Thistles Cut, Ironing Done

9. THE GREAT DEPRESSION

In this year of 1991 when the economy of our country is in trouble, more and more references are being made to "the depression." They are referring to the period of history, the years 1929 to 1933. Economists are still saying that if and when we have a depression it will not be as severe as that one of sixty-one years ago. It will be interesting to see if such optimism is warranted. They tell us that banks are backed by government and insurance as they were not in that time, but our government is in financial difficulties beyond all imagining.

My father traded the one hundred acre Menke Farm in on the two hundred eighty acre Folsom Farm in 1928. We moved in the fall of 1929 just as the stock market crashed on Wall Street. We were not too concerned because our work went on even if millionaires were losing their money.

The drop in market prices on hogs and other farm produce was one way we did notice. As those years progressed hogs sold for three cents a pound. Selling hogs spring and fall had always been our source of money for paying taxes.

We did not usually sell grain crops or corn because we needed those to feed the livestock. But, in the same years, 1929 - 1933 there was a drought in our area of Wisconsin. Not enough clover and timothy hay would grow to feed horses and cows through the winter. We had to buy hay to feed them as well as barley and corn for feeding hogs and poultry. The combined situation of little rainfall and the financial stress throughout the country did effect us enough so that my father could not pay the interest on the mortgage on the farm. In Markesan, a village of about nine hundred population, everyone knew everyone else. The bankers knew my father personally as well as his father and brothers. My father's reputation made it easy for the banker to say, "We will just add the interest on to the principal and you can pay whenever you are able." They had no doubt that Dad would eventually pay off every cent even though they had to extend that same trust in him for a few years. At the same time, the bank already owned numbers of farms which people had "lost" through mismanagement or crop failures. They were not anxious to take on any more.

Aside from those financial complications we did not suffer during the "depression." We still had cows giving milk. We butchered two or three hogs each winter for meat. Chickens gave eggs and meat. Most beneficial of all was the garden produce. The rich soil produced many varieties of vegetables which were preserved for winter use. Strawberries and raspberries grew well and old apple orchard gave us plenty of wealthy, duchess, and early harvest apples. Shelves in the basement were lined with canned fruits and vegetables. Even pork was sometimes canned. Two mounds of potatoes in one section of the basement were enough to keep us through the winter and provide seed for the next spring. Carrots and cabbage were piled in the basement too for a few months. Early potatoes were eaten first with the late ones left for the later winter months. We ate potatoes at least twice each day, not because of necessity but it was our custom. At noon we boiled enough for the noon meal with enough to use for supper. At supper time we cut the potatoes and fried them lightly. On a restaurant menu they would be called "hash-browned," but we didn't know any special name for that dish. Just think how good they tasted with applesauce and an egg omelet.

Butchering day was a busy one. My father chose well-grown "spring" pigs to butcher. ("Spring" pigs means that they were born in late winter or early spring.) We did not want an excessively fat hog for food purposes. After the butchering we did not use any of the meat for several days. The carcass was hung outside the first night where it could thoroughly cool in the freezing temperatures of a Wisconsin winter night. The next day my mother might fry some of the liver with onions. She had a great aversion to liver but that one time each year she cooked it for the family. On that second day the meat was cut into the various cuts for use. A few roasts were put into a big tub and covered well and set outside on a bench on the northwest corner of the house to freeze. As long as the weather stayed below freezing we used those one at a time as we needed them. Liver sausage was made by grinding the liver in a big food grinder. Cooked meats of the hog's head and other parts were added to it with onions and other spices. The grinder had an attachment that forced the mixture into casings which we bought at the butcher shop. The sausage rings were boiled slightly and put outside in the cold to freeze until we needed them. On winter mornings we brought in a link and fried it for breakfast. Our supply didn't last long. Other lean cuts were ground into sausage and fried and put in three gallon earthen jars and covered with lard to keep for use in summer. Pork chops were done the same way. How good those tasted in summer with boiled potatoes and cream gravy made with the drippings from refrying the sausage or pork! Sometimes hams and bacon were hung in the smokehouse and preserved over a slow burning fire. The fat was trimmed closely off all cuts. By the third day after the butchering I hurried home from school because I wanted to help cut the chunks of fat into very small pieces so that the most lard would come out. The fat was laid on a cutting board so that even I could use a sharp knife with little hazard. The cut pieces were "tried-out" by putting them into big kettles to simmer on the wood-burning stove many hours until the maximum amount of lard had cooked out. The lard was stored for use in baking bread, pies, cakes and cookies.

