"I Remember . . ." - Reminiscences of the Great Depression
"I remember . . ."
(Reminiscences of the Great Depression)
Everyone has a story to tell about the past.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, some Michiganians bartered and traded for
food, clothes, shelter and services. Sharing and "making do" became a way of
life. People who lived during the Depression have interesting stories to share about how
they coped with hard times.
The following reminiscences were published in Michigan History Magazine,
January-February, 1982 (Vol. 66, No. 1). The last reminiscence is from an oral history of
Marie Beyne Gillis Tubbs Remembers Her Father's Music
The business of my father (Theodore J. Beyne) was at a standstill. Since his hobby
was playing the violin in the newly formed Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra, he had time to
search within himself for things to do. He began to compose beautiful musicthree
symphonies, quartettes, violin, piano and cello concertos and other piano music.
My first memory of hearing his music played was at the beginning of the Depression at
the band shell at the city's John Ball Park. His orchestral arrangement of Hoagy
Carmichael's "Star Dust" was performed by the WPA orchestra, which had been
formed to provide employment for out-of-work musicians. How clearly I remember, out of the
depths of dark feelings springing from closed banks and no work, the wonderful sensation
that comes from something more than "bread alone." And I remember his pleased
reaction (he was overwhelmed) at the audience's appreciation shown with lots of applause.
"Depression go hang for the moment."
Phyllis Bryant Remembers Her Christmas Doll Bed
In 1929 I was six years old, but I remember quite a few things from that era,
especially growing up and never having too much.
What sticks mostly in my mind was losing my money in the bank. I didn't quite
understand why that bank had to close and take my money, which probably was only a few
dollars. When they started paying off a few years later, my check was eleven cents. It
helped when my brother gave me his, which was eighteen cents, and my older sister's, which
was twenty-three cents. I was really in the money then.
Beans were a common meal and were often given to us by a farmer friend. What helped
them along was the hot homemade bread. We usually had lots of homemade cookies and cakes,
too. But it was kind of great, going to family reunions and eating their "store
bought" cookies and bread. My mother would cook for hours and hours on a little
wood-burning laundry stove. Summers, a three-burner kerosene stove was used. I recall
going to the gas station for ten cents worth of kerosene and can still smell the stink of
My dad was a carpenter and farmer and did lots of things to keep us going. We lived in
the small village of Imlay City, close to a family that owned a cow. My dad milked her
twice a day, fed her and cleaned the stall. In return we got two quarts of milk a day.
With all the canning my mother did from our garden, our weekly grocery bill wasn't that
big. We only bought the bare necessities....
Christmas was an exciting time, but there were never too many gifts. I got a doll bed
one year with a doll and aluminum dishes. It was the best Christmas I remember. (A couple
of years later it dawned on me that my dad had made the bed.) We always had homemade candy
and popcorn balls. The lights on the tree were very difficult. If one burned out, the
whole string would go out. So there you were with a good bulb trying all the sockets until
you found the burned-out one. When there was no money to buy extra bulbs, all you had to
do was break the bulb, twist the wires and screw the bulb back in the socket, being very
careful if you didn't get all the glass off....
I was in high school in 1937 when the first strike in Flint occurred. I thought that
was so terriblemen with good jobs, steady employment and making good money putting their
families through that.
Carmen Carter Remembers Turkey Farming
In 1929 Orlo and I had been married two years and had a year old son, Douglas. We
were just nicely getting started in the turkey raising business on his parents' farm near
Bridgeton. We had about a thousand young turkeys that spring and we bought feed on credit
during the growing season and paid for it when we sold the turkeys at Thanksgiving time.
But that year was different. The newspapers were full of news about bank closing,
businesses failing, and people out of work. There was just no money and we could not sell
the turkeys. So we were in debt with no way out.
