Chapter OneThe Early Years
Growing up during the Depression was a full-time job. The economy was going well when I was born in 1925 in a farmhouse near Leesville, Indiana. Dad was a tenant farmer on a large farm owned by his uncle Emory who was also a schoolteacher. In those days, most births took place in the home. The doctor, when summoned, cranked up his Model "T" Ford and came to the house where he was assisted by female relatives or friends. I guess the menfolk "boiled lots of water" or just sat around and whittled. I don't remember the details!
When I was three, Dad went to work in a Bedford limestone quarry and we moved to a new house on Grandad Hutchinson's farm where my sister was born. I remember that hot August day when a lot of relatives came to our house and my aunt took me down over the hill to get a bucket of water. We got our household water from a hillside spring near the creek that ran through the valley behind our house. My aunt let me play in the cool creek water a long time that hot August afternoon. Well, when we got back to the house I heard a baby crying inside the house. Baby sister Jean had arrived, and I was no longer an only child. I later decided I wasn't going back to the spring again!
We later moved to a house on a dairy farm on Bedford's outskirts. Just before the "great depression" Dad bought a four-room in the southeast edge of town. The house had no utilities, so we carried water from a neighbor, used kerosene lamps, and heated with wood or coal stoves. My brother, Kenny joined the family and we settled down just in time for the stock market crash and recession.
Indiana limestone was quarried from large deposits left by the skeletons of sea creatures left millions of years ago when the Great Lakes area was a large inland sea. Hundreds of limestone workers migrated from Italy to Lawrence county for employment. The quarried stone was removed from the ground and hauled to one of the many area stone mills to be sawed into blocks or veneer stone for beautiful limestone buildings. Many of the most famous buildings such as the Empire State building, state capitols across the U.S. and the Washington Cathedral were built with Indiana limestone. Stone carving was also important on these buildings, and we had many talented stone carvers in southern Indiana. George Vanderbilt had a special railroad siding built to his property to haul in the limestone from southern Indiana to build his mansion. The Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina is visited by thousands each year. Our stone mills were kept busy supplying the draftsmen, stone carvers and masons he hired to come over and build his magnificent Biltmore House. This structure is a perfect example of the merits and durability of limestone. A stone carving shop is included in our local high school art department even today.
In the 1920's the local economy was built on the limestone industry and many men were employed in the quarries and stone mills. My future father-in-law lost his left arm in a quarry accident. After the Depression the idle stone quarry holes filled with water and made excellent swimming holes. The lime in the stone helped turn the water blue and we had several "blue holes" for summertime recreation. There were often stacks of huge blocks of limestone in the water on which we could climb and sun in our birthday suits or use as diving platforms. There were underwater tunnels to swim through if you dared. Diving from the high ledges was a daredevil stunt. Our favorite swimming holes were Blue Hole, Big Brown and Swinging Bridge. Many boys used these swimming holes, and I remember that there were several drownings over the years. One of my classmates drowned in the spring of our junior year. The limestone industry recovered after the war and quarry swimming became a thing of the past.
Our Depression Home
The stock market had failed, and the limestone industry had no customers. Jobs were nonexistent and poverty became the order of the day. Keeping food on the table, coal for the heating stove and kitchen range, and clothing on our backs was always a problem. We now had a four-room house for a family of five. The unpainted house was of board and batten construction and had a tar paper roof that leaked. During rainstorms we used lots of pots and buckets to catch the leaking water. Dad mopped the roof each summer with melted tar. The house had no electricity or plumbing. There was a two-hole outhouse back on the alley. The "outhouse" or "privy" was a basic necessity in town neighborhoods which didn't have access to city sewers. They were usually built on the alley away from the house. Pushing outhouses over was an activity enjoyed by neighborhood teenagers on Halloween. Local citizens were enraged at this prank, especially if they were sitting in the outhouse at the time it happened!
In winter, we huddled around the pot-bellied stove and went to bed in an unheated room with hot sad-irons wrapped in towels. Sometimes we used hot bricks to keep our feet warm until body heat could warm the bed. The bedroom was off the heated living room and very cold in the winter. We didn't have enough blankets, so Mom would spread overcoats and extra clothing on top our bed.
Food was another problem. Occasionally we received a grocery order from the Township Trustee. People called it a "bean order" because beans and dry food were cheaper and the money would go farther. The federal government set up a program to provide surplus foods to needy families. Every week families stood in long lines to receive food such as beans, flour, canned beef, rice, peanut butter, and grapefruit. The program really helped our family survive. However, I remember that the flour sometimes had weevils in it, so I would feed it to the chickens. They loved the extra meat and the eggs never had weevils.
