The way it was

Published 10:39 am Friday, January 30, 2009

There really was a Great Depression, but it wasn’t so great for Americans who lived through it.

“I lived through it on a farm in South Dakota,” Loretta Nelson said. “It was so dry and the wind blew all the time.

“In fact, the wind blew my father’s crops away and he lost his farm,” Nelson said.

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Richard E. Hall, Austin historian, put his thoughts about the Great Depression on paper in his 1991 book “Child of the Great Depression” (available at Austin Public Library).

Hall’s memories of the Great Depression differ from Nelson’s.

“As a child of the Great Depression,” Hall wrote, “I was footloose and fancy-free.

“They called it the ‘Great Crash’ when the market broke Oct. 24, 1929,” he said.

“I cherish my childhood memories both good and bad,” Hall recalled. “And I never thought of myself as being unfortunate. I have, however, come to the conclusion I was very lucky.”

It may sound strange to hear the word “lucky” to be spoken by one who lived through those harrowing times.

One wonders what those who live through today’s Depression will remember about modern times?

In a nation of such affluence, it is hard to imagine what it was like being poor, during the Great Depression.

Today, being poor by current standards is not the same. Losing a job means severance packages from employers, unemployment checks, food stamps and food shelves, job retraining programs, sound bytes on television news and more.

“I lived through it,” Nelson said once again. “But I wonder what today’s children and teenagers know about that time in our history.

“I think it’s something the younger generation should know what it was really like,” she said.

Memories, history

Baby boomers — those people born during the post-World War II baby boom — didn’t live it, but heard stories from their parents who did and constant reminders to “Clean up your plate; we didn’t have that much to eat when we were young,” or “You don’t need a new pair of pants. Patch up the old ones.”

Baby boomers’ children and grandchildren— today’s Net Generation, Millenials, Generation Y — think of the Great Depression as something they studied in American History classes or saw as a grainy white movie. Perhaps, John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Some say John Steinbeck’s classic book was better than the movie, but the movie showed images words could not.

Henry Fonda’s portrayal of Tom Joad gave a face to the Great Depression when it was released in 1940.

Supporting actor John Qualen gave the Dust Bowl Era words to remember.

When his character, Muley Graves, said, “There ain’t nobody gonna push me of my land! My grandpa took up this land 70 years ago, my pa was born here, we were all born on it. And some of us was killed on it! … and some of us died on it. That’s what make it our’n, bein’ born on it … and workin’ on it … and dying’ on it! And not no piece of paper with the writin’ on it!”

But lose their land they did just as Nelson’s South Dakota family lost their farm.

The stock market crashed, banks failed, farmers couldn’t pay mortgages and people suffered like no other time before or after.

The story of how a poor Midwest farmer, Fonda’s Tom Joad, and his family were forced off their farm and move to California in search of a new beginning and suffer so many misfortunes along the way is a reminder people like Nelson don’t need hearing again.

“I was really so young. Just a child back then. I really didn’t know what any of it meant,” she said.

Simplest acts become difficult

The Great Depression was a worldwide economic downturn starting in most places in 1929 and ending at different times in the 1930s or early 1940s for different countries.

According to the Internet’s Wikipedia, it was the largest and most important economic depression in modern history, and is used in the 21st century as an example of how far the world’s economy can fall.

The Great Depression originated in the United States; historians most often use as a starting date the stock market crash on October 29, 1929, known as Black Tuesday.

The end of the depression in the U.S is associated with the onset of the war economy of World War II, beginning around 1939.

The depression had devastating effects in virtually every country, rich or poor. International trade plunged by half to two-thirds, as did personal income, tax revenue, prices and profits. Cities all around the world were hit hard. Rural America, too.

Compounding problems for Americans living in the Upper Midwest was the rolling walls of black dirt from North and South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa farms that collided with a yellowish-brown haze pushing across the southern Plains state.

Neighbors watched helplessly as families left the rural landscape.

“It didn’t just happen to us,” Nelson said. “I happened to everybody around us.”

Historian Carl Nelson (no relation to Loretta Nelson) wrote of the 8-year-long Dust Bowl Era, “The simplest act of life — breathing, eating a meal, taking a walk — were no longer simple.”

“Children wore dust masks, to and from school, women hung wet sheets over windows in a futile attempt to stop the dirt. Farmers watched helplessly as their crops blew away,” Nelson wrote.

There were few silver linings in the Dust Bowl clouds over America’s heartland and survivors enjoyed what few there were.

“We were lucky in some respects, because we always had plenty to eat, but a lot of people were not so lucky,” the Austin woman recalled. “When we moved to Austin in 1941 things were a lot better than they were on the farm in South Dakota.”

Eventually, the dust subsided. Farmers returned to farm the land. Crops grew.

In cities, heavy industry brought workers back to their jobs.

It may have been, in part, World War II’s impact, but whatever the reason, America recovered.

Now, a recession threatens to create a new Depression as the economy weakens.

Plants are closing, jobs are lost. Farm prices decline.

It’s not a pretty sight, but far from the ugliness that was the Great Depression.

Before getting lost in today’s trials and travails, looking back may prevent some people from repeating mistakes.

And how to appreciate what one has in life could be re-learned.

“I really believe today’s youth should study the Great Depression,” said Nelson, the child of the Dusty Bowl Era. “They should know the way it was.”