How We Got By: Lessons Learned From Hard Times Past

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins December 15, 2008 11:09

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without.”

This was the “battle cry of the Depression,” remembers 81-year-old Halcyon Winter of Jamestown, among a dozen Tuolumne County residents who shared their memories of those lean years with Friends & Neighbors in the feature that follows.

Most were very young when the hard times hit — beginning with the Great Depression and stretching into World War II, when rationing was the rule and backyard Victory Gardens a necessity.

Despite grim circumstances, their tales of survival are vivid, inspiring and, given today’s economic climate, timely.

Kenneth Myles of Jamestown remembers bicycling over 14 miles of gravel road to deliver papers and scouring alleys for 5-cent milk bottles. Marge Garrigan of Sonora used cardboard to repair her shoes and, as a teen, worked at the phone company for $15 a week. Cleo Freeman of Columbia, lucky enough to land a CCC job, cleared currant bushes from the Sierra National Forest for $30 a month.

Picking fruit for pennies, walking miles to school, raising chickens for eggs and meat, eating dandelion greens, hoarding pennies and nickels, and sharing Christmas dinners at the Salvation Army were all part of surviving those hard times.

Graduating from high school, now a universally acknowledged goal, was turned on its head during the Great Depression. Teens, including some whose accounts are included here, gave up the classroom and got low-paying jobs to help keep their families afloat.

Several Tuolumne County residents who came through those lean days said their children and grandchildren scarcely believe their stories, doubting that times could ever be so difficult.

Yet those that contributed their recollections never lost heart. Courageous and resourceful, they shared a camaraderie and spirit that helped them, their families, and their communities not only survive the 1930s and ‘40s, but emerge stronger and wiser.

Says Halycon Winter: “Seeing everyone pulling so together was a rich and exuberant experience never to be seen again.”

Petronella Wieczorkowski, 92, Retired

I was the youngest of nine children, born and raised in Michigan, My dad was a farmer and worked in the Ford factory for a while. When the Depression hit we were living in Detroit. It wasn’t good times, you couldn’t get things you needed. When the banks closed my parents lost all their money and the house, but the kids, we all went to work and they got the house back. My mom and dad made a little garden in the backyard. We baked pies, canned fruit, vegetables and meat. My brother had a chicken farm for a time, so we had eggs and meat. We did our own mending and sewing. We didn’t throw anything out, and got the most out of food by making soups. None of us ever went to bed hungry. I started work at age 15 in a restaurant and made 25 cents an hour. After that we always knew to be very careful with our money, didn’t splurge on anything foolish, and always made sure to pay the bills before other things.

Odessa Stucker, 87, Retired homemaker

I was born on a farm in Oklahoma, the oldest of 14 children. My dad was a farmer. When the Depression started, you could get a government loan to rent a farm, get a team of horses, a plow and seeds, so he became a sharecropper. After a while, my dad could see that things were going to get rough in Oklahoma, so he took the rest of the family to California. I was married at 15 and a half, and my husband and I moved out of Oklahoma. We lived in Washington, picking apples, and then moved to California, where we picked cherries. I worked as a shipyard welder for Bethlehem Steel during World War II. We moved to Tuolumne County in the mid-1940s and my husband worked at Pickering Lumber.

Kenneth Myles, 84, Retired From Meat Processing Plant

I was born and raised in Terre Haute, Indiana, and had one brother who was four years older. My dad worked all kinds of jobs, at a paper mill, for the WPA, then at an oil company – anything he could find. My mom worked at home, and took in laundry. She got 10 cents a piece for washing, ironing and starching a shirt. When the tomato factories were canning, she would work for three or four weeks. My brother had to drop out of high school at age 14. He used to work in the wheat fields, ride out to the country on his bike, and he’d come home with a dollar in his pocket every night. I also dropped out of school at 14. There was no choice – we had to help put bread on the table. I carried newspapers, rode a bike about 14 miles on gravel roads to deliver to 12 or 13 places, probably brought home about $2.50. Then we both got jobs at a commercial bakery. I greased the pans every night after they baked the bread, I’d grease and stack 500 pans. He worked as an oven baker, and later I got promoted to baker and made $37.50 a week … Everybody was in the same boat, and everybody worked together.

