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Growing up in the Depression


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My Father was a child of the depression, and it affected him all his life. Born in 1918, in the mid 30’s he was in high school. The family had a 1930 A model Hupmobile and his job was to drain the water out of the engine after every drive, during the winter. They could not afford antifreeze. When I was a teen, he bought a 1940 Ford for $25, and still drained the water. One winter, he forgot to drain it, and the block cracked. He sold the car for $30, so he declared that he was ahead.

    In my college days, he had a 1953 Ford, and always parked it on a hill (even though the starter worked fine), and would roll it off to start it. He was constantly afraid of wearing out the battery or starter. He also would push it on the flat residential road from our house, a ½ block to a hill (at 70 years of age).

    I gave him a derelict VW bus that I had stripped for the tires, and he drove it for 5 years, even with the 3 foot hole in the center of the floor. When it dropped a valve, he rebuilt the engine… It ran terribly, and when I probed him for what he had done during the rebuild, turns out that he reassembled the engine with a dime sized hole through the top of one piston. It ran, barely, but that was good enough for him. The Depression must have been brutal.

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One of my aunts couldn't (actually I suspect WOULDN'T) let the Depression go. With her, hard times were still always around the corner.

 

Even after they had a "comfortable" life, she would wash and then iron aluminum foil to save and reuse it.

 

The worst was when she'd wear out a pair of shoes,  instead of buying a new pair or even having the worn-out pair repaired, she would cut pasteboard to fit inside her shoes and keep wearing them. By the time she was 60 those shoes had damaged her feet to where she could barely walk.

 

But she just knew hard times were coming for her.

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Hardship scars people for life.  There was a woman in our ski club, born in Germany in the Nazi years, who wound up in East Germany when the war ended.  She escaped to the west, but spent days in hiding with no food.  To this day, she never goes ANYWHERE without some food in her handbag - just in case.

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4 minutes ago, oldcarfudd said:

Hardship scars people for life.  There was a woman in our ski club, born in Germany in the Nazi years, who wound up in East Germany when the war ended.  She escaped to the west, but spent days in hiding with no food.  To this day, she never goes ANYWHERE without some food in her handbag - just in case.

That’s actual trauma. So many people today including myself don’t understand how good we have it. Thanks for sharing that

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My mom's father did have to scrape by during the Great Depression, only having sporadic work here and there to feed himself, while my dad's father was one of the 60% who was working a full-time job during that time.  My mom's dad was very relieved when he got called into service in late 1939 for the war effort, and stayed in the Canadian Army for another six years after the war ended before starting his own business.   My father's father had a decent paying job being a sales representative for Nielson's Chocolates in the 1930's. (As my uncle said everyone had money for chocolate bars!)  He had a comfortable home, a 1936 Chevrolet for a company car, and didn't have to worry about when and where his next meal was going to be like my mom's father.   I really noticed the differences at a young age when I got to hear my own mom and dad argue over money, and the cost of goods while growing up.  My dad had a 'money grows on trees' attitude while my mom would not spend it on anything unless it was really necessary, and then she would look for the best deals, including the department store's monthly "$1.49 Day" sale dates.

 

Craig

Edited by 8E45E (see edit history)
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My dad was a kid in the 30s and they did not own a car.  In fact,  my grandfather's first car was one my dad bought for him in the 50s.   On my mom's side,  my grandfather worked for Goodyear.  Not sure if they owned a car or not in the 30s.

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Every person I've known who was old enough to be cognizant of the hardship of the Depression remained steadfastly frugal and vigilant to husband their resources in defense of potentially coming hard times.   Their experiences were difficult enough to color their outlooks for a lifetime. 

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I don't really know what my family members lived through in the depression, but I know it must have made an impact, because of the way my parents were raised and my mom still is. (Mom was born in the 50s, Dad in 46).

 

My family members who did live through it and I got to know never talked about it. I imagine it was painful memories and not something they wanted to think about much. 

 

I do know my great grandfather started his auto junk yard in 1932, which he owned until 1987.

