Monday, May 7, 2012

My Grandmothers Life during the Depression


The depression shaped our families in ways that many of us will never know.  I used to tell my nieces and nephews that they had “fun” grandmothers who loved to do things with them and bought them frivolous toys and presents.  There was never anything that was “happy-go-lucky” about either one of my grandmothers – they had lived during some of the hardest times that this country has faced.

Many think of the depression as a short period of time from the stock market crash in 1929 to the early 1930’s.  I think that for some, the depression hit much earlier in the 1920’s and lasted until after the start of World War II.  There was a terrible drought that hit much of the farming areas in the Midwest so prices on things like cattle and pigs weren’t getting the prices that they had before.  If you lived in a rural area, things might have been better because at least you had something to eat. 

Grandma Marian in her 1st Communion Dress
My paternal Grandmother, Helen Marian Gage Johnson, remembers as a girl having store bought dresses and silk stockings for church.  She had a special dress for her First Communion that her father had bought for her in Chicago during one of his trips to take his cattle to market.  Before the depression hit, her family was probably doing fairly well.  Her mother had over 200 chickens and sold the eggs and her father was able to raise beef cattle and pigs and make a decent living selling them.  They had bought a new Model T in 1926 and had a fairly nice farm back in Iowa.  After the depression hit, they were no longer able to sell their cattle or pigs for a decent price and their primary source of income was gone.  I think that my grandmother especially bemoaned the loss of the cream.  One of her favorite things to eat during her entire lifetime was bread and butter…since her family sold off all of the cream, there was no butter. 

By 1933, her family was in danger of losing the farm entirely.  Grandma Marian’s father signed the farm over to his friend and neighbor, shipped their furniture and machinery up north, and headed for South Dakota.  Granddad was going to raise and sell beef cattle on a share of land up in South Dakota.  In Iowa, they had had problems selling their goods, but in South Dakota the drought made things much worse.  The crop they put in was destroyed and they had to put it up as hay, they couldn’t raise a garden to help feed the large family and one of their sons got desperately sick.  Knowing that they couldn’t support their family there in South Dakota, Grandma’s family once again shipped their goods off and took off for Dover, ID.  It wasn’t until 1935, until they settled in Hatter Creek, ID.  By the fall, they had a log home and were once again settled on their own place.  Granddad Gage was 47 years old and he had bought property filled with stumps from a logging operation.  Before he could plant to do much of anything, he had to get rid of those stumps.  So, he first worked at the local “Company Ranch” and later at the Potlatch mill and came home and removed stumps by blasting and digging.  My grandmother had no time for any frivolity.  She did attend school, but she also spent a lot time working out of the house for families doing cooking and cleaning.  Grandma Marian stayed for a month or two at a time with families to work for them and her paycheck went home to her family to help support them as a whole.

Grandma Cappy's High School Graduation Picture - 1928
Grandma Cappy didn’t have an easy time either.  She was several years older than Grandma Marian so her perspective was a bit different.  Grandma Cappy’s family had originally homesteaded up on Grouse Flats, Wallowa Co., OR and left there in the early 1920’s.  To Grandma Cappy and her brother – those were wonderful days.  They had chores to do, but they both enjoyed country living.  For her mother, it must have been almost hell on earth.  Brutal winters where you would hear the screaming of the mountain lions and the have to worry about the dog dragging frozen rattlesnakes into the house and horribly hot summers.  She was out there in the middle of nowhere while her husband was away working with two little children.  When Jack got old enough, she wanted to move to town so he could go to high school.  So in the mid 1920’s they moved to Pomeroy, WA and were in Lewiston, ID by 1928.  Perhaps, they weren’t as bad off as many – Grandma Cappy’s father was able to butcher a pig to sell so she would have money to go to college.  When she wanted to learn to play the piano, she and her mother worked three summers picking lettuce to buy the used upright piano.

Both of my grandmothers experienced the loss of their childhood innocence in the face of the depression.  They didn’t get the chance to be carefree children or young adults.  As young mothers both had to learn how to make do and not waste time with what they couldn’t have.   So, when I was child – I didn’t receive things like an alien from Men in Black or Barbie dolls and clothes – my gifts were practical like underwear, socks, and school clothes.  I can remember the one occasion when I went shopping with my Grandma Cappy.  She drove all over town to get the best deals and agonized over each item that she bought.  At this point, she could have afforded whatever she was required to pay, but if an item was 10 cents cheaper somewhere else, that is where we went.  Grandma Marian rarely ever bought herself anything that was not a necessity.  But she certainly showed a childlike joy when she received a gift that was special.  I think that my parents tried to think of things to give her that she would never buy for herself. 

Both of my grandmothers gave of themselves freely…and I deeply admire and respect the women for who they were and what they accomplished in their lifetimes.  My grandmothers both made me feel special and loved and while they might have not been all that “fun” they both hold a special place in my heart.  I was lucky to have known them as their granddaughter – and equally lucky to learn about their experiences as they grew up.  I’ll probably never face what they had faced, but they have shown me the value of character, hard work, and fortitude and have given me an example of what to strive for.