Memories of the Depression

Wednesday, October 8, 2008 | 6:49 p.m. CDT; updated 1:28 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 9, 2008
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Columbia residents share their stories of memories from the Great Depression.

COLUMBIA — For Glenn Geiger, 84, the specter of an economic depression brings back an image of his mother trying to start a fire in an old wood-burning stove.


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“She was gonna throw some trash in it; we’d burn everything to keep warm. But she had a ten-dollar bill in one hand and the trash," Geiger recalled. "She lifted the lid off the stove and threw the ten-dollar bill into the stove instead of the trash, and she cried all day. Ten dollars was probably like $200 today.”

In a faltering economy, older Columbians are remembering the years of struggle during the Great Depression that followed the 1929 stock market crash. Memories of making do — or doing without — offer a perspective on surviving hard times.

"In 1929, when all of a sudden the stock market went to pot," Gerald Mede, 92, said, "... those wealthy people, in paper, didn't have anything. Stock was worthless."

Mede, who was 14 at the time, recalls reading in the paper about people diving out of high-story windows. His mother told him she saw a man dressed in a suit and tie, sitting on the sidewalk, selling apples for a nickel in order to buy food. "So it was rough," Mede said. "The worst thing was, there was no improvement. It stayed that way."

In the 1930s, there was no talk of a $700 billion bailout. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs such as the Works Progress Administration provided public works jobs to the unemployed, and the National Youth Administration helped people such as Bob Kvam and Parker Rossman pay for college. The $10 a month Rossman, 90, received from the program paid for all of his meals at the University of Oklahoma. He worked at a co-op to pay for his room.

Kvam, 87, said that after his father lost his job, the family wondered how they were going to make the house payments. “The government helped on that, the HOLC  (Home Owners' Loan Corp.), so we didn’t lose our house. But it’s a wonder we didn’t.”

Donna Houston's family lived on a rented farm. When the farmer who owned the land sold his livestock, her family was suddenly without a home. Her father built a trailer house for them.

The Dust Bowl made life for a Great Plains farmer particularly difficult. Donna Houston's husband, William, 76, stayed with his family on their rural Kansas farm until the creek ran dry, then they moved to the nearest town, Council Grove.

Rossman said the town doctor moved his family into his office because patients could not afford to pay him. The doctor hung up a curtain in his office to divide his home from workplace, Rossman recalled, and continued to treat patients on one side while his family lived on the other.

Communities also offered their own relief programs during the Great Depression. Donna Houston, 75, recalled that her town developed a bartering system in which people traded what they had for what they needed.

Rossman, who grew up in Holdenville, Okla., said church leaders and the chamber of commerce teamed up, asking everyone to pay for purchases with one-dollar checks regardless of whether they could pay in cash. The checks could be cashed after 10 uses. In that way, business remained strong because the town, in essence, established its own currency — a one-dollar check equaled one dollar.

Rossman said his church offered two meals a day. It passed out meal tickets in secret to families who could not afford to eat otherwise. Jim Craigmile, 84, said his childhood home of Tarkio, in northwest Missouri, set up an organization that collected used clothing to distribute to destitute families.

Geiger’s family was on the receiving end of a similar program. “I remember a lady gave my mother a sweater that had her initials on the front,” he said. “Everyone knew who CW was, and I had to wear this sweater. That was upsetting to me as a little boy. I learned to love the sweater because it was very warm.”

Neighbors looked out for each other even in the worst weather conditions.  “We ran out of coal. ... We sort of had a blizzard, a heavy snow storm,” Geiger said. “… The word got around town and two men walked about a mile with a big burlap sack, probably a couple bushels of coal on their shoulders and brought us coal.”

Families made their own accommodations in the hard times. Many planted vegetable gardens. Betty Cameron, 87, recalled a year when her family primarily grew green beans. “And, of course, Mom canned everything,” Cameron said. Although there was a time when she could not stand them, she considers the vegetables her favorite now. “But I don’t want them straight out of the can,” she said, laughing.

"I had a friend that said he never wanted to taste or look at a cabbage because that's all his father could grow," Geiger said. "He grew cabbage all summer. They had sauerkraut all winter and cabbage soup. And you did have those experiences, but it was what was available."

Financial limitations meant prioritizing. Harsh Brown, 84, learned from his family that you have to decide, in the tough times, what is essential. “Learn to clarify values, what’s important in life,” said Brown. “Keep your head, use common sense: what you need, what you don’t, what you want. Meet the needs of your families.”

Many who lived during the Great Depression believe it won't ever be that bad again.

“We probably will never again experience the kind of broad-based hardship we experienced during the Great Depression,” said Craigmile, a former MU professor in educational psychology. “We've got more safety guards in place today than we ever had during the Great Depression.” In particular, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. helps protect people's investments.

For the current situation, Kvam, a retired MU accounting professor , is optimistic. “I think it’s beyond politics now, and I think it’s going to work out all right.”

Missourian reporters Cory Stottlemyer, Morven McCulloch, Patricia de Bidegain and Samantha Clemens contributed to this article.

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