Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Tough Times Shape Tough People in Depression-Era Michigan and Canada

With thoughts of the Dust Bowl family stories going around in my head, my thoughts have turned to another classic Depression saga - that of my great-grandfather, Homer R. Shafer, and his wife, Mary Ethel.

Homer was apparently a very astute businessman...or at least he considered himself one. He and Mary Ethel were married in 1903 and 2 years later my grandmother, Helen Viola Pauline Shafer was born. By the time Homer and Mary had been married for 20 years or so, they had four children and were living in a huge old Victorian mansion, pictured below, that they rented on the well-to-do island of Grosse Ile, south of Detroit, in middle of the Detroit River. Helen and her siblings told many stories about the horse-riding they did, the farm animals they had, and the generally wonderful times they enjoyed in their years on Grosse Ile.

In fact, I remember stories told of how the house was full of old furniture and other possessions when they first moved in. The kids had a great time exploring and, as they got settled, they started finding crisp dollar bills hidden in odd places. The prior owners had apparently hidden them, then forgotten where they put them.

Homer was a real estate agent and fancied himself a real estate developer, too. He purchased a large plot of land in Windsor, Ontario, and subdivided it into many lots, intending to create a large development. Things didn't go as planned, however, and the Depression intervened. Unable to pay the property taxes, Homer eventually lost all of the property except for the one house that had been built on it. He and Mary moved there from Grosse Ile, and lived there for most of the rest of their lives. The picture below is of Helen and her husband Ted, taken in front of her parents' home (the Windsor, Ontario, house) in 1934.

The Grosse Ile house burned down in the 1940's.

The Windsor, Ontario, house was still there in 2002 (photo above), when I visited it with my mother and her 2 sisters on a family history trip through Canada and Michigan. It now sits completely surrounded by tiny little homes that look like they were built in the 1940's. The house is still well cared for and the attractive yard is full of big trees and well groomed gardens.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Tough Times Helped Shaped Tough People in Depression-era Oklahoma

With the economy still struggling these days, my thoughts have turned to how some of our ancestors dealt with tough times, especially with the great Depression of the 1930's.

I have gleaned a few vignettes from talking with family members who either remember the Depression themselves, or who remember the stories their parents told about the Depression.

Photo: The Luther Abbott family in front of their Oklahoma farmhouse, approximately 1937.

On the Abbott side, we have classic "dust bowl" stories. Bill Abbott tells of how he and his father, Luther A. Abbott, were hoeing peanuts in their northwest field near Shamrock, Oklahoma, when two of his mother's brothers drove by in their cars with their families, on their way to California. Alby Woody and Walter Woody stopped in with the family to spend the night and say goodbye, then they all got back in their cars and drove west. Walter had owned a grocery store in Tulsa; Bill doesn't remember what Alby did for a living. Both felt that they needed to move to California for the opportunities there; later another brother, Oscar Woody, joined them.

Luther himself had (in modern parlance) been downsized. He had worked for Long-Bell Lumberyards for many years, first in Quapaw, Oklahoma, next as a bookkeeper in Cushing, Oklahoma, and then as a general manager in Shamrock, Oklahoma. Each new position had been a promotion, but the tough economic conditions and the switch from wooden oil rigs to steel oil rigs eventually caused Shamrock's lumberyard and many of Long-Bell's other Oklahoma operations to be closed down. While Long-Bell had offered Luther a bookkeeper position again in Cushing, he figured that it was just a matter of time until that lumberyard closed, too, so he opted not to move his family away from Shamrock.

Instead Luther rented a farm just outside of town and bought the "farmhouse" that went with it. He figured that on a farm he could at least always feed his family. The house was very small and pretty primitive (sometimes referred to as "a converted chicken coop"). Bill's older sister Virginia remembers their mother, Vergie, standing in the middle of the room that was to be hers and L. A.'s bedroom, looking around, and saying sadly, "Oh, Luther! How could you?"

The original house was two rooms and a lean-to. As they got ready to move into the house, Virginia remembers that they discovered the lean-to was full of bedbugs. She remembers her mother down on hands and knees with hot water and disinfectant, scrubbing every surface as hard as she could to get rid of those awful insects. They ended up tearing down the lean-to and building on 2 new rooms, then later adding 2 more.

The house was heated by a single gas stove and lit by natural gas lighting in all the rooms. There was a well, but the water wasn't fit to drink, so the family hauled drinking water from a spring 3 miles away. (They kept a barrel on a wagon reserved for that purpose.)

When they first moved out to the farm, they still had a car, a 1920's vintage, 4 door Chevy. Unfortunately, son Claude drove it to a meeting one night and forgot to drain the radiator when he got home. The radiator water froze and broke the radiator; the car became a fixture in the barn until, eventually, they sold it. There was no money to repair it. For the rest of their time on the farm, they relied on horses and a wagon for transportation.

Bill was a young boy in those days (about 5 when they moved to the farm), and he doesn't remember his family as particularly poor. They were just like everybody else in town...and better off than some. His mother got to keep and sell the cream from their milk cows, using the money for whatever special household expenses she (and most surely the kids) had. Both Bill and Virginia tell of Vergie walking the half mile from their house into town, approximately twice a week, lugging the full, 5 gallon cream can so that she could sell the precious cream. (When you realize that Vergie was very small, only about 4' 10" tall, this becomes an even more incredible feat.)

The family may not have had many possessions during the Depression, but they always ate. They raised "HyGear" (a hybrid sorghum similar to milo) and maize as crops to feed their livestock and peanuts and cotton for cash crops. They had 2 horses for riding (one of whom also doubled as a work horse), 2 mules for plowing, about 5 or 6 milk cows, generally a few pigs for meat, and chickens for meat and eggs. They also had a huge garden every year, raising all sorts of vegetables, as well as watermelon and other treats.

Cotton and peanuts were two of the few crops that did quite well during this time, but they were doing very well for a lot of people. Consequently, FDR's government had limited the acreage of each that any one farmer could plant and sell. The reasoning was to keep the market from getting glutted by too much of either product, causing the prices to bottom out. Government agents would literally come out to the farm to measure and make sure you hadn't planted too much land in cotton or peanuts. If you had, you had to plow under the excess. Luther did not understand the rationale behind the restrictions that kept him from planting more land in these cash crops, and he chafed at not being allowed to plant them. He resented FDR and the Democrats for the rest of his life.

Luther and his family lived on that farm, in that "converted chicken coop," for about 11 years from 1931 to 1942, until they left Oklahoma and moved to the Wichita area during World War II. At that point, Boeing needed workers, so Luther went on ahead and got a job, leaving Vergie with her two youngest, Bill and Betty, to sell off their equipment and close up the farm. About six months after Luther moved to Wichita, Vergie, Bill and Betty were able to join him. Wichita was overcrowded with workers, though, and undersupplied with housing, so for the first year and a half, the Luther Abbott family lived with Luther's parents in Conway Springs, southwest of Wichita. The Depression was over, the kids were almost grown up, and life moved on to a new phase. They had survived the Depression with the family intact - the tough times had tested them, but they had survived.