‘We didn’t know we were poor’The current economic landscape is new to most people, but many members of the South Washington Heritage Society, in St. Paul Park, have seen it before.
By: Toni Lambert, South Washington County Bulletin
The current economic landscape is new to most people, but many members of the South Washington Heritage Society, in St. Paul Park, have seen it before. They grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
At a special panel presentation in early February, members of the society talked about what it was like to grow up during that era.
“We Didn’t Know We Were Poor” was the theme for the morning. Stories fell into two categories: If your family lived on a farm and was successful at farming, life wasn’t too bad. If you were a city kid, things weren’t as good.
Lambert Plante was born in Faribault in 1923. He, along with four sisters and a brother, worked in the family grocery store.
“The store ran on relief orders families received from the Work Projects Administration,” he recalled. “WPA workers came into town and built sewers, streets, parks and playgrounds,” Plante said. “When they were finished, every house was hooked up to the sewers.”
Although Plante said the family had food and suitable clothes, he didn’t have a full-time, paying job until he joined the Navy.
Newport resident Dorothy Witzel was born in 1928 in Rosewood, a town that no longer exists. “I grew up on a farm,” Witzel said. Her time was divided between school, church and doing chores.
“I liked helping on the farm,” Witzel said. “We used horses, not tractors. My father named all the animals, even the cows. We didn’t buy our first tractor until 1940 and the first milking machine in the mid-‘40s.
“We were country kids,” she said. “There was a big separation between country kids and kids from the city. We made everything. I didn’t have a store-bought coat until I was 13.
“We kept cattle, sheep, pigs and turkeys, always had a garden and had enough to eat,” Witzel said. The family grew several types of crops, some to sell and some to eat, and we sold cream, she said. Her favorite times of year were sheep shearing and threshing, vacation Bible school in the summer and Christmas programs at church.
“We didn’t always meet at the church in the winter time because the building had to be heated. Instead, we met at the homes of parishioners,” she said.
In 1942, the family moved closer to the highway. “My mother loved it, because we had electricity,” Witzel said. “But we still had an outhouse.
“We were blessed,” she maintained. “We were healthy and had no serious accidents. Our lives were simple and free. We felt secure. We didn’t really know what was going on in the world until Pearl Harbor.”
Lorraine Brown, of Cottage Grove, told about her parents, who were married in 1929. Her father raised pigs. “One year they knew they wouldn’t make it through the winter,” Brown said. “They were forced to sell a pig. A 300-pound pig sold for $1. They were able to buy flour at the local elevator and sugar to take them through the winter.
“My mother canned vegetables all summer,” Brown said. “In the driest years, we canned lambs quarters (a type of wild spinach) which most people considered a weed.
“Mother made our clothes from flour sacks,” Brown recalled. “She knitted and crocheted. She even crocheted the string used at the grocery store to wrap packages.” Brown said later she found jars of string in her mother’s basement.
“Nobody made a big deal of not having any money,” Brown said. “We walked to school and — worst of all — had to wear long underwear to keep warm. I hated it.”
Brown’s mother had $19 in the bank when the crash occurred. “She never forgot that. She talked about (losing) it all her life.”
Bud Hanner, of St. Paul Park, was born and raised in south Washington County. His grandchildren often ask him what kids did back then. “We tried everything,” Hanner said. “We always had a ball game going. They called softball ‘kitten ball’ in those days. Wherever there was open space, we played.
“We made swings of grapevines and swung over the river until the vine broke,” he recalled. “Everyone played marbles. We made up our own games. What one couldn’t think of, someone else did.”
Cottage Grove resident Jerry Shaver said his parents were married in 1928. They moved to Montana and North Dakota before moving back to Becker City. They lived in a tarpaper shack where Jerry was born. He had 14 brothers and sisters. “There were lots of cooks, lots of available labor,” he said. “Dad tried farming but came down to the cities to work at the stockyards.
“We moved around a lot, but the folks worked hard and tried to keep things going,” he said. “They finally settled in Newport where they built a house and had big, acre-size gardens. My dad got a deal on meat. He would hang it on the screen porch in the winter.”
Granville “Granny” Smith, longtime St. Paul Park resident who lives in Cottage Grove, was 8 years old in 1929.
His father owned a restaurant on the corner of Snelling and Grand in St. Paul. He, his parents and two brothers lived upstairs.
“Dad lost the restaurant and ended up working for the WPA at Battle Creek Park,” Smith said. “My older brother worked for the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) in Ely and Walker,” Smith said. “He earned $30 a month, kept $5 and sent $25 home. Dad made $60 a month, but the family ended up on welfare.”
Smith and his second brother bought cabbage at 5 cents a head at the market, then sold it in the neighborhood for 10 cents, he recalled.
Smith said the family moved often; he attended eight different schools in St. Paul. “I didn’t like leaving friends,” he said, but noted he still meets with fellow students from 1938.
At one time, the family lived across from Macalester College. “That’s where I got interested in sports,” Smith said. “We met the coach and spent afternoons after school and Saturdays shooting baskets in the school gym.
“We were busy all the time. We had a good time. It didn’t feel like hardship. All our friends were in the same boat. It didn’t hurt us one bit to grow up during that time,” he said.