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I have hundreds of memories of my Father’s stingy ways. He was a teen in the 1930’s and eventually retired from the military and school teaching with plenty of money. Lived to age 96, but always kept his stingy ways (except when it came to his kids). I was age 14 when we went to a hardware store and I was amazed to see bins of nails… I still remember saying “Dad! They have new nails!”. The routine at our house was, when you needed a nail or two, you went to the ‘nail can’ and straightened out a nail with a hammer.  He rode a bicycle constantly and would pick up everything he saw on the street. The tool pegboard in the garage had dozens of old tools, all bad. Never in his life did he buy a new tool.  Every phillips head screwdriver had the head stripped, making it useless. Hammers always had loose heads that he wrapped with tape to keep the head on. For electrical work, instead of using a wire nut to twist two wires together, he would wrap the twist with kite string saturated with Elmers’ glue. In later years I came along and replaced his handiwork many times, much to the satisfaction of my Mother. In 1957, he bought a second hand ’56 Lincoln Premier and my parents drove it until 1972. He parked it in the garage because it started to have valve problems… something that he would never pay to have repaired. The car was in pristine shape, until a gallon can of paint fell from the shelf and shattered the rear windshield. Have a new windshield installed? Of course not. He was a ‘maintainer’… just keep everything in the current condition. Finally sold the Lincoln cheap after he was forced to by the rest of the family. By that time, ford quit stocking the windshield. Sure wish I had that Lincoln now…

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My father was born in 1935 and his father left the family when he was about 5. He had 2 older sisters and a younger sister and brother, so he was “the man of the house”. They were poor but my grandmother did have her own house. He helped support the family with a paper route and other odd jobs at a very young age. Then fixing old cars up, starting at around 15 years old. He continued to fix up cars and collect them for extra money his entire life. 
 

He was always very frugal and I remember thinking we were poor and bringing home an application for free and reduced lunch once, (we almost never were allowed hot lunch), which made him very angry. We lived in a huge home and had 6 or 7 mint condition Corvettes in the barn, plus several other cars, but he’d complain about how much toilet paper we used, lights left on and how often us girls used the hair dryer, so I honestly had no idea of our financial status. He was very private about it. When I cleaned out his garages, I found paperwork that he was earning well over six figures during those times. 
 

He still had a metal scrap pile in one of his garages, even though the price of scrap was very low. He also had an old metal coffee can in his office with duct tape that said “50 Ford”, a project he was working on at that time. (I saved that can, a testament to some of the silly things I just couldn’t throw away and are in boxes I still can go through). He had always saved all his loose change, which he was collecting in the can. He had several complete collections of state quarters. The time it takes to do that baffles me. They are not worth more, even as full sets. I was always taught to respect money and fold all my bills facing the same way, to reuse items and to repair things and not just throw them away.  


Looking back now, it makes sense, but at the times it seemed to me to be excessive. 

Edited by victorialynn2 (see edit history)
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15 hours ago, Leland Davis said:

My Father was a child of the depression, and it affected him all his life. Born in 1918, in the mid 30’s he was in high school. The family had a 1930 A model Hupmobile and his job was to drain the water out of the engine after every drive, during the winter. They could not afford antifreeze. When I was a teen, he bought a 1940 Ford for $25, and still drained the water. One winter, he forgot to drain it, and the block cracked. He sold the car for $30, so he declared that he was ahead.

    In my college days, he had a 1953 Ford, and always parked it on a hill (even though the starter worked fine), and would roll it off to start it. He was constantly afraid of wearing out the battery or starter. He also would push it on the flat residential road from our house, a ½ block to a hill (at 70 years of age).

    I gave him a derelict VW bus that I had stripped for the tires, and he drove it for 5 years, even with the 3 foot hole in the center of the floor. When it dropped a valve, he rebuilt the engine… It ran terribly, and when I probed him for what he had done during the rebuild, turns out that he reassembled the engine with a dime sized hole through the top of one piston. It ran, barely, but that was good enough for him. The Depression must have been brutal.