Beverly Amaral, 73, Retired Cook

I was born and raised in Colorado. As a child, the only time that I even recall seeing money was when my mother tied a nickel in my and my sister’s and brother’s handkerchiefs for Sunday school. I was 6 years old when Pearl Harbor happened. I remember it well, as we were in a restaurant as a family. The radio was on. All of a sudden a “deafening” silence came over the entire restaurant. A look of shock on everyone’s faces. No one spoke. Of course, I had no idea what was happening. It was just a strange feeling that is with me to this day.
I remember going to school pulling our little red wagon piled high with newspapers. Mom would send us to the little corner market several blocks away to pick up a few groceries. The margarine we got in a “plastic” bubble, NUCOA, all white with this orange-yellow marble inside. We got to massage the margarine to soften it up, break the colorful marble and distribute it all through. I loved to do it, a privilege. My father had gotten into trouble with the law. As a result, he was given the choice of going to jail or going into the service. He joined the army and served on the Burma run in WWII. He wrote often. Mom had a huge box of his letters.
I also remember we had “coupons” for gas, groceries, shoes. Our mom always worked. We got to, on occasion, ride the street car to town, a real treat. We were so blessed to have such a great mom. All these years later, I realize all the more how valiantly and well she took care of us.

Cleo Freeman, 86, Retired Meatcutter

We did without, never had much, although my dad worked all during the Depression. We lived in Enid, Oklahoma. He was a meatcutter, then had a delivery service, delivering groceries for a chain of stories. I think he got 10 cents for each box of groceries he delivered. I had five brothers and sisters. Mom was a homemaker, canned fruits and vegetables that we raised, and baked bread and sold it. In the winter we lived in town, and in the summers we worked on my uncle’s farm. The six kids all worked, and all the money went to the family – Mother insisted. My uncles raised beef, hogs and chickens, and on weekends would bring meat to us, share meals. That was a treat. Dad helped some of his other brothers who were having a hard time, he’d buy them a 100-pound sack of potatoes or 100-pound sack of flour, each for four or five dollars.
Things were getting worse in Oklahoma so we moved to California, where my mother’s sisters lived. I finished the tenth grade, then went into the CCC, getting paid $30 a month. We dug up currant bushes, which were a blight in Sequoia National Park, used picks and shovels. From there we went to Doheney in Southern California, built the state park there.
The Depression made me what I am today. I’m a fairly frugal person. I’ve never really had a red day. I got married at 24 and always made sure to provide for my family.
The only time I bought anything on credit was in 1943, when I bought a Kaiser car for about $4,500 – bought it on time, just had to have it. I’m telling you what, I never ate so many beans in my life. The payment was about half my paycheck, and I wished I’d never bought it. Sold it for $15 to a guy who just wanted the door handles.
I learned a lesson. I made it a point to never go into debt again.

Marge Garrigan, 95, Retired Homemaker

We lived on Staten Island, New York. Our family didn’t have a garden but people who did shared with others. My father was an electrician and worked all the time. With five children in our family, my mother made lots of soup, went to the butcher for a shin bone and cooked it all day. The grocery man gave us the soft vegetables, brown and withered. We had macaroni and cheese and other dishes, for seven in our family. We used coal oil lamps, no car, father took the bus, and we kids walked to school. Mother bought yard goods at 10 cents a yard for dressmaking, made aprons for herself and the three girls in the family. We repaired our shoes with cardboard. I completed grammar school but had to drop out of high school to go to work. I made $15 each week at the telephone company, and I gave Mom $10 every Saturday for the week’s groceries and clothes. Sometimes my father would give my sister 10 cents for church. We had it changed into nickels, used one for church and went to the movies with the other one.