There was also a program that allowed the local dairy to distribute free milk. One summer, while in grade school, I stood in the "free milk" line every week to get my Karo syrup bucket full of a gallon of milk. When we ran out of free milk we had water gravy with our meal. Dad planted and tended gardens all over the neighborhood on shares with the landowner. I always got in on the hoeing, weeding and harvesting. We raised lot of potatoes, yams and black-eyed peas to keep as dry vegetables for the winter months. Mother canned tomatoes and green beans. Dried beans were a main part of our diet. Beans grown in gardens were easy to store, and were also distributed by various agencies which helped feed the poor. A large pot of Great Northern beans flavored with a chunk of pork (sow belly) could feed a family of five for lunch and supper. Beans were delicious with cornbread and buttermilk, and provided a good source of protein. It is still one of my favorite meals. Most families kept a pot of beans warming on the back of the cookstove all day. Beans played a big part in our vocabulary. We said a fibber was "full of beans", a tattler "spilled the beans", and a food order from the trustees was a "bean order". If you had a good idea, they said "that's using the old bean". We even had a poem for beans.
"Beans, beans the musical fruit, The more you eat the more you poop! The more you poop the better you feel, So let's have beans for every meal!"
I imagine the "pull my finger" joke originated sometime during the Depression. Food was scarce for city families, but farm families fared much better as they could raise and store food. They often "shared" with relatives in town. Farmers with milk cows, pigs, chickens, orchards and large gardens weren't nearly as hungry as their city cousins. Our family received help from Grandad Hutchinson and several uncles. However, I remember one Aunt who didn't follow that pattern. If we were at their house during mealtime, family members took turns slipping out to the kitchen to eat while others visited with us in the living room. My pesky cousin always gave it away with a wink and a belly rub when he came back to join us. There was a standard rule parents gave their children: "If you are at a friend's house at mealtime, don't beg; but if they ask you to eat-you eat!" Clothing was for warmth-not style. My first year of school I had no coat, so I wore my two sweaters, jeans and my aviator cap. Shoes wore out quickly and Mom often cut out cardboard insoles to line the old brogans (high top shoes). The school nurse decided I needed a coat and pair of shoes. She took me to a private home on the other side of town and outfitted me with used clothing. When I was warmly dressed we went to J.C. Penney and bought new brogans made from roughed-out leather with steel heel caps. Those used clothes and shoes that didn't leak kept me warm all winter.
Teachers and the PTA (Parent-Teachers Association) established a "clothing bank". Families in the school district cooperated by donating used clothing, coats and shoes which were distributed to children in need. Most parents cooperated in this recycling project and the kid appreciated the "hand-me-downs".
The kitchen was the heart of my early childhood home. We had no electricity, plumbing or central heat. We carried our household water from a faucet in our neighbor's basement, and later from a town pump, and we ate and read by coal oil kerosene lamps. Cold and rainy days would find Mom and we three kids enjoying the warmth of the big black kitchen cookstove. The stove was so old that the side of the firebox had burned out and we'd sit by the side of the stove and enjoy the heat of the cheery flames nibbling at the oak wood. It was like having a fireplace in the kitchen. The flames and the steaming teakettle filled the room with warmth and humidity. We had a humidifier and didn't realize it.
The stove top had four removable lids on the cooking surface which could be lifted with a special handle. Mom used a short poker to rearrange the burning coals or shove in more firewood through the door on the front of the firebox. There was a large oven for baking, a reservoir (water tank) on the side for warming water and a warming oven above the cooking surface which was also heated by the black stove pipe connecting the stove to the brick chimney behind the stove. Keeping the wood box and the coal bucket behind the stove well-stocked was one of my daily chores.
I remember the day Dad bought Mom a new green and cream-colored Kalamazoo cookstove for $36.00. We were happy to say goodbye to the old stove with the burned-out firebox before it burned down the house. (I have two granddaughters who are graduates of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo). Now, if we wanted to watch dancing flames, we went into the living room to the pot-bellied WarmMorning heating stove. We could see the flames through the glass windows in the door. The cookstove was one of our most versatile pieces of equipment. Cooking and baking was our first priority, but it was also used to heat water on bath and wash days, heating "sad irons" on ironing day, and keeping that pot of beans warm on the back of the stove. I did a lot of homework by those cookstoves. Recently, I saw an old cookstove in an antique shop-the price was $1800! Today a Kalamazoo Stove Works cookstove and a pot-belly coal stove are part of the decor of the Bob Evans Restaurant across from the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee.
