The spirit of the Thirties
Understanding the people’s pain and the people’s pluck of the Great Depression
The Great Depression. 1929-1939. The Dirty Thirties. For a multitude of reasons those 10 years in Canadian history have dropped almost out of sight. Newspapers never documented the Depression too closely, in the misguided belief that bad news wouldn’t help and better days were just around the corner. Textbooks used in Canadian schools barely mention the period. But what of the survivors, two generations of Canadians who hold history in their memories, and yet are silent?
The interviews that follow are taken from a remarkable new book released this month by Doubleday Canada, Ten Lost Years. The author, Vancouver journalist Barry Broadfoot, spent most of a year crisscrossing Canada interviewing people about their memories of the Depression. He talked to people where he could find them — sitting next to him on a train, in their homes and offices, in stores, bars and cafés, and on the street.
“Again and again,” he writes, “an interview would begin with the man or woman laughing off the Depression, saying they couldn’t remember anything — and then coming up with a hell of a story, something that happened to them or to a relative or friend or neighbor, something that happened long ago but was still burning vividly deep in their minds. ”
Most of the storytellers in Ten Lost Years remain anonymous. The exception here is the first speaker, author James Gray. The unwanted manuscript he describes in his story, written just after the war, was finally published in 1966 as The Winter Years, and became an instant Canadian classic. As for the others, Barry Broadfoot warns in his preface, “if their anonymity worries you, leaves you feeling that a certain story could have been told by your neighbor three doors down the block, then you are getting the message of this book — that dramatic and wonderful and terrible and foolish and funny and tragic things happened in Canada’s Depression to people you pass every day, people as ordinary as the woman three doors down. ”
One thing that has always astonished me is the way the Depression has been handled by school textbooks, histories, that kind of book. Even at the university level, the Depression is not handled in any depth. There are textbooks of Canadian history where the Depression gets three or four paragraphs, and I actually saw one book where it got one sentence. It went something like this: “Between 1929 and 1939 the Canadian nation suffered a Great Depression, and the
western wheat farmer was the most seriously hit.” Period. That was
all. Then they went on to the war, as if the war, in a twist of meaning, healed all wounds.
It is almost a conspiracy to hide those 10 years, although I hate to use the word “conspiracy” because it often has a criminal connotation. Of course I don’t think that. But . . . there seems to have been an attitude right up till now of: “Let’s not talk about it, let’s not admit that we walked around with holes in our soles and souls and let’s never admit the fact we had to work for a dollar a day or we had to take relief and do things our pride and our upbringing and our heritage would never allow us to do before.” I don’t know why this attitude should prevail.
Of course, it’s true that people were ashamed, collectively, that there was such a thing as a Depression, that the whole system just broke down and nothing could be done to make it work. But why have 10 years of our contemporary history, 10 years of the greatest trauma this continent has ever faced, been virtually blotted out?
Remember, in some ways it was a tremendously exciting time. People found strengths they did not know they had. They learned they could endure, and endure, and endure some more. It was almost a trial by battle. Yes, it was a battle in that sense and the Canadian nation came out of it stronger than before.
After the war, years after, people would say, “Well, you were in it, on relief, what was it like?” and I’d tell stories about what it was like to go down to get relief. I was kind of an amusement centre — Jimmy Gray will now tell you what it was like to be on relief. No one knew except the people who had suffered.
In 1945 somebody told me that I should write the story of the Depression, but by the time I got the manuscript to the publisher, the top people had changed. Their only reaction
was, “Who the hell wants to read about that?” And that’s the way it’s been right up until now.
I don’t really remember much about the Depression. I was born in 1930 and by the time it was over I was still a youngster but I know something about it because I’ve heard my mother talk about it. Mostly I remember my father.
We lived in Regina then. The way my mother tells it, my parents had bought our bungalow in 1927 for
$8,000 which was a pretty high price. I remember the house. Nice, and because times were
good, the interest rate was high, but it looked like there was going to be good days forever. Anyway, they bought. And then boom! Boom, right to the bottom. My Dad had put his savings into this house and the mortgage was for $50 a month, I think mother said, at 1VI%. Dad was only making about $100 a month, yes, $ 100, but even that was considered okay in 1933 or so, especially when relief was about $40 or $50. At $50 a month, you’re sure as hell not cutting into that principal, are you? And only $50 left. Fifty. My father was Scots, a guy who knew money and what it was all about. He pleaded with the landlord, the guy who held the mortgage, to cut the interest. It seems other interest rates were being cut, but this bastard, another Scotsman by the way, said no way, because, you see, he wanted that house, he wanted all the houses he could get by foreclosure, and I understand he got quite a few.
