Coming to the ‘end of the road’

Published 11:36 am Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Marie White died Feb. 6 at the age of 99, but memories of a very difficult life during the Great Depression didn’t die with her.

She wrote a story about her life during the Great Depression for her granddaughter, Marjorie Stoffer.

Years later, Stoffer gave it to her parents, the Whites.

Email newsletter signup

The great Wall Street stock market crash occurred 80 years ago and memories of what happened then are fading with the aging of the generation who survived it.

“She just enjoyed writing,” said the Depression survivor’s son, Gene. “She wrote letters all the time and for several years she wrote Christmas stories that she would read when the family gathered. They were made up, but we all enjoyed them.”

The accidental Great Depression historian was born on a farm near Kelsey, Iowa, in Butler County. She only had a country school education through the eighth grade.

In life, she was a homemaker for her husband, Delbert, and their children, sons, Gene and Ronald.

In death, she became a chronicler of the Great Depression.

“When she and my dad moved to Austin, she lived in the same house from the time she was 38 years old to when she reached 97,” Gene said. “She never worked outside the home. She was just a housewife and a homemaker who liked to read and then write.”

White is holding the seven-page composition his mother wrote for a granddaughter. It shows cursive handwriting, obviously that of a woman, but not overly feminine.

She crossed her t’s and dotted her i’s. Long sentences, longer paragraphs.

The sheets of paper filled from left margin to right, top to bottom.

Some words were underlined for emphasis, a few cross-outs and some obviously extra-important details penned atop the first page.

No title, no greeting, no salutation.

Just her thoughts on paper about the Great Depression.

Remember when?

Starting in 1929 and ending in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Great Depression changed every American’s life.

Those whom were unaffected observers shared guilt. Those whom were its victims shared pain.

Today, when Americans talk about a “recession that could become another Great Depression,” they are far removed from the sacrifices made by the “Greatest Generation,” when the nation’s economy collapsed.

No unemployment checks, no food stamps, no food shelves, no bailout.

No stimulus package until President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration created the Works Progress Administration. Just subsistence living on what a family could do for themselves.

Do the Great Depression math: 13 million unemployed; industrial production fell 45 percent; home-building dropped 80 percent; 5,000 banks failed.

In Cleveland, Ohio, the unemployment rate was 60 percent. In Toledo, Ohio, it was 80 percent.

Against that demographic backdrop, consider this: White, born in 1910, was a housewife raising her two sons while her husband was away at work. They lived on the prairie.

Doing without was a simple fact of life.

Here are some of White’s memories:

“As I remember, times were getting bad in 1928,” she wrote in understatement.

“Farm prices went down and hardships were beginning. 1930 and 1931 were really bad.”

On Jan. 20, 1931, she married Delbert White. At the time, her husband was working as a farmhand for $35 a month.

When the couple had their first baby, she remembered: “That was more expense.”

The joy was missing.

Her husband was injured in a farm accident in 1932, which only added to the family’s misery.

“We had no money and had to move into an old farmhouse. There was no heat, and the baby got so weak and sick,” she said.

The child eventually died, but the couple had no money for a funeral and had to borrow for a casket.

She wrote that the casket was delivered to an Iowa cemetery in the trunk of a friend’s car and buried in an unmarked grave.

The Great Depression raged.

Farm prices included 8 cents a dozen for eggs.

“We couldn’t pay cash rent for the farm,” she recalled. “Sold our chickens for flour, sugar and soap.

“Canned vegetables, baked a cake out of corn meal with no eggs or milk.”

The Great Depression continued to drag into 1933 and they moved again. Their possessions at the time: “One lamp, four chairs and a table.”

They rented another farm house and Delbert worked as a farmhand for 50 cents a day.

They borrowed $25 to buy an old car and Delbert built a trailer to haul their meager possessions to a new home and hopefully, a new opportunity, in Minnesota.

It didn’t work out and later in 1933 they moved back to Butler County, Iowa.

The Depression Era ‘stimulus package’

This time, it paid off. Delbert got a job with the Works Progress Administration — President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s own “economic stimulus package” in the Great Depression.

He worked in a rock quarry, crushing rocks for road projects.

The couple returned to Minnesota when a friend of Delbert’s told him there were good jobs at the Geo. A. Hormel and Co. meatpacking plant.

They remained in Austin until they died.

According to Gene and Jeanne White, the most compelling part of the account is Marie’s telling of the circumstances when she lost her first baby, Charles Edward.

But the son and daughter-in-law developed a new appreciation for the woman’s tenacity after reading the Great Depression journal.

“She kept a journal and wrote in it every day of her life is what I remember. She was always writing, but this was something special,” Jeanne said.

And then four weeks ago she died, but again her words remained alive.

Marie White’s penchant for writing surfaced after her death, when Jeanne White was going through her things and discovered a poem she authored.

It was titled: “The End of the Road:”

“When I come to the end of the road, I will be so weary and tired.

I hope there will be a shade tree, and bench I can sit down on and rest.

When I come to the end of the road, I hope when I sit on the bench I will see blue sky and flowers and birds chirping about.

And the sweetest music I ever heard.

I will be so peaceful and I won’t hurt anymore.

When I come to the end of the road,

but for now I will just truck along.

And enjoy life as I can before I get to the end of the road.”