Californian recalls his Kansas childhood during the depression era, and how self-sufficiency reemerged as a necessary value on the farm
I remember the Depression Era. I was a twelve-year-old farm kid in arid Western Kansas in 1929 when the stock market collapsed, and the money movers in Wall Street jumped out of skyscraper windows. This universal financial debacle probably had less effect on our part of the country and our neighbors than on most of the rest of the world. We were already short of cash because crops hadn't been good and farm prices were down. So we went from very little hard cash to virtually none, as did most all the people we knew. All of us were in the same leaky boat! Farm communities re-developed a sort of pioneer self-sufficiency.
In our family, we were never hungry, because we had the usual farm animals (cows, chickens, and hogs) plus a vegetable garden. A balanced diet was not always possible, but we surely had enough to eat.
Clothing was a different matter. Buying replacement shoes and overalls was difficult because of the lack of cash. The "use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" philosophy quickly became a way of life.
Shelter was probably the least difficult of the three basic requirements for my parents to provide. We had a house on the farm, so we were out of the weather. However, fuel for cooking and heating in the winter months could be a problem. In that part of the state there were very few trees, so whatever wood there was had been imported from timbered areas for use as fenceposts or as lumber. After all the old fenceposts and scrap lumber had been burned, we had to turn to the standard fuel of the prairie - cow chips!
Given the state of the economy with so little money in circulation, the barter system came into play. Fresh produce and dairy products could sometimes be swapped for food staples, hardware items or clothing. Neighbors helped each other (as they always had) with major tasks such as building repair, harvesting crops, butchering animals for meat, breaking horses and overhauling machinery. Eventually, Federal Government programs such as WPA, CCC, NRA and other "Roosevelt acronyms," provided some relief in the form of jobs and paychecks. However, being "on relief" was unacceptable to most of the population; it was very important that these jobs were not a form of dole, but the people actually performed useful tasks for those small paychecks. For example, Dad got a WPA job with a team of his horses on construction of an earth dam about 15 miles from home. Dad would leave home long before daylight, driving the team and wagon to the construction site to arrive before the day's work began. He had the same trip at night, so he got home well after dark.
A series of dry years in the early '30s accentuated the hard times in this part of the state. Crop yields were very low because of the drought. Grain prices were at a historic low. There was not enough hay and grain to feed the animal population. All this made it necessary for farmers, like we were, to borrow money for seed for new crops, and for feed for our animals. There were Federal loan programs to bail us out temporarily, but we had successive dry years and it was pretty bleak for a while. The government feed and seed loans were eventually satisfied, but they were a cloud on the farm family finances for a long time.
Rex O. Wonnell
San Jose, California
Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.
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