My mother tells it this way, that on pay night, the end of the month, my father would have worked himself into a frenzy. Pure hate for this man who held the mortgage and wouldn’t give him a break. She said he’d be almost crazy and couldn’t eat his dinner, yelled at my brother and me, and I can remember that. Then he’d put on his coat and walk the half mile to this man’s house and pay him his stinking dollars, and it used to kill him. One night when he was especially bad my mother phoned her brother Fred and he drove around and parked across the street. Dad was talking to himself as he came down the street and, well, as soon as the landlord opened the door, the old man started yelling at him, cursing him. Like he was crazy, and I guess he was. The landlord would take the money, shut the door in my father’s face, and then come back and give him a receipt.
Those nights I can remember him taking off his coat and going into a room he’d built downstairs and he’d have a bottle of booze, we’d call it a mickey now but I don’t know what it was called then, and he’d drink it in about an hour.
Well, that will bomb anybody. He’d sit down there and curse the banks and the landlords and everybody and, you see, he was a reasonable man and this was very upsetting to us kids because he was a good father. He was a very good father. Well, let me see, about nine o’clock or so, Dad would stumble up the stairs and go into their bedroom and I could hear, because our bedroom was next door, I could hear my mother going in and saying, “Now, dear, there, there, everything will be all right. You’ll see,” and she’d sit and hold his hand until he went out like a light. You know, some of the tough ones of those years, I guess, were the women. Next morning Dad would be okay, shaky but okay, and everything would be okay for another month.
(He breaks down and cries for a few seconds.)
You’ve got to think of it in his terms. One hundred bucks a month or whatever it was. A wife, two kids, a house.
That mortgage. Fifty off the top. Taxes. No vacation. Nothing for the kids. How they did it I’ll never know. Let’s put up monuments all over this country to our folks.
Why, the wife and I blow $200 in a weekend in Montreal, without even trying, and don’t even enjoy ourselves.
Just to keep our marriage from falling apart.
Our town, Guelph, had manufacturing, you
see, and that’s the way it had been for generations and while some mills, some foundries, while they cut back, they never quite closed down so there was always work. Wages were cut, you know, but a man could work. No, our town never suffered all that much.
Yes, the relief trains. Groups like our church and others, we’d be asked to get together and try and get up enough goods, anything that we figured would be of some use to those poor starving people in Saskatchewan. Was it the Prairies, or just Saskatchewan? Our minister came up with the slogan: From Green Ontario To Parched Saskatchewan. Something like that. We had a meeting to set up a committee and we were assigned a boxcar to fill. None of us knew how big a boxcar was, but our minister said it was big and we named this committee and set up a day for collection.
Well, you never saw anything like it before. Picture those old houses. Some big as fortresses, and for generations, it seems, people hadn’t thrown anything away. I know when the girls and I started in, we wondered why the house just hadn’t fallen down of the weight. There were trunks, clothes brought out from Scotland and never worn, bonnets and these big hats the like of which you wouldn’t believe, and dresses with three and four built-in petticoats. It was like a circus. My three girls just had the time of their lives, and finally I had to lay down the law and I told them to just keep passing the stuff to me and I’d decide whether it should be kept, thrown away or sent out to parched Saskatchewan.
Now, you must allow that this was going on in 100 other homes in Guelph and in Galt and up in Toronto and Brantford and Hamilton and down at Woodstock and London, all over the place. All those attics. Is it any wonder it was announced that, in that year, I think it was, 250 carloads were sent?
Now I have a strange observation to make. It happened years later, after I had moved to Winnipeg. I was talking to an old lady, my age, you understand, a neighbor of my daughter, and I mentioned this very thing, how we cleaned out the attics to send the relief trains out.
This old lady stiffened and her face became hard and she said, “Mrs. Monk, in all your days you will never know how the people of Saskatchewan resented those clothes. How they downright hated them. You people in the East got us into the Depression and then when the drought came and we could do nothing, you threw your old mothball clothes at us like a bunch of town ragamuffins throwing rocks at the local idiot. I must say this, because it’s true and I believe in speaking the
truth.” Those were almost her very words.