Brunhilde Overstreet, 70, Retired Homemaker

We had no money between 1938 and 1944. We lived in West Germany near Mannheim, and the war was going on. My father was a soldier. When he went off, we were forced to move into a barn that belonged to my grandmother. I saw bombs fall and destroy people. We had a corner in our yard for protection. We were always running for our lives. My mother took her jewelry to the mountains to sell for money for food. Everything was on the barter system. Old clothes were cut down for kids. I had no new shoes until I was 14 years old. No industry, mainly farming, we had no garden because we couldn’t get seeds. We lived on plants and herbs which were grown wild. We cooked and made tea with mistletoe from oak trees. We used anything for food …
One time, all we had was large-kernel corn, the kind they fed to animals. It smelled awful and took hours to cook, but it was all we had. We lived cold – it was easy to etch flowers in ice on walls and windows. I acquired rheumatism from the cold. In her late 40s my mother went to work in a cigar factory, and I did the cooking. We had potatoes and eggs, over and over … I started working at age 14 to help my mother. She did her best all those years to keep us warm and fed. Here she stood with three little kids and everywhere, hell breaking loose. It was not easy.

Frances Harden, 87, Retired Sonoma County Court Worker

I was born in Berkeley in 1921. My father developed Parkinson’s disease shortly after I was born. He died in 1930, leaving my mother to raise my sister, who was six years older, and me. Among the many things my mother did to make ends meet: sold several different magazine subscriptions to her friends and neighbors, baked several varieties of cakes for sale, and contracted with a baking company (I think it was called Campbells) to sell their delicious nut and raisin loaf bread. But her principal income came from giving piano lessons in our home – she was a gifted pianist herself. She also collected S&H trading stamps. We never owned a car – I walked a mile to school every day. One clear memory is cutting a piece of cardboard to the size of the sole of my shoe to cover a hole. A neighbor gave me clothes that her daughter had outgrown. We had ration books during WWII for some scarce items.

Clifton Baker, 87, Retired From Graphic Arts Printing

I was born in Oregon. My father was a master machinist. When he got a job in California, he loaded us into his Star Touring car and headed south down Highway 99 to Los Angeles – it took about two-and-a half days, and we camped along the way. When the Depression hit and my father lost his job, the family picked every seasonal fruit there was, in the Imperial Valley and places like that throughout Southern California.  There was no welfare – you either worked or you didn’t eat. I was next to the youngest from a family of five children, but we never went to bed hungry. Our holiday dinners were supplied by the Salvation Army. We learned some great lessons. Never run up any big debts and invest your money wisely. Make sure you always have good health insurance.

Kathryn Puterbaugh, 84, Retired Corporate Treasurer

I was born and raised in Denver, Colorado. This is what our family of five typically ate during the 1930s Depression:
•    Breakfast: oatmeal or cream of wheat cereal with milk, and fresh-squeezed orange juice
•    Lunch: took homemade peanut butter sandwich to school with cookie, apple
•    Dinner: Monday through Thursday, leftovers from the weekend soups made from leftovers; on Fridays, fish; on Saturdays, corn bread with syrup and one link sausage; on Sunday, whole-fried-chicken pieces or pot roast.
We had hand-me-down clothes and shoes, and no radio or TV. We played both in- and outdoors with the neighborhood kids – hide-and-seek, jacks, marbles, cards and other games.
When World War II began, I was a teen still living at home and we would visit the “non-coms” at Lowry Field, just chat and visit as part of the USO effort. Later, living on my own, I remember standing in line for food and ration stamps, sharing living quarters due to the housing shortage, sharing rides due to auto and gas shortages – and mending runs in my nylon hose with nail polish.

