Now and thenMany people jump to compare America’s current economic state to the Great Depression in the 1930s.
By: Debbie Griffin, River Falls Journal
Many people jump to compare America’s current economic state to the Great Depression in the 1930s.
Along with the money, banking, real estate and political experts, the Journal thought everyday people who lived through that era might share stories and ideas. How did they save money, cut corners, make sacrifices? Might any of those principles and practices help people now?
“How it is”
Rural River Falls resident Grace Nelson grew up with four siblings during the Great Depression years in Afton, Minn. She says they didn’t know they were poor because they had “plenty of love and care and warmth.”
She remembers her father owned a lot of businesses: An ice house, milk trucks, a couple taverns. When the Depression came, they all went.
Nelson said, “That’s when it hit, after the banks lost everything.”
She remembers the electricity going off and the family using fuel-lantern light. Her mother and other women saved cloth sacks.
“Everything came in cloth sacks,” said Nelson.
Women made clothes of out them and vied for the ones with matching patterns. She saw them make sacks into mattresses, dish cloths, bed sheets and other items.
“When we threshed, we would change the straw in the mattress,” she said.
Nelson and her siblings shared rooms and, in some cases, straw beds too.
The family worked together growing their own lettuce, carrots, squash, beans, rutabagas, radishes, strawberries, corn and lots of potatoes. The local woman says the time may be coming when people will benefit from growing their own produce.
“We would freeze and can a lot,” said Nelson.
They didn’t have much beef back then, but she says most families raised chickens. She recalls her father trading fresh eggs for other staples they needed from the store like flour, sugar, salt and pepper. The grocer would retrieve their items.
Sometimes they traded their neighbor wheat for fresh milk.
Her parents always kept ducks and geese around, too. And Nelson remembers meals of wild game like squirrel, coon, rabbit and fish.
She said the family (and community) worked together threshing, shucking corn, or processing a hog right down to its ears, lard, “cracklins” and head cheese. Everyone also pitched in to pump water, pick wild berries and chop wood.
She says hardly anyone bought blankets back then. They had parties and made quilts out of scraps. Women often made diapers out of the old blankets and quilts.
Nelson remembers women making pillows with of chicken, goose and duck down. They dried the feathers, stripped the down into sacks, then sewed them shut.
Her mother made all the baby clothes and always handed down clothing.
Nelson’s mother also sewed handkerchiefs out of worn-out sheets.
“We didn’t have Kleenex or paper towels,” she said. “Nothing got thrown away. We used everything.”
Her mother taught her to sew on a treadle machine. Soon Nelson was patching, repairing and re-attaching. She learned from her mom that fabric is cheaper when it’s out of season; she still only shops for clothes during after-season sales.
She advocates garage sales and has been known to make dish towels out of used terry cloth robes.
She remembers people making their own soap and boiling clothes to clean them. Nobody had clothes dryers back then, so in winter garments often freeze dried.
She said her mom always managed to make a cake for everyone’s birthday, but presents and parties weren’t practical. Each child received one Christmas gift.
Treats were usually an apple, orange or hard candy. The family drank water from the well, occasionally with some nectar drops added for flavoring.
Nelson still keeps and treasures both a little pink hairbrush, with hardly any bristles left in it, and a small pair of mittens given to her as gifts back then.
“We got so few things that if you got one thing, it was so precious,” she said.
Transportation wasn’t much of an expense. Nelson walked to school and says they usually took an old beat-up family car to church.
They kept two horses but only for helping harvest the food. She said it was a big deal when the family got the “luxury” of a tractor with a spring under the seat.
Meals were simple and women rarely used recipes. People used whatever happened to be in the pantry.
“When there wasn’t any money, you did with what you had,” Nelson said.
She can’t remember the family ever going to a movie. For entertainment, they listened to the radio and played in the snow.
Nelson said they’d use big pieces of cardboard as makeshift sleds. Mostly she says all the kids were busy with school or chores and usually just wanted rest afterward.
She lived through the Depression to marry a farmer, settle in River Falls, raise a family, become a grandmother.
Nelson recognizes that living through that time gives her a certain practicality but remains apprehensive about sharing her experience. She isn’t sure others will pick up any tidbits useful in today’s world.
To her it seems when people get in trouble, they just run out and use a credit card. Most agree that the Great Depression is probably the worst economic time in American history, but Nelson says, “I’m happy to have lived through those times.”
Editor’s note: The Journal welcomes other perspectives from those who lived through the Great Depression. If enough people want to tell some of their story and make useful suggestions on being thrifty, maybe this Vintage Vantage story will evolve into a series. Anyone interested in doing a story like this should contact Debbie Griffin at 426-1048 or at the e-mail address above.