Needless to say, I was astonished. Astonished, for goodness sakes, and I said that they took the clothes and used them and weren’t they good clothes and didn’t they need them? She said, “Mrs. Monk, it may interest you to know that for one winter I milked three skinny cows in a dress which could have been worn to a ball honoring the coronation of Queen Victoria. A lovely dress. A truly wonderful dress.” We looked at each
other, these two old ladies, and we couldn’t help it, just the thought
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of it, and we both burst out laughing. Just picture it, and we hugged each other then, still laughing. We became good friends.
I’ll tell you what that Depression was like. It was survival of the fittest and I read my Bible more now than I ever did and I never read of hard times like that like we had in the middle of the Thirties. They was Dirty Thirties all right.
Here’s how it was. Let me tell you. My boy and I were farming near Manyberries and it was dry-land farming. No irrigation. The wind blew all the time, from the four corners of the world. From the east one day, the west the next, and if you were working you didn’t notice it too much but the women did. Ask my wife, but she’s dead now, she said the wind used to make the house vibrate, and it was just a small wind, but there, always steady and always hot. A hot sucking wind. It sucked up the moisture. So this wind just blew and blew, and we had dust storms and times when we kept the lanterns lit all day.
And the dirt that was blowing away, that wasn’t dirt, mister. That was my land and it was going south into Montana or north up toward Regina or east or west and it was never coming back. The land just blew away.
In 1933 I worked on a cattle boat for England, Liverpool, and the job of a bunch of us raunchy young buggers was to feed and water the cattle, keep them in good condition. In other words, get them there in market condition. It was long hours and there was no pay. You worked your passage, but nobody thought a thing about that. We loaded at Halifax, a load of good cattle from the Maritimes, Ontario, the Prairies.
I was on the dock and I got to talking with the foreman and I told him I was from the Prairies. Where? Well, all over,
I said, but Moose Jaw’s my hometown.
He said, “Well, look ye up there,” and I did and the sun was sort of faded over by dirty clouds or something and he said, “That may be from your hometown.” I didn’t believe him at first, but it was prairie dust, or it was dirt from Kansas or Missouri or one of them states and the high, hot winds of that summer blew it east. This is no bull. That was prairie dust and if nothing makes you understand those days, that might.
Remember Sputnik watching? People used to go out at night and look at the fyeavens and try and spot that first Russian satellite. We used to go grasshopper watching. Southwest of Regina, where we had a farm. My kids won’t believe me when I say this but the clouds of grasshoppers.used to go over and it was like a great storm. They were in their millions, tens of millions, and where
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they decided to stop all at once, then those farmers could just kiss that year’s crop good-bye. If they had a crop.
We youngsters used to get pieces of glass, amber glass, like the color of beer bottle glass, and we’d hold that glass up to our eyes and look into the sun and watch the grasshoppers go by, high, high up there. There were millions, as I said, but you could almost make out each individual hopper through this glass and, I tell you, I’ve never seen a more terrifying sight.
Nature on the loose, gone mad. In its own way it was beautiful too.
Now what was wrong with eating gophers? Cows we eat. What’s the difference between a gopher and a red squirrel? I ask you. Sure, gopher pie. You’d send the kids out and they’d come home with 20, 30 or so, and you’d skin and clean them just like squirrels. Squirrels are a delicacy, ain’t they? Paris sort of delicacy. You got a casserole dish and you lined it and then you laid down about eight strips of gopher because you got two strips of sides and belly meat off one of them. Then you laid a thin layer of sliced potatoes and some onions and then gopher and then a layer of potatoes and so on, and when you were ready you folded the dough over the top and put it in the oven. Some people put in sliced dried apples.
It was quite good, that gopher pie, but I always thought it was best if you told any visitors you were eating squirrel pie. You could make stews, too, of gophers.
There was nothing wrong with the meat, it was just the thought of it. But what is wrong with a gopher? Just the thought, that’s it. Crab meat? Well, crabs live off other dead life under the water and a man once told me that when they brought up a body in Vancouver harbor once it had about 15 big crabs on it, just gobbling and greedy-gut away on it. I’ll take gopher, thank you kindly.