Our family and those of our aunts and uncles had always practiced making use of everything. Clothes were worn until outgrown or worn out. Even then new uses were found for the materials. Especially linens were used and reused. Bed sheets made excellent cloths for window cleaning. Worn towels were used for scrubbing floors or whatever needed scrubbing or dusting. No one bought dishcloths or dishtowels. They were made from flour sacks, carefully hemmed. My mother made the dishcloths two thicknesses, twelve-inches square. She sewed three sides together and then turned them and stitched down the fourth side so that there were no raw edges exposed. We used one dishcloth for washing the china and glasses and silver. Then we took another cloth to wash the greasier or possibly blackened pans and kettles. That cloth tended to get darker in color. We felt that the "lighter" cloth would be cleaner for the eating utensils. And so we called them the "white" dish cloth and the other the "black" dishcloth. It was a matter of some concern if I forgot to change to the darker cloth for washing the pans. A towel rack hung high near the kitchen stove where the dishcloths and the towels could dry between meals. In the big drawers of the sink dishtowels and dishcloths were precisely stacked after ironing. Clean, white dishtowels were essential. Dishcloths too, were regularly put into the laundry on a certain day each week and clean ones brought out of the drawer. (The dishtowels I use are some that my mother hemmed so long ago. They are folded and stacked in a drawer but the corners aren't matched.)

When we wore our "Sunday clothes" we took them off on our return home to keep them looking "nice" for longer wear. We even changed from our school clothes to a different type of clothes for wearing around home. (Recently I found Howard was attempting to enforce this changing clothes rule on our grandson when he came home from school. Dropping clothes into an automatic washer is so easy that changing to play clothes is not considered necessary.) A boy put on his overalls to go out to help with the chores, helping to feed the livestock and do the milking. Sheldon even drove the tractor after school hours when there was work to be done on the fields. By taking care of the clothes we had, we didn't need to buy many.

These were the years Sheldon and I were in high school. Although Sheldon was only fourteen he was able to get a driver's permit to drive the family Oldsmobile to and from school. I remember Dad feeling a heavy responsibility having to sign papers to get that permit. In recent years a high school classmate told how Sheldon put extra air in the tires so that he could drive at greater speed. It was against the rules of the high school to take a car out of the parking lot during the noon hour, but Sheldon dared to drive on the highway at speeds my parents never dreamed of. It seems that such daredevilishness is common among boys. I remember a cousin who tried the same trick - driving his car up to ninety miles an hour during the noon break.

Depression didn't affect the way our family used the car or truck. If we drove to town we expected to accomplish more than one errand. Sometimes my mother asked us to bring home groceries that she would order by telephone. We were to pick them up on the way home from school. If we forgot by the end of the school day and arrived home without them Mother left no doubt in our minds that we needed to think of making good use of the gasoline. That it was expensive to drive back and forth when we could just as well have done more than one thing on the same trip. We became conscious of trying to stretch our resources.

When driving the car in winter was not advisable we drove a horse, Beaut, hitched to the cutter to take us to school. We put her in Grandpa Schwandt's barn for the day while we were in classes. A cutter tips over easily. One day Sheldon guided the horse a little too close to the steep snow banks piled on the side of the road by the snowplow. One side of the cutter went along the bank and we turned over. Beaut stopped while we righted the cutter and continued on our way.

