Memories of the Great Depression: Surviving the Depression Era

Memories of the Great Depression are etched deeply and permanently in my mind. These were bittersweet days, testing the mettle of people living during the depression era, as they sought ways to survive. And we did survive by faith, courage and ingenuity.

During the spring and summers, people who had gardens carried water from struggling wells to thirsty rows of vegetables.

If fruit trees and roadside vines and berry bushes produced, neighbor women and children gathered wild plums, wild grapes, elderberries, currants and gooseberries. Chiggers, heat and dust were forgotten when gleaming jars of fruit and shimmering glasses of jellies, jams and preserves sparkled on pantry shelves.

Although it would appear that, with such provisions, the depression was not so severe, these products of the land were not all available as they competed against insects, birds, wind and drought. But we learned to gather all we could to preserve. Nothing was wasted.

We enjoyed the bounties as plates of rich, red tomato slices came to our table, along with green beans cooked with sautéed onion, and crisp bacon pieces. Bowls of fluffy mashed potatoes, creamed peas, glazed carrots, buttered corn or roasting ears brightened our meal-times, one vegetable at a time, usually never more than two at one meal. Gravies, cream style or flavored with homegrown meat products, often accompanied the potato dishes and helped to stretch the food supply.

Flocks of chickens were fed on home-grown grain. Each spring most farm families ordered strong crates of young chicks, which were housed and fed, until roosters reached frying size. It was then that platters of crispy fried chicken graced the table. Others were canned in glass jars and allowed to cook slowly at low heat. We knew these would be a part of our winter meat supply.

A few hogs were kept in a pen near a grain and water supply, where excess milk, mixed with ground corn or other grain, could be poured into long wooden troughs for their use. Hogs also found potato and apple peels and discarded fruit a delicacy. At a certain weight, a hog was butchered. Bacon and hams were sugar-cured or preserved in a salt-water brine. This brine was prepared in a wooden barrel, and deemed strong enough to preserve the hams, bacon, tenderloin and sausage when the salt content was strong enough that an egg would float on the surface of the brine.

When the grain had been harvested and threshed, we loaded a trailer with a certain number of bushels of wheat and took it to the mill in Abilene, Kansas, where it was weighed and graded.

The wheat was then, traded, its value computed against the value of 50-pound bags of flour, which we stored in large lard cans until my mother turned it into crusty loaves of bread, cinnamon rolls, biscuits, pancakes, and the delicious Eggless Cake she made if the eggs had been sold. The following is her recipe:

1 cup sour milk
1 cup sugar
2 cups flour
1/2 cup shortening
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. allspice
1 tsp. nutmeg

Cream sugar and shortening. Sift flour, measure and sift with baking soda, baking powder, salt and spices. Add alternately with milk to first mixture. Beat thoroughly. Pour into well-oiled loaf pan. Bake in moderate oven (375 degrees) for 45 to 50 minutes. (This recipe was taken from the old Searchlight Cookbook, published by Capper’s in the depression years and was submitted by Mrs. F. M. Crasse of Logan, Iowa.) This was one of our depression day desserts we enjoyed so much.

Reva M. Smith
Abilene, Kansas

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.