I had this small truck farm way up out Yonge Street, a few good acres and I sold from a cart with a horse. I was working in my gardens one morning, it was spring and things were starting up again, and Mrs. Schreiber came over, with her three little kids, and she said, “Mr. Wozny, my children and I haven’t had a thing to eat for two days. We are starving. Can we have something to eat?”
This was about 1934, around there, and this was Canada and my neighbor, a widow lady and three children, she said they were starving.
I got them into my house and I fed them, just taking cans and jars and things out of boxes and making a meal, a big meal, and they sat and ate an awful lot of it. We didn’t talk but I was thinking that she was a nice lady, a widow,
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and her kids were behaved and I was alone, didn’t have no woman, and maybe she should marry me. Maybe I should ask her. I was doing okay.
Then she got up and said thank you, and the kids all said thank you and they went home and I thought, I’ll wait until tonight and take a bunch of stuff over, eggs and bacon and peaches, and I’ll sort of work my way around to find out at least what she might think of her marrying me. So I took all this stuff over and there was nobody home. The door was open so I put the stuff in the kitchen. When I was walking home I met my other neighbor and I asked if he had seen Mrs. Schreiber and he said he’d seen her and her three kids about noon walking down Yonge Street toward Toronto, and the widow and the oldest kid, about eight, each had a suitcase.
I never saw them or heard of them again. They just vanished into the city.
R. B. Bennett said nobody in Canada was dying of starvation and if he meant like Biafra, kids with big bloated bellies, no, not that kind of starvation. But I know one family which lost three children from hunger. Lack of food, malnutrition, then diarrhea which they couldn’t fight because they were so weak — and that to me is dying of starvation. They were my sister’s kids, and every day if Bennett is in hell I curse him a thousand times, even today, and if he is in heaven, I curse him a thousand times and wish he was in hell. I will do it until I die.
Shirley Temple. That’s what I remember about the Thirties. Shirley Temple dolls.
Eaton’s used to turn a big part of their store into a toyland at Christmas and that year, the Shirley Temple year, they had these dolls along one end of the toyland. There must have been hundreds of these dolls, and they weren’t cheap. Nine to about $16, I’d say, and $16 was a lot more than some families got in a month for relief.
They moved girls from all over the store down to toyland for about six weeks before Christmas and I was one that year. We worked, well we had to be there at eight-thirty, doors opened at nine, and sometimes we were on our feet for 14 hours a day except for half an hour lunch and if we had to go to the women’s room. All for seven dollars a week.
Oh yes, these dolls. I’d stand there and watch the faces of those little girls, from about four or five right up to about 11. Some used to come at opening time and just stand there looking at those pink-cheeked, golden-haired lovely Shirley Temples. Little faces, they needed food. You could see a lot who needed a pint of milk a day a thousand
times more than they needed a Shirley doll. They’d stare for hours. We tried to shush them away but it didn’t do any good. They’d go once around toyland and be back. This, mind you, went on day after day, day after day, until some of the girls thought they would go crazy. One girl had a crying fit just over that, those hundreds of poor kids who would never own a Shirley Temple doll in 100 years. One day I had this crazy notion that I would give Shirley dolls away to the kids, here, little girl, this is for you, and here’s one for you, and this big one is for you, darling. That sort of thing. I thought I’d do it until I was caught and then I’d plead insanity. I never did, of course.
Those six weeks with those goddam dolls were the worst I ever put in, easy at first but sheer torture at the end, all those big and yearning eyes staring at you. I wonder if Shirley Temple ever realized the misery those dolls must have
caused children all over the world? I suppose she’s never even thought of it.
People did some pretty strange things. Almost as if some sort of madness had a hold of them.
There was this family named Thompson across the street and the father died. They hung a black wreath on the front door and, well, that sure impressed the kids in the neighborhood.
The day of the funeral, when nobody was at home because they were all at the funeral, some of us kids saw a man go up the walk of the Thompson house and stand there. He was pretending to ring the doorbell, I guess, and then we saw him slip that wreath under his coat and walk away. We followed him on our bikes, just kind of goofing along, and he went around the corner and over a couple of blocks and into a house and then he came out and hung the wreath on his own door. I told my Dad and he checked and found out the man’s wife had died the night before.
