History and legends are rife with tales of “Old Crones” who educated the people and the leaders of nations in their search for further civilization by telling them the stories of what had gone before in their history. This writer has reached that stage in life where I am ready and willing to accept the title of “Old Crone” and to try to educate our people of “the days before”, in this case specifically, of the days before many of the political and social programs which affect our lives today. Today, my story will be about what life was like for many in the days before some of taken-for-granted social programs of today.
I was born in 1930, during the administration of Herbert Hoover and in the early days of the famous Dust Bowl, to parents who were already elderly by the standards of the day. They already had eight children and had lost one in infancy. My father was a farmer and they reared their family on eighty acres of rented farmland as had their own families before them. I can remember the 1936 elections and my father’s ire at the successes of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He hated government and resented any intrusion of said government into what he had considered the business of private persons.
Father paid $100 per year plus a share of the crop for the privilege of occupying the land. The money for the landlord had to be saved by pennies and nickels throughout the year to avoid having to move to another property the following year, so hard cash was very hard to come by. Therefore, all the household support was accomplished by my mother. She would plant huge gardens of vegetables which were canned in glass jars and stored in the storm cellar for use all year. Any patches of native fruits and berries were harvested and processed into the jars for winter consumption.
She kept chickens, laying hens that would provide the eggs which were carefully cleaned and boxed for transport to town to get enough cash to purchase the basic food which was our fare. A large box of eggs and a couple of gallons of cream from our cows would buy a huge box of oatmeal, a can of lard, and a 24-pound sack of flour for the bread which was our staple. On a good week, we could also afford a pound of oleomargarine, the kind that had to have the coloring removed from the packet and stirred into the glob of white goo which substituted for butter. Only occasionally was there a nickel left to buy a bit of sugar to sweeten the fruit or, wonder of wonders, to bake a cake.
When Roosevelt established the Work Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corp, we worried that Father would die of apoplexy! A married older brother with a family went to work for the WPA and another brother joined the CCC. At last, there was a bit of cash in the household. And then, to Father’s horror, the farm commodities began to be distributed, “forcing” the families of farmers to “eat from a tin can.”
In the summer, Father and the boys would contract to bale hay for farmers with larger acreage. Some of that work was for cash while some was for a share of the bales, which could be sold to accumulate cash toward the annual rent. In the hardest years, there would not be enough cash income from the contracting and the sale of other crops to cover the $100 rent. Fortunately, since Father was such a good farmer with so many mouths to feed, the landlord was often lenient and accepted only the share. It was hard, energy-sapping work and people just wore out at a much younger age than they do now.
When Father was only 60 years old, he began to suffer more from his chronic cough and there would be days that he would spend the day in the house, worrying aloud….very loud! On many occasions, due to the hard work and the vagaries of nature, he had suffered from severe pneumonia for extended periods and his cough had worsened each time. There were doctors at that time but even they were limited in what medicines or procedures were available. Even if the doctors had the capabilities and the knowledge of today, the poor had no money and would lie-in at home until nature took its course.
In 1940 another of the older brothers left home. Since there was no work locally, he joined the Navy, so he would not be available for the next haying season but, somehow, we made it through. Then Pearl Harbor happened and our whole world turned upside-down. The oldest brother who was left at home went to the county seat and enlisted in the Army. This left only three brothers at home, not enough to do all the work, much less to compensate for Father’s lessened abilities.
There was no choice but to sell out what we owned on the farm and move into town. Being still a child, I was more concerned with losing all the friends when the animals had to go to new homes, but there were more serious concerns than that. Later in life, in going through Mother’s papers, I came across the accounting from the auction of all my parents’ worldly goods. With the sale of every animal, every piece of farm equipment, and all the appurtenances that went with them, their “lifetime savings” amounted to slightly over $600!
My mother has always been my hero, and she proved it then. She rented a house in our small town and moved in with three almost-adult boys, an elementary-school daughter, and a dying husband and she made us a home! The brother who was in the Army arranged for her to be given $15 a month as a “family allotment.” This amount covered the rent with nothing left for food. The brother in the Navy had married and his allotment was going to his wife. The two older sons who were at home did find part-time work around town, as helpers in various shops, and contributed their earnings to the family.
You may ask, “Why didn’t she go on welfare or apply for SSI for your father?” The answer is simple. That was in “The Days Before!” When you hear the politicians complain about needing to “reform entitlements,” and you know that their aim is merely to end them, be sure to watch for my next article about what life was like in the days when there were no entitlements or other assistance for the poor.