 

 Your father was lucky to even have been in High School. My dad had to quit school in the 9th grade to help support the family. He and my uncle used to roam the streets of downtown L.A. in the late afternoon after doing odd jobs all day long with slingshots in their back pockets looking for Pidgeon's to shoot for the family dinner that night. Having a older brother die of tuberculosis and a younger sister die of crib death ( after five boys my grandmother finally gets a baby girl only to die two weeks after birth) life in those days was just full of trepidation.  Looking at old family photos of that time and seeing the conditions family members lived in it's clear to me that in those times there was no " Privilege " of any kind at all.  

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My father was a child of the depression, when things were really bad the family homesteaded up north and lived in a log cabin with no electricity or other amenities. But he was a fool when it came to money. I don't remember him ever being stingy, or hesitating to buy something he wanted if he had the money or thought he could get it. Mother on the other hand, came from a farm family that never suffered during the depression or the war, always had plenty to eat and a good brick house to live in but she never wasted a penny in all her life and thought long and hard before she spent a dollar. So much for the nature vs nurture argument. Some people are natural savers, others aren't. Circumstances may push development one way or the other but tendencies are inborn.

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"Your father was lucky to even have been in High School."

 

Yes, he was lucky. But the Depression still corrupted his thinking. His Father had a good job on the railroad, and was always employed. But the times still brought on a frugal mentality. Late in life,  every day riding his bicycle, he would make the rounds of dumpsters, searching for something of value. He once brought home a brown paper bag full of doughnuts and presented it to us. They were stale and hard, obviously from a dumpster behind Dunkin Donuts. My Mother, always suspicious, looked at the grease stains on the bag and knew what had happened... she forbid him from bringing any more home. One day, while taking out the trash, she saw his bike parked along the side of the house, and in the rack on the back of the bike was another bag full of doughnuts. She chewed him out, and he promised to stop. A few days later she walked outside to check the bike, being suspicious, but the rack was empty. Undaunted, and suspecting, she stopped and looked around, thinking: "now, where would he hide them?". She walked over to the cast iron outside door of the fireplace clean out, opened it and found another bag of doughnuts stuffed inside!  That ended the doughnut caper.

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On my moms side, my grandfather was born 1908, my grandmother 1912. 1938 they had the last  of their 3 children (my mom). My grandfather had no formal education, started working construction at a very early age. His first job was running the beer cart for the German work crew he was on. From what I understand he always worked, including on public works stuff during the depression. I know he worked on the building of the Conowingo Dam as well as several local schools in the same time frame. My grand mother supplemented the income by running a still. All of their food was grown in their backyard, meat by the way of hogs, cows and chickens were also raised there. They bought very little at the store. During the post war building boom he became a very wealthy man developing real estate and building houses. His pride was a brand new state of the art for 1960 house and a new cadillac every 2 years. He would spend the winter months in his home in Florida. At one time was a co owner of a country club. As far as I knew growing up they never had a want for anything, my grandmother were fur coats and always had a maid. BUT, I know none of that came easy, as he worked hard for everything he had. He did have a great value of the dollar. He did alright for himself growing up in the worst of times with no education. 

 

 

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My grandfather was from a farming family in ND. He had to go back to the farm after losing his job in the depression. Besides the farming, did cattle hauling and building chicken and residential houses as a carpenter. Would travel to California to help build relatives homes and back by driving an old Oakland touring car and working at fields along the way to pay for the fuel. Later in life still built chickenhouses and used a 38 buick with the rear seat out as a truck. Had a Model A chassis with a saw blade setup to cut planks. WHen I was little drove a 56 and 57 Cadillac sedans that were cast offs from someone and again were filled with tools and other objects. You always fixed what you were using, whether it were tools or material. Never seemed to have anything new, nor did he need to. I will always remember him the same, dressed in worn bib overalls. Never wore anything else...

I have a habit of putting my glasses in the cupboard top down. I learned that habit from my Grandparents as the Dirty Thirties would have dustbowl conditions up in the Dakotas. Your bowls and glasses would be full of dirt otherwise. He told me in one year they made $35. THat is all they could make other than the self sustaining farm work.....

