hand cranked to start them. They had running boards along the side of the car. We would sometimes hang onto the side of the car and ride short distances when we had more riders than space in the car. Gasoline was 20 cents a gallon.
During my senior year in high school, I worked in a paper company in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
During my sophomore and junior years in high school, I often had to run the soda fountain in my dad’s drug store during the lunch hour. We served Coca-Cola, root beer and other drinks.
Close call on overnight trip
One summer when I was in high school we learned that Sturgeon Bay in Door County needed people to pick cherries. So two carloads of us drove up there. It was about a five-hour drive.
I lasted two weeks.
I learned that a truck picking up cherries was going to be driving through my town and I rode in the back with the cherries.
We left in the evening and got there early in the morning.
A coworker sitting up front with the driver said we were lucky we didn’t crash because the driver almost fell asleep. I had no idea that this occurred because I was asleep in the back for the drive.
Hard work a way of life
No one in my family lost their jobs during the Depression.
My mother’s father, Henry Hubley, worked for the railroad and during the summer supervised a large crew of men to repair the railroad line, replacing bad rails, any damaged equipment, etc.
My dad had only one sister, Ann, who lived with her mother. They washed clothes, sheets, blankets, etc. for motels and families. When we visited them the clothes lines were packed with washed materials. It was very physical work. They hung the clothes outside. It wasn’t until later that they got a dryer.
Small town living in Fairchild, Wis.
I grew up in a small town of about 660 people. It had one doctor and one dentist
The town had no police department, but did have a small jail cell. The downtown had six stores and three bars. They had a security guard who walked the street where the retail stores, bars, movie theater, hotel, post office, garages and “filling stations” were located. Filling stations sold gas, but did no car repairs, lubrications or auto parts sales. The garages also sold gas. We were located off a major road at the time, Highway 12, so there was a lot of traffic coming through.
The security guard was there to protect the buildings so they were not robbed or damaged.
With three bars, it was not uncommon for us to see drunkards stagger down the sidewalks. Some of them weren’t able to walk home and slept on the grass in the small town park. The three bars were open until 10 p.m. or so on weeknights and on Saturday they’d be open later.
During the summer, once a week there was an outdoor movie. They’d put up a screen and show the movies. We did have a movie theater but for Saturday and Sunday afternoons and evenings. The theater wasn’t open during the week. Youngsters only paid 10 cents. Teenagers paid 25 or 35 cents.
(Photo from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, posted to About.com photo page on the Great Depression. See also About.com Web page on the Depression.)