Those who lived through Great Depression reflect

Diana Rossetti

Ingenuity, determination, a little luck and the courage to live without.

That’s how folks lived through the Great Depression.

What they didn’t know, they learned. What they didn’t have, they made, or did without. When they couldn’t afford something, they improvised. They saved money, and had the patience to wait until the savings grew.

Six neighbors at The Alsatian, an independent living complex in Louisville, Ohio, gathered recently to reminisce and share memories of how their families made it through the Depression.

Large family wastes not

There were plenty of chores for Burdella Wenning and her 13 siblings on the 160-acre farm east of Louisville where she grew up. Even though the family raised beef cattle and hogs for butchering and dairy cows for milk and cream, Wenning, 93, well remembers how difficult the Depression years were.

“My dad’s brother was president of a bank, and we kids had started to save money there.  Well, the bank went under, and it was terrible. We lost our money,” she recalled.

All the children pitched in, keeping a large garden free of weeds. Spuds were the mainstay of the family diet through harsh winters.

“We had a big cellar, and our potato bin was almost the length of the house,” Wenning said. “Then we canned everything from the garden so our mother could make soups and stews when it was cold. You learned you didn’t waste anything.”

She remembers her parents speaking German when discussing a topic they didn’t want to share with the children.

“I imagine they talked quite a bit about the Depression. Everyone did,” she said.

‘Poor’ not in their vocabulary

Growing up in Alliance, Ohio, Arthur “Pat” Engelberg maintains he never felt deprived despite being one of six children reared by their mother. By age 10, he was hawking newspapers. His siblings, too, found work early.

“We never used the word ‘poor,’” Engelberg, 93, recalled. “On the weekends, when you’d go visiting, maybe you would take the butter and somebody else would bring the bread, and that was how you got together. And we’d grab a piece of cardboard for a base and go to an empty lot to play ball.”

When the circus came to town, he and his buddies helped set up in exchange for free admission.

At home, the family gathered around a radio powered by a battery.

“We’d put a blanket under it so if the acid leaked, it wouldn’t hurt the table,” he reminisced.

Bank failures left a lasting mark with him. When his mother passed away, she left him $500. But the bank gave him only $50.

Lucky to have work

Her immigrant father worked the furnaces at Republic Steel, recalled Isabel Garcia, 89. But when the Depression hit, he was one of the few kept on the payroll.

“He worked maybe a day every two or three weeks, but we kids (there were three) couldn’t tell one way or the other how bad it was,” recounted Garcia, who grew up in Canton, Ohio’s northeast quadrant in a neighborhood of varied ethnicities. “But I remember all the cousins living with us from time to time. And uncles who lost their jobs would come and stay.”

Dresses made of feed sacks

Eileen Fernandez’s father was a blacksmith by trade. He operated his own shop in Louisville, then was hired by Colonial Foundry.

“But the foundry went down during the Depression,” said Fernandez, 82, who grew up with two siblings in Louisville. “He would try to get work, but it was hard. His brother had a farm, and sometimes he’d work there. Or if he worked at another farm, they might give him a pig for his work. We’d butcher it and render the lard and clean the innards for the sausage. We didn’t waste anything back then.”

Hand-me-downs, she said, were the norm for growing children. And feed sacks were the fabric of many home-sewn dresses.

“People would give my mother a coat, and she’d tear it open and dye it and make a skirt for me. I thought I was a queen,” she said, smiling.

“I remember the food. Soup and more soup. We had cornbread with milk and sugar or an apple dumpling, and that was a meal,” Fernandez said.

Chuckling, she described the shoe-sole replacement kits her family used to extend the life of their footwear.

“You’d cut it to fit the sole and glue it,” she continued. “Sometimes, they’d come loose, though, and flop when you walked,”

Sharing coats

Theresa Rukavina’s large Hungarian family -- there were 13 children – lived behind the Timken Company in Canton’s southwest neighborhood. She recalls her father, a Timken employee, felt fortunate to work two or three days a week.

“He was one of a very few who had that much,” said the 90-year-old. “We had a garden at home, but Timken gave big families land at Gambrinus to use for gardens. Believe me, we kids were there every day pulling weeds and taking things home to can for the winter.”

“Since each of us didn’t own a coat to wear on Sundays to go to church, half of us went to an early Mass, then we would hurry home to let another sibling wear the same coat,” she said.

Surviving with humor

There weren’t many job opportunities in her tiny town of 1,000 near Clarksburg, W.Va.  And Martha Dye, 92, recalls her father losing his job with Hope Natural Gas one day and finding another the very next day in a different district served by the company.

“My dad worked six days a week for $90 a month, and we were fortunate. Luckily, you could buy a loaf of bread for a nickel then.” said Dye, the oldest of three children.

No matter how tough the times, she recalled her father’s good humor. 

“He’d say ‘We’re English, Irish, Scotch and Dutch and all put together don’t amount to much.’ “

Every year, he raised two hogs and butchering was a neighborhood social event, she recalled. There was always a large crock of sauerkraut in the making, she added, and lots of potatoes anchoring meals.

“Mother would make sausage and put it in a quart jar and put the lard on the top to seal it for the winter,” she said. “Everyone did what they had to do to survive.”

The Repository