Those who remember the Depression fear its return

Lexington Herald-LeaderSeptember 29, 2008 

The worldwide economic depression that began on Oct. 29,1929, is still everywhere if we'd look. Our infrastructure got built, our population shifted forever, our national character was forged.

But for some reason, the lessons have been lost.

Geneva Spickard draws a long line to represent a bunch of celery and divides it into thirds. She laments that her daughter only uses the middle third.

"You can put the the leafy part into your salads and the stem into your soups. This is such a wasteful generation."

The nation's lawmakers on Monday rejected a $700 billion bailout that the Bush administration argued was needed to save the economy from ruin. Ruin is not a relative term.

For those who lived it, the Great Depression has been seared into them like a scar or worn like a talisman they can touch any time they want.

We visited a few who lived it. They remembered.

At the depths of the Depression, over one-quarter of the American workforce was out of work.

A certain teenage boy faction of Geneva Spickard's family were, she says, "natural born thieves." They were the ones who took clothes off the line, cooling pies out of windows and, once, a whole box of rock candy off a loading dock.

The loading dock was just off Rat Road near Sistruck's storage house, near where Rupp Arena is now. It was the '30s and Wallace, Willoughby and Walter, the natural born thieves, meant no real harm.

As for herself, Geneva Spickard would "bum but never steal," regularly going to Sistruck's to find the discarded kale and cabbage leaves that her family used to make a vegetable soup. Sometimes rotted apples could be salvaged. "A half an apple is better than none."

She would regularly walk to the dump to find discarded office paper to use in school.

Her family, who lived on Chair Avenue, was evicted when she was perhaps 2, and her father sent his small family to his wife's parents' home in the mountains for a few months because they could better feed his children.

She cannot recall her mother ever crying during those hard times. Neither can she remember her mother ever kissing her. That was Daddy's job.

"But she kept the wheels grinding."

The family never went hungry. They never had dirty clothes.

As part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, $35 million was distributed in surplus food and money to Kentuckians.

— Kentucky Encyclopedia

Virginia Garland lived the Depression known to her friends as "Black Virginia." That was because she had only two or three changes of clothes and she tended to favor the black skirt the most.

Tall and lanky before her time, she made do with hand-me-down shoes that were too small, which she thinks explains why, at 70, her toes are crooked and bent back.

So thankful was she for the angels of the Salvation Army that she joined their ranks at 10 and has worked with them since. In the early days, she sometimes rang bells for 14 hours at a time, making a small percentage of whatever was given.

It was President Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration that saved the family, she says. The WPA paid in ration coupons.

That gave her a new pair of shoes a year.

The Works Progress Administration created jobs for thousands of Kentuckians, spent $162 million in the state, and left a legacy that included 14,000 miles of improved highways, 9,000 public buildings, and libraries.

— Kentucky Encyclopedia

Just across the Hudson River, they were jumping off the roofs of those really tall buildings in New York, says Jean Hartanowicz, who was 12 in 1929. Everybody was talking about it, she remembers.

Jean was a student at a Catholic grammar school but soon enough saw the food lines and the hobos. But she was never afraid of them. It was not, she emphatically states, that kind of world.

"Your house was open. You shared a bathroom."

Her father had six people to feed on $6 a week. Her mother did it with 25 cents a pound chicken neck bones and potato dumplings. Her Papa worked shift work to be home during the day. Her mama went to work at Woolworth's in the city for $8 a week.

In 1931, Jean graduated from grammar school on Sunday night and started looking for work on Monday morning, eventually landing a job as a laundress. She made 15 cents an hour.

When the National Industrial Recovery Act came through two years later, she got a 20 cent raise.

"That was $14 a week," she says. "Thank you, Mr. Roosevelt."

She never returned to school.

The National Industrial Recovery Act was passed in June 1933, during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Included in the act were codes to establish minimum wages and maximum hours, to guarantee the rights of collective bargaining, and to eliminate unfair trade practices.

Turner Hinkle was born in 1923 on a tobacco farm in Bourbon County that was owned by his grandfather and his father. He can hardly remember a day he didn't work (or wear bib overalls, he laughs).

"Daylight to dark for 50 cents a day stacking hay in the fields, nobody baled," says Hinkle.

In the summer, he went barefoot and picked blackberries from thick scratchy vines and sold them for 10 cents a gallon.

In the fall, he helped slaughter hogs for meat.

And always, there was the tending of the tobacco.

News about the financial state of world was not kept from him. "I knew that if you borrowed $100 from the bank, they already took out the 6 percent interest. They'd give you $94 and you paid them back the full $100."

Still, even during the worst of times, his family was able to pay off the farm by the time Turner was in high school. They were even able to give some of the neighbors who were struggling some pick-up jobs.

They would have done the same, he says.

"The mood of the state was down, but people of this state responded well when they had to."

— Former Kentucky Gov. A.B. "Happy" Chandler when asked to recall his memory of the Depression, Sunday Herald-Leader, Oct. 28, 1979.

Geneva Spickard is pretty sure America today couldn't do again what America did to live through its hardest economic times and reign as the financial power it has.

Turner Hinkle agrees. We simply don't know how.

"I'm afraid if the next depression that hits is like the one in the '30s, we would not long have a democracy," says Turner Hinkle. "I don't think the government can let it be. People are too used to having everything handed to them."

At 91, she is plagued by arthritis of the spine. She is proud of her two sons, one who became a stockbroker, one who became a doctor.

But a woman who was never afraid during the Depression is afraid now. She is afraid for her great grandchildren and for the world they have been born into.

She calls it "cruel."

Then adds, "God help them."

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