The Great Depression & Dirty ’30s

May 3, 2013

That’ll Learn You

Tom Poland
May 3, 2013

We were so poor, mama would bleach coffee grounds and serve ’em as grits the next morning. So goes a standing joke down South … Out West, people wisecracked about birds flying backwards so sand wouldn’t get in their eyes during the 1930’s Dust Bowl.

The Great Depression and Dust Bowl were no joking matter though. Misery aplenty existed. A fourth-grade classroom: A teacher worries about a girl in ragged clothes. You look pale. Go home and get something to eat.

Little girl: I can’t. It’s my sister’s turn to eat today.

Too Little Food & Too Much Dust

1930s … In the Oklahoma Panhandle static electricity wreaks havoc on cars’ ignition systems. Motorists trying to drive through black, swirling clouds thick with dust go nowhere. That’s the beautiful-ugly thing about the laws of physics. They’re relentlessly consistent. Swirling dust particles, colliding constantly, get all charged up just as volcanic ash does. Charges accumulated on fences, cars, and windmills—anything metal. The sparks crackled and arced beautifully among barbed wire strands and windmill blades—a blue lacework from Hell. Some windmills spouted fire. Touch a charged-up pump handle and you fall unconscious into ever-thickening dust.

Dust pneumonia ran rampant. Many died—at a snail’s pace—as dirt caked in their alveoli. It wasn’t pretty.

A rundown village in Appalachia: Eleanor Roosevelt is watching a sad little boy stroking his pet rabbit. The boy’s sister looks up at Mrs. Roosevelt. He thinks we ain’t going to eat it, but we are.

I’m too young to remember those dark days, but I’ve heard about them from my Mom and others touched by the Depression. My mother, born in 1928, grew up watching her parents struggle through the ’30s. I see misery in her eyes every time she brings up the Depression: Two classes of society existed then: the haves and the have-nots. Mom knew her place. It hit the poor hardest. Many sank into shame and despair. People didn’t have time for pride. They were hungry.

My Mom’s older sister, Aunt Evelyn, clearly remembers having a delicacy—eggs—but not eating them. We bartered them for things we didn’t have.

What was it like to have an addiction, a craving during the Depression? Mama made her own snuff, said my aunt. She’d get a tobacco leaf, dry it out, and put it in a sack and pound it into a powder. She’d add sugar and dip it.

A patchwork of memories rattles off my aunt’s tongue. We made homemade syrup … we ate organic and didn’t know it … the soles of our cheap shoes would flap and daddy would wire them together … the wire would scratch others if they got too close … in spring daddy would borrow $65 to buy cotton seed and fertilizer. In fall he’d pay back the $65 when the crop came in. What was left was all we had to make it to the next year … I remember mama made a wonderful meal soup with a hambone. Each family member could get a bite or two of meat and she’d mix meal and green onions from the garden—It was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten … We entertained ourselves with seesaws and a flying jenny that we greased with the fleshy side of an old animal skin … We picked cotton and played in piles of cotton … On Saturdays, we’d dig up white dirt (kaolin) and whitewash the fireplaces chimneys and sweep the yards with brush brooms to clean up behind the chickens … Everybody wore dresses made from bolts of cloth provided by the WPA so everybody looked alike. I wore dresses made from flour sacks but they had to be washed a lot to get the numbers and printing out. Some summer nights it’d be so hot we’d sleep on pallets on the grass beneath the stars … Daddy wouldn’t let us throw anything away, but the truth is there was nothing to throw away.

Nothing to throw away … How the times have changed. We live in a throwaway society, but back then a scrap of most anything was prized. People throw away things today Depression-era sufferers would consider treasure. My Granddad Poland had a saying, Keep something seven years, and you’ll find another use for it. That philosophy trickled down to my Dad who kept things ranging from heaps of tangled metal, broken equipment, and lumber scraps to PVC pipe. Someday, he’d need it.

The Great Depression, this country’s worst economic crisis, drilled unforgettable lessons into several generations. One Georgia woman, a child of the era, remembers how her family made a stepladder into a Christmas tree. They wrapped tissue paper around the ladder and placed candles upon the steps. They could only light them now and then or they’d burn up before Christmas day. She has no memory of any toys come Christmas, just homemade gloves and scarves. Things that helped them weather the winter.

Most everything was in short supply. People had no money to buy dishes so companies gave away depression glass. One thing, however, existed in abundance. Heartbreak. Said one man, My daddy was the strongest man I know, but the Depression brought him to his knees.

