Those who lived through the Great Depression tell their stories

A state agency in Ohio asked older residents for their reminiscences, which range from tart to touching. Many include lessons for today.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Louis Mamula, a former steelworker, chose the US Marine Corps as a way out of poverty. The framed portrait is of him and his wife.
Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
'People worship money now, you gotta have two TVs, gotta have four cars in the driveway, and if they haven't got that, they think they are going through hard times.' -Leon White

Joy Thomas remembers a lot about the Great Depression -- about the day people came to repossess everything in the house: her old crib, the table, the drapes on the wall; about the old wash lady and her family -- 12 kids -- who lived shirtless and hollow-eyed in a tent pitched in secret out in the woods; about swimming in a pool she dug out back, giggling as she splashed in the lake of mud.

So when Ms. Thomas, now 80, answered a call to write about what it was like to live through those times, and offer some advice to Ohioans hammered by the current recession, she thought people who read her essay could use some lyricism: “I sing of the Great Depression: ‘You made me what I am today...’ and, I [laugh] while the tear drops fall.”

“I wanted to give people a laugh,” she says, eyes bright. “I felt I had to have a more humorous look at adversity, because it can be so crushing.”

At the beginning of March, the Ohio Department of Aging, a state agency that facilitates programs for older residents, sent out a call for stories from Depression survivors. The idea was to glean advice on weathering tough economic times from a group that had survived far worse, says John Ratliff, the department’s manager of public information. He says they didn’t know what to expect when they sent the press release to local media.

More than 250 people responded with 500-word recollections by the mid-April deadline.

“We wanted to try to tap into this shrinking older generation and their memories ... and tap into their knowledge and experiences to see if there are lessons we can use today, or coping mechanisms,” he says.

The teaching took on different forms.

Some reported as though by ticker tape: “We canned our vegetables, fruit and meat. Slaughtered our chickens, hogs and goats. Made our own sausage primarily in the winter. We had no money and we had kerosene lamps. Our clothing was used hand-me-downs. My brother had no pants. He had to quit high school an honors student,” writes Helen DeGifis of Warren.

Others lectured. “One evening when we went down to check on the bank, there were hundreds of people out front yelling and crying and fighting and beating on the locked doors and windows. They had fires built in the street to keep warm and there were people milling around all over the downtown. Anybody that thinks what we are going through now is a depression don’t have a clue of what a real depression is,” notes Vane Scott of Newcomerstown.

In some cases, the children of Depression-era parents wrote in with filtered memories of stories used to put them in their place: “My dad, Thomas J. Comes, died last year at the age of 80, and he always used to tell me that during the Depression, his family raised pigeons in their backyard to supplement the food they did have. And when the time came, he would say he would go out and break the pigeons’ necks, so they could eat them. He said they tasted pretty good,” writes Marty Comes.

For Louis Mamula, a slim, former steelworker, those years bring memories of the Marines, which he joined as a path out of poverty.

“People were complaining. Holy smokes, I was having a ball. I got clothes, I got shoes, people were cooking for me ... except that people were trying to kill me, but I understand that.” It was, after all, World War II. To him, surviving economic meltdown meant breaking down life into moments. Focusing on the smaller picture, he says, was the only way to step away from heartbreak.

He’s a man who stopped for a hamburger at McDonald’s on the way to his fifth heart surgery, whose prized possession is a collage of pictures that showcase the costumes he’s worn over his years of post-steel-mill work as a volunteer crossing guard -- Abraham Lincoln, a leprechaun, the Easter Bunny.

He lost jobs continually during the Depression and once sold expensive Bibles door to door to make ends meet. But his customers really couldn’t afford the hefty Bible prices, so he quit: “My conscience got ahold of me.”

He wrote to the Ohio Department of Aging because he hopes there is some value in preserved history. He once compiled an autobiography, “Vagabond Memories,” to give to his children. As for advice on enduring hard times, he says, to each his own.

“My brother Melvin had the attitude [after the Depression]: ‘I’ll show them,’ ” Mr. Mamula says. He admires his brother, and thinks his choices made him happy. “He became an advertising executive and a professor at a university because that drove him, that ‘I’ll show them.’ ”

Mamula took the opposite tack. The Depression “killed, truthfully, my ambition. It was enough to enjoy the day.” He worked and lived and fell in love with someone else, briefly, not long after he was married, but he told his wife about it. His father was an alcoholic and his mother abandoned them, but he’s over that now. “I love life. I’d live it over again. I don’t care how it was.”

Some who contributed aren’t quite so sanguine. Leon White, a former pilot who once saw a plane soaring over his family’s farm and knew he could never look back -- “you couldn’t fly that farm” -- isn’t sure the lessons of the past will actually sink in.

“People worship money now,” Mr. White says. “You gotta have two TVs, gotta have four cars in the driveway, and if they haven’t got that, they think they are going through hard times.”

Mr. Ratliff of the Ohio Department of Aging says he’s been surprised by a few things. First, the large number of 80- and 90-year-olds who sent their stories via e-mail. Second, how children growing up during the Depression seem not to have been affected by it all. They just lived.

“Today’s children get too much information,” Ratliff says. “We share a lot more with our children today. Maybe that’s good, maybe that’s bad.”

Compiling the collective wisdom of hundreds of Ohio survivors has been an exercise in tragedy and joy, Ratliff says. His co-workers cry sometimes. “In a lot of the stories, people were not as affected because they were mainly self-sufficient anyway. There wasn’t a supermarket on every corner,” he says.

Some of the Depression-era do-it-yourself attitude has rubbed off on him. He’s making a change, growing vegetables in a patch of land next to his house in Chillicothe. “For the first time in my life, I’m planting a garden.”

Ratliff says the staff is still overwhelmed by the response, and hasn’t quite figured out what to do with all of the stories. Most are going to be released on the agency’s website and in newsletters, but a tight budget means publication is still a ways off.

Thomas, for her part, never gave much thought to who would eventually read her comic tale of blissful frugality and homemade underwear sewn from flour sacks. Sitting in her dining room, surrounded by the treasures of a lifetime of antiques dealing -- old metal cookie-cutters shaped like animals and sets of well-worn crockery -- she says the truth of life has been much more complicated.

There have been tragedies piled up on joys: a 50-year-long marriage still going strong, and the unexpected death of a daughter. She’s worried that people today are too concerned with “the quick fix.”

“If the public gets a chance to read this, it might give people a different perspective on how we dealt with things back then and might give them some courage to handle things with a lot of strength today,” she says.

Mamula agrees: “When you read something, how am I going to tell you what you’re going to get out of it? I don’t know, but I hope you get something.”

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