Edited by Delco32V (see edit history)
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My Dad's parents inherited a 300 acre property with a 27 room mansion when they got married in 1928 just before the crash and depression. My Grandma came from Ireland and left there as a destitute young woman. After marrying Grandpa who was a machinist and came from a well to do background she was never able to enjoy or spend money freely. I remember her showing me at the old CN Woodstock train station (Grand Trunk back in her age) how all the hobo's and rail riders coming from the drought out west would camp along the tracks as night fell scrounging for food and warmth. She said they would go there with all the bedding from the closed off bedrooms of mansion and give it to the" poor bugger's" with nothing. The way she described all the campfires and the conditions of those people, how forlorn they looked and how happy they would be to get some food and blankets has never left me. 

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My Grandfather could have been one of them. Two young kids , my mother and her slightly younger brother. He was a stationary engineer but had grown up on a farm in P.E.I. so when work dried up in Winnipeg where the kids and my Grandmother were he would travel either East or to Alberta to fill in with farm hand work . After a few years the rumblings of war in Europe started bringing Canadian industry back to life and my mother says from that point onward things significantly improved. But by all accounts there was 4 or 5 years where things were very difficult. My grandparents remained thrifty but not obsessively. Except my grandmother rarely wasted food, leftovers ended up in the soup pot.

Edited by 1912Staver (see edit history)
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6 minutes ago, 1912Staver said:

My grandparents remained thrifty but not obsessively. Except my grandmother rarely wasted food, leftovers ended up in the soup pot.

I can attest to that!!  My mom's stew was to die for; nice chunks of high quality beef, fresh chopped patatoes, a few vegetables, all in a nice, thick spicy gravy.   

 

In contrast, my grandmothers stew consisted of a gallon of water, wretched veggies that sat in the fridge for two or more weeks and some fat trimmed off the meet that made a soup kitchen's free handout taste like a Michelin 5-Star restaurant's soup de jour.   When I took one look at her stew in the bowl set in front of me, I promptly pushed it away, and unintentionally, it ended up on her freshly washed floor!  My grandmother kept saying, 'You're lucky for your dad, in all that he did was send you to your room!'  She want to make feel some pain.  Ten years later, when what I did came up, my mom said, 'Your dad wasn't going to eat her stew either."!

 

Craig

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There is a great history book that describes the years of the depression period: "Freedom From Fear", by David Kennedy. It describes what the American people faced and dealt with in the period 1929-1945. It is a wonderful read. It gave me a much greater appreciation for what my parents, born in 1908 and 1912, faced growing up and raising my siblings and me. I recommend it highly.

Phil

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Like Leland, who started this post, my dad was born in 1918. He died in 2008. His family was poor enough during the depression that my dad did not like to talk about it, but some break ups and adoptions in the family made him sad. Cheap with himself, generous with others. He is the reason I am only “sort of” a car guy, because he refused to drive a decent car — EVER. His last employers were a bunch of doctors (he was an accountant). They would take pity on his taste in autos and give him one of theirs from time to time. But he really didn’t care. The late Cadillac Carl — of blessed memory here — once asked me what I had driven, and about the only “sporty” thing I could name was my Civic SI. It sure wasn’t much of a driving pedigree. Carl, I believe, drove many fast and grand automobiles. But the taste in Civics I got from my dad — he liked small English standards with a stick. Why? Of course because they were cheap to buy and cheap on gas. (They are also fun to drive.)

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my moms older brother waS NAMEed  LEALAND DAVIS . both my parents were born in the 1920s and survived the depression. neither spent any money on non necessarties to the day the\y died. one car. never had a loan for anything

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My Dad was abandoned as a child.  He was placed in a local orphan's home from which he ran at the age of 12 and never went back.  He joined the Army the day after Pearl Harbor mostly so he could get 3 meals a day.  I cannot imagine being on my own at 12.  Dad made a bit of money over his life but could never bear to spend it except on things he might profit from.  He was determined to never again go hungry.  When he was diagnosed with cancer he literally shopped around to find the cheapest oncologist he could find. In his later years he drove used Cadillacs partly because he was a large man (food was very important to him, understandably) but mostly because 5 year old Caddys were cheap and reliable.  Mom's Dad was killed in a mining accident in Southern Virginia and her Mom was slowly but surely going blind.  She talked about living one winter on blackbirds they would trap in the yard and potato peelings the neighbors would give them. Tough times but they learned a lot about inner strength and the value of hard work.