But when we read about the bread lines and soup kitchens in the cities, we felt we were
lucky because we raised our own food. Our house was rent free, just keep it in repair. Our
fuel, which was wood, was free for the cutting. Then our second child, Iris, was born and
our biggest expense was doctor bills. However, this too was solved when our doctor agreed
to take turkeys and garden produce for pay.
About that time my husband and a friend started operating a crate and box factory near
Maple Island. After expenses they were each making about a dollar a day. Food was cheap.
Coffee was 19 cents a pound, butter 20 cents, bacon the same, with a five pound bag of
sugar or flour about 25 cents.
Gasoline was five gallons for a dollar so for recreation we would get into our 1926
Overland Whippet and go for long rides. We also had an Atwater Kent radio we could listen
to when we could buy batteries for it.
I had always liked to write poetry so I decided to submit some to
Grit, a weekly
newspaper. I was delighted when they accepted them and paid me $2 each for them. That
money bought a large bag of groceries at that time. I continued to write for
for several years.
Orlo finally got a job as a mechanic at a garage in Grant. He earned $15 a week and for
us the Depression was over. But it taught us to really appreciate what we had.
Richard Waskin: An Oral History
Richard Waskin talks about life during the Great Depression. His parents were born in
Poland. He was born in East Chicago, Indiana. When he was three years old he went back to
Poland with his parents. They returned to this country when he was four years old. They
came to the Detroit area where he spent most of his life.
Mostly I remember if it hadn't been for my mother who was an excellent seamstress,
and she seemed to find jobs here and there with the department stores, I don't know how we
would have made it, because my father was a common laborer, a factory worker, and there
just wasn't [sic] any jobs at that time.
Sometimes during the winter...when the snow fell in Detroit they called for people that
they wanted to shovel the snow, and of course everybody didn't get hiredyou just had to
go out there and the foreman or whoever would be throwing the shovel and if you happened
to catch it you're hired. And so my father would go out there and on occasion he would be
hired and earn a couple of dollars or so for the day's work there. Otherwise it was kind
of catch or catch can there....
Well, there's one thing that happened with me and perhaps I was fortunate that Detroit
had, possibly, a welfare system. Well I know they did, 'cause we had it. One of the things
was that I came down with a mastoid which was a very serious thing at that time. It's very
rare now because of antibiotics. But my whole side of my head was swollen and they called
what they called "a city physician." And at that time doctors made house calls.
So he came out and took one look at my head and he called the ambulance immediately and
they took me to Children's Hospital cause I was only 11 years old. And they operated on me
that night and I must assume that that saved my life at that time. So that was one of
things I had to go through.
But another thing as a child that I remember was that you stood in the welfare line
somewhere on Michigan AvenueI don't remember just exactly whereand they were passing
out sweaters for children and we were fortunate enough to get me a grey sweater, and I can
remember how proud I was of having that sweater and how warm I felt with that thing on.
Shoes, of course, were a problem and many times I remember I wore out the soles down to
the pavement, so to speak, and you had to put cardboard in there. But then my father he
got hold of some shoe forms--metal ones--and he would buy leather. He would cut out the
sole--with nails and a hammer on these shoe forms --he would put new leather on my shoes
and probably on my brothers' also....
I went to college, Wayne University, and because I was a champion runnerI happened
to be the quarter mile champion. No, excuse me, this was in college. In high school I was
west side champ in the city and so more or less recruited by Waynethey had a pretty good
track team them. And they had what they called the NYA, National Youth Administration.
This was kind of a Depression department, you might say, and if you did some work for the
university they would pay you enough so that you could pay your tuition and get through
school that way.
So, being a champion runner I had no trouble getting on NYA and the coach then put me
in the athletic office putting in figures for whatever was expenditures, maybe an hour's
work a day or so. I pretty much got through college on my own. But that was when I became
Michigan university champion in the 440, and I remember it was right here in East Lansing
at Michigan State that they had the meet, and I think I have the photograph of me then and
I do remember I was only 17 years old and they made a big point of it over the PA system.
Contact the Michigan Historical Museum.