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Volume 13, Issue 46 ~ November 17 - November 24, 2005
Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

Letters from the Past

Take a peek at history as recorded in a packet of family letters written in the Great Depression

Haven’t been feeling so good, get so terribly tired.
Can go only from 6am to 6pm. Dizzy all the time.
Guess my liver needs shaking up.

—Clara Mahala Clark Burton: 1931

Every so often in my rounds here and there, someone approaches and suggests my accounts of life in the Great Depression might be exaggerated. Things couldn’t have been that bad, not in America.

However, the other night while sorting out the scores of crates I’ve accumulated over the years, I came across a packet of about 25 family letters written in the midst of the Great Depression, and they give an accurate account of how things went from day to day in New England.

The envelopes bear two-cent stamps, and not infrequently a letter had another day or two added. As I said, every penny counted. Formal stationery wasn’t used in the letters; that cost money.

Painted in words was a Great Depression I wasn’t really aware of, for the family never shared their worries with children. I knew we didn’t have much money, but I never realized we were poor — and that’s because just about everyone was. We were no different.

In these excerpts, Grandma is Clara Burton, who was in her younger days a schoolteacher in Iowa Territory. Grandpa was a silver prospector in Nevada turned farmer for his health. He died in the midst of the Depression. Marjorie is my Aunt MiMi, a home economics teacher who passed away 18 months ago. Caroline, my other aunt, was a grammar school principal. Jack, who became a chemical engineer, is in his 90s; he’s the only survivor.

Though times were tough, MiMi, Caroline and Jack worked their way through college. But as each went off to higher education, it meant more work for Grandma and Grandpa, in failing health, dirt farmers on a 110-acre spread purchased for $1,800 in 1918. They also raised chickens and sold eggs.

Grandma’s quote at the beginning of this column didn’t mention that at 6pm, when the work outside was done, came the time to make dinner, grade eggs for market, iron, bake bread (I don’t recall any store-bought bread in the household), churn butter, make cottage cheese, clean the house, sew clothes and darn socks. In some letters, she spoke of getting up at 3:30am to get a head start on her work.

Scratching Out a Living

• Grandma to MiMi: Didn’t get much done today, I didn’t feel that well. I washed clothes and the wringer didn’t work right, I cleaned two hen houses and split some wood, had to find the cow [the cow frequently escaped the pasture] baked five loaves of wheat bread and I must go now. I’ve got eggs waiting to be graded. I only get 20 cents a dozen for double yolks.

A dollar was big money, and Jack, at the University of Rhode Island, got one.

• Jack to MiMi: I needed socks, my laundry hasn’t arrived yet [busy working his way through school, he sent his laundry home to Grandma] so I won a dollar bet by climbing the water tower in a blizzard. Tomorrow I’m going to Wakefield to buy socks. I’ve worn this pair a week. But I’ve washed them twice.

• Grandma to MiMi: The chickens are hatching so slow in the incubator I’m going to buy some chickens from Mr. Miller. We just have to do something to bring in more money. I had hoped to get something for carrots, but Hopkins told me people who have them have stopped going to market One man had several hundred bushels and was going to dump them.

Carrots, apples, parsnips, potatoes and fruit were the primary crops raised on the farm, and there was a big garden for home consumption. Yesterday at the market, I saw a package of eight pears for $2.35. In some old invoices, I noticed Grandpa in ’24 sold four bushels for $10, minus the 10 percent commission; nine bushels of #1 carrots for $13.50, two bushels of #2s for $1 each, minus 20 cents commission. Apples brought $1.25 each bushel; 16 bushels of turnips, $57; 29 bushels of carrots, $26.10 — all minus a 10 percent commission.

• Grandma to MiMi: I wish you could be here. Too bad for your father [he was in his 70s and unknown to him, had cancer] to have to work so hard. It’s telling on his heart, and is bad for him all around. But we have taxes and the mortgage.

• Grandma to MiMi: I’m too busy to do much sewing for Doodle [I was called Doodle], but I’ve bleached some chicken feed sacks to make underwear I need badly. Everything costs so much, and we don’t have much money. [Grandma knitted my sweaters of wool, and also made my shirts and summer trousers of bleached feed sacks.]

• Grandpa to MiMi: My Dear Girl. Our horse has been sick so that your sick mother has had to walk and work on her two feet. But the horse seems better now so we can see how he will drive this morning. We have the carrots all dug, but the turnips are in the ground yet. Had 236 bushels of carrots, now if only we can sell them. Have to take Bill [the horse] to Mapleville tomorrow with potatoes and apples. Good demand and price for potatoes, but don’t get much for apples — and no sale for them either.

Ducks, Chickens and Politicians

There were reports on the usual spring mud and how it delayed planting, money worries, taxes, neighbors out of work, no markets for produce and Grandpa’s deteriorating health. But as often as possible, Grandma attended meetings of the fledgling League of Women Voters. Her political thoughts:

The carrots are finally in. I put on your father’s old boots, but they got stuck in the mud, so finished in my stocking feet. I took a lot of cabbage to the cellar. Made some duck feather pillows. We had all the potatoes in sacks, and heavy rains wet them all, and we had to carry them and dry them out

Four years ago they shouted prosperity if the Republicans got elected, and look where we are. Curtis Hopkins said to keep away from the eagle [Republican symbol] as it was the Republicans who ate all the chickens that were supposed to be in every pot. I don’t know what Roosevelt can do, or why he even wanted the job. Prohibition was not what elected the Democrats. No one has jobs.

Grandma went on to report a number of friends who had lost their jobs. Any hopes she had for Roosevelt faded when his farm policy focused on farmers plowing their crops under. She couldn’t understand how that would help the farmer, and she became a Republican. But things were still no better on the farm.

So there you have it, a peek at life in the Great Depression, when people were truly living from hand to mouth. People today — worrying only about the price of gas and the bill for their kids’ cell phones — can’t believe things could be tough in America. They don’t even know what tough is.

Enough said.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.