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My Grandad's last job was breaking rocks with a sledge hammer on a local road project.  He was 65 and desperately needed a job.  Every day he would go to the road construction site and wait there all day hoping someone would not show up for work or get hurt.  On the 30th day one of the workers didn't show and they hired him.  Last job he ever had.

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2 hours ago, Restorer32 said:

My Grandad's last job was breaking rocks with a sledge hammer on a local road project.  He was 65 and desperately needed a job.  Every day he would go to the road construction site and wait there all day hoping someone would not show up for work or get hurt.  On the 30th day one of the workers didn't show and they hired him.  Last job he ever had.

My grandfather told me of a similar story of a school that was being built. He said there was a long line of men at the gate every morning. As soon as someone working slowed down or took a break their time was over and the next guy in line was called in. I suppose that contributed to his work ethic. That was carried on to my father and his sons. It wasnt until I was 35 yrs old that I stopped working mandatory 6 days a week, sometimes 7.

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Dad always said "It's not a sin to be poor but it is a sin to stay poor".  He would have worked himself to death rather than collect even one cent of welfare. The only two things he and I agreed on was a love for food and more importantly a love of antique cars.

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My grandmother is 91 and never waists anything. She even cuts the tube of toothpaste open when it is empty to get the last little bit out of the inside. She waists nothing and saves everything. She would be a hoarder but my aunts and uncles remove boxes of stuff when she is not looking. She blames the missing stuff on my Grandfather who is 92 and can't carry the stuff, lol. I am so thankful to still have them and that they are still living on their own. They have so much knowledge of the depression era. My Grandfather's family was fairly well off for the depression. They bought a 1936 Oldsmobile new and owned a gas station in Indianapolis that was just busy enough to them going. This allows me to hear the middle class side and the hardship side of the era. 

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I have a self professed theory on the state of todays youth.  I am in the last round of the baby boomers, being born in 1964, my oldest brother was born in 1953. My grandparents were young adults at the height of the depression, and as much my parents were raised in that environment. I think that was pretty much across the board for the majority of the population. My parents shared the same values, and frugality that their parents had and experienced. My generation also shared those values to maybe somewhat of a lesser degree. I remember hearing first hand accounts of what my grandparents went through. 

 

Skip to the next generation, my children. They had it better than I did (although I didnt have it too bad). They do not remember their great grandparents let alone any first hand knowledge. The storys may as well be something they see on tv and have no real meaning. Their children are even further removed. 3 and 4 generations away from that period in history has change values on all levels, not to mention work ethics. 

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My Mother spent most of the thirties and the war years working as a waitress for cash at various restaurants in the Virginia/West Virginia area.  My Father spent the depression era mostly as a Hobo, riding the rails throughout the country.  They(mostly my Dad were extremely thrifty)(to this day a light on in a room with no one in it makes me itch).  Of course added to that was the fact that my Dad worked in the Post Office for his last twenty-eight years or so back  when the pay was not as good as today. In addition my Mom would not buy cheap food(we ate quit well as my figure can attest to) so some conflict was inevitable.  They never went anywhere or really did anything except a few child centric places when we were kids.  Well used cars and cheap furniture.  I was a teen when I first remember eating in a restaurant. A whole new world opened up as I grew into adulthood.

Edited by plymouthcranbrook (see edit history)
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My grandfather told me that as a kid growing up in Chicago during the depression that he really did not know what poor was because everyone was poor and in the same boat. He said it was just a normal way of life back then and you would play and go about everyday life. He use to laugh when telling stories about him eating from "mystery cans". Those were donated food cans without labels so you never knew what you would be eating until you opened them. He told me that the nuns used to write on his tuition invoice "paid in full" and he didn't realize until later in life that people who were in a better off financial position were donating money to the parish even in the worst of times. In his later days grandpa would go around to the local schools and repay the favor. He use to say that people now a days don't know what poor is because you can't be poor and have a credit card, cell phone and cadillac. 