Halcyon Winter, 81, Retired Medical Illustrator

It was 1929. I was 2 years old, and my father had lost his pictorial sign painting business in Long Beach. We moved into a plain little house beside the two-lane highway through the Mojave Desert, 10 miles west of Barstow. With Mom, Dad, Mom’s mother, and my 6-year-old brother, we were about to experience the Great Depression. We had stepped back in time: wood-burning stove, old ice box, outhouse, the works! We were not farming, more like homesteading. Mom was a city girl but Dad and Grandma (an M.D.) had “been there, done that.” We acquired a milk cow, chickens for eggs and food, some turkeys, even occasionally picking up a few turtles out on the desert. Those I hadn’t named, we ate.
“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without” became the battle cry of the Depression. Something as foreign to young folks nowadays as a man walking on the moon would have been to us back then. We darned and patched, grew vegetables, baked bread, milked the cow, and stretched meat as far as the little icebox would allow. Grandma sewed clothes, made soap, cottage cheese, and a delicious “sous” from pickled pigs’ feet. Later Dad helped drill a well in the back and installed a real indoor toilet! School was the proverbial one room, eight grades variety, with half of our kids being Mojave Indians.
During the 1934-’36 Depression years we went from desert to dunes, quite unexpectedly. Dad bought an old auto court beside the ocean in Pismo Beach … heaven for me! Tragically we had lost my older brother from appendicitis (no penicillin yet) but I now had a baby brother, too young to be any fun. Now came a much bigger garden and a plethora of fresh seafood: fish, of course, clams for the digging, crabs we got by dropping fish nets off the pier in Avila.
We then moved to Los Angeles so Dad could fully return to his trade. With my freshman year in high school came the war and with it the universal rationing of meat, sugar, and gas, saving grease to be used in making ammunition (who has any now?) Victory garden in half the backyard, my weekend job as a nurses’ aide (25 cents an hour), and Mom now bucking rivets on B-17s and later B-19s, at Douglas Aircraft. It was worth it … Seeing everyone pulling so together was a rich and exuberating experience never to be seen again!

Phyllis Morad, 78, Retired Teacher

I was born in 1930 and grew up in Buffalo, New York. I had one sister, and a brother born in 1938. I have a vague memory of my dad, who was a shoe salesman, looking for work for a long time. We lived in one house and had to move in with my Aunt Mary because my dad couldn’t find a job. Then, my aunt couldn’t pay the taxes owed on her house, so she lost it and we had to move.
When I was very young, I remember our icebox was in the hall. The iceman had to come weekly with his big tongs and ice cube. Also, from about 1931 to 1939, the rag man came every so often in a horse and big wooden wagon, yelling ‘Rags!’ My mother and all the women would keep them in a special bag; when he came, he would weigh them and pay for them.
When I was 5 and 6, my dad took the streetcar and the buses to work. We didn’t have a car until 1937 or so because we couldn’t afford it. Lots of our meals were rye bread and soup. My mom sewed. She made my sister and me matching outfits, curtains for the house. One day, I was under 8, my father came home with a brand-new sewing machine, it must have been a gift for an anniversary or birthday. She was in tears and made him take it back, because even though she really wanted it, she knew we couldn’t afford the payments. She would’ve felt guilty because the money would have come from something else.
The Depression lingered for years, really until the war started. We moved into an upstairs flat over a gin mill and that’s where we were when World War II started. I was 11. My dad found work as a salesman and my mother worked full-time in a war plant, General Cable; she was the one bringing home the bulk of the money at that time.
I remember stepping on the tin cans, and the toothpaste tubes, made out of lead, which were saved for the war effort. We had rationing of shoes, sugar and butter, little stamps to get those items. If you needed shoes and didn’t have a stamp … what were you going to do? Everything was for the war effort. Living in the flat, with no room for a victory garden, but I never remembered going without vegetables or food. Mom took care of that.

© 2008, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins December 15, 2008 11:09
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