Fifty percent of banks failed in the 1930s, compared with less than 1 percent today. One in four Americans were out of work, compared with fewer than one in 10 today.
But the human toll of radical economic decline is the same for those affected, regardless of how many others are suffering.
Betty Kjolseth was a senior at The Evergreen State College in the late 1980s, more than two decades before this current crisis, but she had a fascination about the Great Depression. For her senior project, she interviewed 10 Olympia-area residents who had lived through those years and recorded their personal experiences.
Her subjects have all passed away now, but their stories live on through Kjolseth’s careful reporting of their life stories.
She recently shared with me the large three-ring binder containing the typewritten pages encased in plastic sleeves, accompanied by photographs of each subject, copies of newspaper pages and other period memorabilia.
The stories caught my attention because none of the interviews emitted a bitter tone. The gift of these stories is really a deeper appreciation of the human spirit to survive under any conditions.
Kjolseth writes in the introduction to the interviews, “I began this project with the hope of learning about the variety of experiences individuals had lived through during the Great Depression, 1929-1941. As I listened to their stories, common threads became noticeable: the bonds of family and friends, and a magnificent pride in personal independence.
Here are some highlights of those interviews.
Lois Null was born in a post office because it was her parents’ farm home. Her mother delivered her by herself. Lois married Ed in 1927, and they made a good living working for a petroleum company until the Depression hit.
Ed tried to go into the oil business for himself. He paid for a shipment of oil, but the unions wouldn’t let him onto the docks because he didn’t belong, or even to join the union because he owned his own truck. They called him a capitalist. So he lost the oil and the truck.
Lois found work at the University Dairy, which paid her in milk and butter, not any money. They scraped by taking in washing and ironing and selling baked goods.
Al Matulick, of Olympia, remembered when his dad got laid off in 1932 because the City of Oakland, Calif., ran out of funds. His father then bartered gardening and other services for food.
His memories include World War I vets selling apples on the street for 5 cents because veterans didn’t get benefits in those days. He recalled whole families living in 10-foot lengths of sewer pipe, about 5-6 feet high, near the Oakland railroad tracks.
Helen Briley remembered people were scared of getting sick, because they couldn’t afford to see a doctor. So neighbors would hold card parties for families that were really bad off or not eating well. The price of admission was a can of vegetables, or fruit or something else to eat.
Byrl Loobey gave birth to twin boys in 1931, so finding enough milk for the babies was a top priority. Her husband, Art, cleaned a grocery store, washed cars and did odd jobs at a turkey farm to pay for the milk.
They gardened and eventually could afford a cow, and, ironically, later traded its milk for other things, such as sugar and flour. In the late ’30s, Byrl had another set of twin boys. The older boys had good newspaper routes that paid well enough to help them buy “a wreck of a house” to live in.
Kjolseth says she thinks often about the people she interviewed and doesn’t want their stories to get lost. She’s shared copies with the families of her subjects, and is hoping to eventually get them published.
NOTICE TO READERS
The Doonesbury strip appearing on this week’s comics pages are alternate panels. Our editors felt the story line and content of the originals were not appropriate for a family-oriented comics page.
George LeMasurier, publisher of The Olympian, may be reached at 360-357-0206 or firstname.lastname@example.org.