 

My father and uncles said that grandpa never talked much about being in WW2, besides telling tall tale stories about being a Tail Gunner. I find that interesting because my grandpa use to tell me all sorts of stories about the war times. He spent most of his time on the Island of Saipan working on the airfield and filling up the B29's with fuel. Gramp's would tell stories on how some of the planes would come back pretty much blown to pieces and how he would wonder how they made it back.  The ones that made it back were lucky because he said some buddies would fly off never to return. When grandpa got home to the old neighborhood he said it was kinda weird because friends and guys you knew before everyone went off to war also never returned and that you would hear the gossip of what happened to them..... Grandpa was never fond of politicians with their wars and the corresponding loss of life.

 

My grandfather lived to the ripe old age of 97 and he use to tell me that when you live long enough you seen it all. I guess during his years he did experience a lot of history, events (both good and bad) and advances in society.

 

 

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My father said they would save their grease and lard in a can under the sink and use it for lots of things, including lubricating his bicycle chain. He recalls going to the butcher shop with his mother and seeing a sign on the door that said, "Ladies, please don't bring your big fat cans in here on Saturdays!"

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15 minutes ago, Tph479 said:

My grandfather lived to the ripe old age of 97 and he use to tell me that when you live long enough you seen it all. I guess during his years he did experience a lot of history, events (both good and bad) and advances in society.

 

 

I said that when I turned 40 that nothing shocks you, or surprises you anymore.   

 

Craig

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My Grandfather wasn't effected to much by the depression until the dust-bowl hit in S. Dakota. He went from buying a new farm tractor and the other equipment to go along with it in 1929  to moving to a 15'X20' house  Duran, Wisconsin.   My father was 14 and learned to repair almost everything, cars, electronics, windows etc. He would build what he needed and hardly ever buy anything new.

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My grandparents on dads side were farmers, doing the best they could. I know dad grew up poor but he never really talked about it too much. As soon as he was old enough he joined the Marines.  One thing that did carry over to us kids was that I was about 15 before I had my first pair of denim jeans.  Dad was the baby of 7, and his clothes were hand me downs. He said he wore hand me down denim overalls until he was 15 or so. Vowed to never have his kids wear denim jeans.

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Great Thread.  Don't know if this is fact or fiction but Warren Buffet reportedly replied to a reporters question regarding how it felt to be rich with  "If you have ever been poor you will never be rich".  My father was born in 09 and mother in 11 and they lived comfortably in later life but never recovered emotionally from the depression.  The day I left for college my mother asked "Do you really think it is wise to quit a good job at the cement plant to go to school?"  Glad to hear that mom wasn't the only one to wash and re use tin foil until the day she died.

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We were dirt poor when I was a kid. We lived in a small apartment in a small barn.  One of my earliest memories is "helping" Dad drag bales of hay to the upstairs barn door so he could drywall the loft. No indoor plumbing.  I walked to First Grade from that home.  We never went hungry but now and then "cracker soup" was the entre on the dinner menu.  Saltine crackers crumbled in powdered milk.  Dad and Mom worked hard and we "moved on up" rapidly.  I didn't realize until years later that we were poor.  In some ways I look back on those years with fondness though I still cannot even look at a box of powdered milk, if they even make it anymore.  Dad was a truck driver then and drove a 1948 Brockway gasser. Wish I had that truck now.

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One of my favorite people in the car hobby said to me years ago........we never knew there was a depression. We were so poor before 1929 that life didn't change after 1929. He grew up on a farm in upstate New York. He retired a wealthy gentleman worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He never left the family farm, and lived there his entire life. He died there about ten years ago, and is buried in the ground generations farmed. A life well lived.

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I've heard my folks say the families on both sides were prosperous farmers and tradesmen before the War, but Reconstruction ruined them and the Depression finished them off.

 

My 2nd great-grandparents on Mama's side had a 600-acre farm that they lost in a tax sale in late 1870s, and they ended up sharecropping the same land they had once owned. It has taken some branches of this old family 80+ years to get back to a decent standard of living.  Whisperin' Bill Anderson said it- "we won't nothin' but po' folks".

 

 

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