Monday was wash day. Laundry was done in a large galvanized tub with lots of hot water, a big bar of yellow O.K. soap and a washboard. Mom had a second tub to rinse clothes, and she had to wring them out by hand before hanging them on the clothesline. We didn't have lots of clothing so laundry was light, but done often. Later, we used a neighbor's electric washer in turn for doing his laundry. Baths were taken in the same tubs in the kitchen behind the warm stove and a sheet hanging on a rope line. Winter wash days were exciting because Mom put up temporary clotheslines in the two heated rooms of our four room house. We kids romped and played in a maze of hanging sheets, towels and clothing dangling from the makeshift clotheslines. The wet washing put plenty of moisture into the air.
Ironing day was Tuesday, and the sad irons were heated on the kitchen stove. The heavy irons had removable handles so she could keep two or three heating on the stove to replace an iron after it cooled. Mom set up an ironing pad on the kitchen table and ironed away. We didn't have a lot of clothing, but we went to school in clean duds.
Baking day was usually Wednesday when Mom baked yeast buns for the week. All the kids in the neighborhood wanted to play at our house on baking day. Mom would bring out those tasty buns and let us share. They were delicious, steaming hot, with butter and mustard! She baked several pans, wrapped them in linen and stored them in a five gallon tin lard can. This supply would last several days. The kitchen table was a multiple- use piece of furniture. The big old round oak table served as an eating surface, ironing board, kitchen counter for preparing food and a game board. We often used it for table-top games with marbles, cards and coloring books. It became a desk in the evening, as we sat around the kerosene lamp to do our homework.
The living room and pot-bellied Warm Morning coal stove were the center of our winter evenings. We played and studied on the floor around the stove and the stand-table which held the lamp. I still have that table that we sat around over seventy years ago. Singing was a great family winter activity, and we three kids would gather around the pump organ and sing hymns and favorite songs as Mom pumped away and led the singing. The pump organ was fascinating with all its keys and knobs (stops). The three-legged stool with its spiral adjustable seat was great fun.
I attempted to take free piano lessons in the sixth grade and went home to practice on the pump organ. After a few weeks, the music teacher decided I needed a piano to take lessons. I was crushed because I loved music, but to this day I play only the CD and TV! An ironic twist is that my son-in-law has played the huge Holloway pipe organ in our Presbyterian church for the past thirty years. So I still get to sing hymns with an organ!
Depression Christmas in the Thirties
Believe it or not, Christmas was a happy time at our house. We would cut a cedar tree in the red clay fields behind our house and decorate it with ornaments, tin foil icicles and colored paper chains made in art class at school. Mom would cook a big boiling hen with dumplings, sweet potatoes and all the trimmings. Dad always brought in five or six sacks of peanuts and various kinds of candy, and there was usually a coconut to crack open for the "milk" and white meat . There was always plenty of popcorn.
Presents were simple and few, mainly a toy or two and some clothing. One Christmas I received three iron World War I toy soldiers. I still have two of them. Gift exchange at school was limited to a ten cent gift, but a dime bought a lot in those days. I usually got a Big Little book about Dick Tracy, The Phantom or Tom Mix. The teachers and P.T.A also provided treats of a sack of candy and an apple or orange. During the Christmas season we often walked to town to see the Christmas lights and store window displays around the town square. We had no electricity but we enjoyed seeing the glowing Christmas trees in the windows of houses we passed. Our favorite Christmas Toyland was upstairs at the Fair Store on the square. This family-owned store created a toy department only at Christmas. I believe the owners really enjoyed watching the children parade through the store and up the winding stairs to "window shop". They knew most of us didn't have a dime to our name. Maybe they were after the ten cent gift exchange money. The Fair Store went out of business years ago, but not before I bought my wife June a set of Rogers silverware for our first anniversary!
We kids always visited two or three churches to see the Christmas plays and get the sack of treats they gave out. Various churches would host Christmas suppers for needy children selected by the schoolteachers. A teacher friend's Depression story concerned "Christmas tree lights". Her farm family purchased a gasoline powered electrical generator, but regulated its use to keep the cost down. The daughters were allowed to decorate their first "electric light" Christmas tree, but could only turn on the lights when a car passed the house. Years later at family Christmas gatherings they would remember those days when they yelled, "Here comes a car-turn on the tree lights!"