If Mother felt she needed to go on a shopping trip to Ripon or Fond du Lac Dad would finally consent to go if it rained. When the sun was shining he needed to do the farm work. Driving in the rain had its drawbacks. Most country roads were unpaved. If they had been graded up rather level, being wet and muddy did not interfere too much. But there were many had low places. I remember one such shopping day when we were only a mile from home we came to a low place, with ruts full of water. Our car bogged down. Dad worked hard finding branches from nearby willow trees to put under the rear wheels to give more traction. Dad worked patiently but it would have been easy to convince him the trip wasn't necessary.

Mother sewed but she did hire a dressmaker to help make my clothes in those years. Some of them were made over from a cousin's dresses. I remember a coat made from one of Aunt Ella's. Not until 1934 when I was in college did I ever have a coat bought for me. Even that was not such a great idea because it was hard to find one my size outside of the children's department. On a date, Jim said, "Zona traded her pet rabbit for her new coat." I interpreted that to mean it looked like it was a child's style.

We are grateful for the economies that were a part of our lives, not just in our family, but among those of our community. In my own household I continue those practices. One of the favorite dishes my family liked was potato patties. Left over bits of meat, chicken, beef or pork were mixed with left over mashed potatoes, an egg or two and seasoning were added. The mixture was dropped by spoonfuls onto a buttered skillet. After one side was brown each one was turned to brown again.

Another favorite was to add chunks of left-over beef to fried potatoes - hash. Howard and I still think it is especially good. I like apple sauce with it.

The price of salmon has increased so much that one of our favorite dishes is not as economical as it was years ago. A can of salmon in my cupboard was insurance against being without something to serve when we had not been to the grocery recently. Just as in my youth we did not "run" to the grocery for a specific item. We did our shopping once or twice a week. Salmon patties or scalloped salmon were dishes that stretched the budget. Our children especially liked creamed salmon on toast. Left-over chicken or turkey creamed was good too.


Markesan School - High School on 2nd Floor, 3rd and 4th Grade Room in lower left


In the small Markesan high school the band director wished to increase the number of students in the band. He persuaded Sheldon that he could play the clarinet. My parents reluctantly paid forty-four dollars for a new instrument. Sheldon joined a beginners group one day a week to learn to play. After a dozen sessions he refused to go to the class. My parents questioned him over and over but he did not give any reason for stopping his efforts. He put the clarinet in its case and did not open it again. The next year, because I felt guilty that no one was using the instrument I learned to play it, although never very well. No one at home liked to hear the "noise" of my practicing and I wasn't too impressed with the sounds either. My upstairs bedroom had a very large closet with a light on a pull chain in it. I took the clarinet and set up the music stand in there to practice to try to avoid annoying the family.

It was fun to play in the band even though I was the lowest chair of second clarinet. Our uniforms were very different from the elaborate ones seen on high school bands at present. Girls wore simple tailored, white cotton dresses. Boys wore white shirts and trousers. All of us wore a black tie and a white gob cap.


Ruby Roeder


Ruby and Zona wear the band uniforms


At our home we were conscious that there was a debt on the farm, but that was honorable as long as we worked toward reducing it. We did not usually buy on credit, although my mother had the privilege of telephoning E. H. Davidson's grocery to give him the list of things she wanted for Dad to pick up when he was in town on other errands. But she did not let the bill accumulate.

All of us worked. My parents worked especially hard but they would not have been satisfied any other way. Among their friends and relatives there was no conversation about traveling and certainly no need for hiking trips. Vacation was a word used only to describe the summer months between school terms. Winter or summer there was strength and rejuvenation in looking at God's handiwork in the landscape around us.

Markesan Street Scene in 1957 - Library on the right front.
Note the clock on the Markesan State Bank Building (center). I liked hearing its prolonged musical strike when I was in my room at Schraeder's house.
In the 1920's and 30's street dances were held on Wednesday evenings in summer. The far end of the street was blocked off to traffic and the band stand wheeled into the center. The popcorn wagon was stationed at Davidson's Grocery Store.

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