People who endured the Depression took on new attitudes. One attitude was forget being rich. Save. My Granddad Walker told me something I never forgot. It doesn’t matter how much money you make, he said, what matters is how much you keep.

Yes, what you managed to hang on to mattered, but it was near impossible. Down here in cotton country, the boll weevil’s devastation greased the way for the Great Depression. Many farmers abandoned their land. Banks took it, that is the banks that hadn’t failed.

People did, indeed, go hungry. It’s not some made-up admonition designed to strike fear or some parable about pity. People starved. It was bad enough to make one dredge up Scarlett O’Hara’s lines. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.

During the Depression, Mom said a biscuit was a banquet come Sundays. Everybody was in the same boat, a boat called Abject Poverty. Some good came from the misery though.

My aunt remembers how people stuck together … We shared a good garden with those whose garden failed. Daddy would kill a beef every year. He’d put it in a wagon and take it to the neighbors and share part of it. Neighbors would do the same thing. When they killed a beef they did the same thing. So everyone had some beef that way.

Beef, a miracle in a time known as the Dirty 30s. While people in the South suffered mightily, people in the prairie lands suffered even more. Severe drought along with decades of destructive farming methods ushered in the Dust Bowl.

During the drought of the 1930s, soil had no grass. With no roots to cling to, dirt turned to dust and blew eastward and southward in monstrous dark clouds. Black Blizzards and Black Rollers turned day to night, a day so dark chickens roosted. Touch a farm implement charged up by dust? Well you’d learn a lesson.

The media, then as now, covered tragedies such as Dust Bowls and the Depression. And one truly extraordinary effort resulted. In the summer of 1936, James Agee, a writer, and Walker Evans, a photographer, set out on assignment for Fortune magazine. Their mission was to document the lives of Southern sharecroppers. They lived with three families in Alabama where people were suffering mightily. A haunting book, an American classic, arose from dust and poverty: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I own the book and it’s among the books I prize. The title comes from a passage in Ecclesiasticus: Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.

What Evans and Agee accomplished stands as an undisputed masterpiece of the 20th Century. It paints an unforgettable portrait of human dignity and the American soul under grueling conditions. You’ll not forget Evans’ images of gaunt faces, mistrusting eyes, and families huddled in bare shacks in the Depression-era Deep South. Agee’s combination of reporting with literary passages etches indelible ruts across the soul of anyone with a trace of compassion. He gave us a poetic look at poverty and revealed a segment of America invisible to most, an America in dire straits.

It wasn’t easy. Agee and Evans were to spend eight weeks working and living among three white sharecropping families deeply mired in desperate poverty. They were unwelcome intruders. (Would you want a writer and a photographer living with you in your worst time ever?) The three families did not want these better-dressed, well-fed strangers among their midst.

Agee and Evans respectful of these plain folk and finding them noble even nonetheless made themselves a home among them. They slept, ate, and shared days and nights with them. When their work was done, everything ended. They told one family, the Tengles, it was time to leave for good.

Elizabeth Tengle recalls that moment. They said they was leaving and wouldn’t be back, and mama’s children cried. Every one of us cried. They were so good to us, you know. They told us not to cry. And Ruth told them, she said, Yore going to leave and ain’t never gonna come back?

Soft Times Make For Soft Folks 

We owe the departed souls of the Depression and Dust Bowl belated respect. They received no bailouts. They simply picked up and survived, true pioneers in the American spirit. What would the ghosts of Depression-era folks think of us today? On every other corner they see a fast-food restaurant. They see soft, pudgy people so overweight they struggle to get out of their cars. They see people wearing a dazzling array of clothes holding strange contraptions to their ears talking to themselves. They see kids wearing baggy pants with enough fabric for a family. They see teenagers who should be sweeping yards and gathering crops parade around as if they’re rock stars. I hear stories about teens who pitch tantrums and literally wreck homes because they didn’t get a new car for their birthday. What might these phantoms think of us? I think I know; I bet you do too.

As surely as fire tempers steel, hard times forge character. Life hammered a realistic outlook into the psyche of the people who came out of the Depression and Dust Bowl. They clung to what worked and they passed their proven beliefs and knowledge on. Survivors’ children cling to those virtues today. Among them walks my mother. They’re not about self-indulgence and immediate gratification. And that’s a lesson we all could use.

Perhaps eyes caked with dust would help us to better see, and a jolt of electricity from that new car door? Well as my Granddad used to say, That’ll learn you.

Tom Poland is the author of six books and more than 700 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. The University of South Carolina Press just released his book on how the blues became the shag, Save The Last Dance For Me. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture.

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