She’s a sunny morning and we’ve got our shirts off sitting on top of a boxcar in a hole just east of Calgary and this other freight from Vancouver comes along to go by us and she stops and there is my kid brother Billy — sitting large as life
and twice as ugly not six feet from me.
I say, “Hi Billy, how’s the folks?” and he says, “I don’t know, haven’t seen ’em for some time,” and he says, “Where you headed?” and I told him I was going into the Okanagan Valley for the summer and he gets up and says, “I just came from the Coast but it’s pretty country through there so I’ll go along back with you. Somebody’s got to look after you,” and he jumps across, with hardly a thought, turning right around, back the way he’d come.
That’s the way we were in them days, in the Thirties. Coming from nowhere going nowhere. Like gypsies.
There was this old lady in Calgary, they called her Mother Melville, and she used to go down to the hobo jungle on the Bow River and she’d have a purse full of envelopes. Envelopes with stamps on them and a sheet of paper inside each one and she’d go among the guys, all these guys riding the rods, and she’d hand out these envelopes and say, “Write your mother, son, please write her just a line or two. She’s worried, I know.” After Mother Melville had gone through, you’d see 15 or 20 guys sitting around, passing a pencil around, writing notes home.
The trouble is, of course, that children of the Depression rarely realize their true potential because the experience of it glued them to the safe way.
Myself, I would quit my job right now and take a whack at something I like better but I dasn’t because, deep down, I figure we’re overdue for another grasshopper plague. See, that’s Depression thinking.
If you want to know how your mother, if she was old enough, got through the Depression, just look in the refrigerator. If it is full of junk, saucers with a few leftover sliced carrots or tomatoes, little jars with pickles that have been there a month, slices of fatty roast beef that not even a hungry dog would eat, then she was through the Depression and her family wasn’t well off. Probably poor.
You never threw anything away.
Keep. Save. Don’t throw away. You never know when you’ll need it. Make every cent count. Eat your crusts, they make your hair curly. Finish your porridge, don’t you know there are starving children in China who would love to eat what you’ve got there? That kind of stuff.
Sometimes they pinch a nickel until the beaver on it screams, and you want to scream, too. It’s not their fault. The times were so hard, and food was so scarce for some that most people just got into the saving routine. The habit.
Mother, I know, went through hell in those days, and the funny thing is she
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THE THIRTIES continued wasn’t the one who actually did the saving, the putting away, the hoarding of little bits of food. It was her mother. My grandmother. She just picked it up from her as a girl. Well, here’s where the chain stops. With me. Here.
I used to try to tell my kids what it was like out there in the Ontario bush in the Depression, because I felt they should know, that everyone should know, everyone, but it was no use.
I told them about my little brother, their Uncle Donald, going to school his first year and the teacher enrolling him as Donalda, as a girl, and thinking he was a girl for months because the only clothes he had to wear were the handme-downs from my sisters and me. When I told them that, they laughed so hard they rolled on the floor, so I said, “Never again.” There is just no way to make them understand.
Can I put it this way, my way?
I was 14 on the home farm near Swift Current in those days and I didn’t know things were that bad, but years later I read that between 1929 and 1933 the value of farm produce in Saskatchewan dropped 94%. That’s not out of a hat. That is a statistic.
My own common sense told me to pull up stakes and leave, and I heard I could get a job in the Baldwin shops in Montreal. Who was buying locomotives in ’33? And in the same report, years later, I found that 34% of all employable men in Montreal that year were on relief. I tell that to my grandchildren and they listen respectfully, but you see they think the old geezer’s a bit of a nut.
I hear the boy, he’s 16, ask his mother to give him five dollars. He wants to take his girl to a show, or for a ride. His dad’s car. I tell his mother that five dollars in those days was half the relief, it was $10, to feed a family of five in Saskatchewan, summer or winter, and she says, “Oh, Pa. I know. Sure, I understand but the kids don’t.” You see, she’s telling me to shut up. Well, it’s her house, I guess, I’m just part of the furniture.
I’m proud of what I did in the Depression. I didn’t have to eat grass, as the saying went. I always worked and I made nothing in wages, but I kept going and it made me tougher. It made us all tougher. It affected every man jack of us. You can see it on my face and I’m not being dramatic. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to be.
It is important to me that people know that I was in that time, that I did my share. It’s like a badge to me, you know, a ribbon saying I was there. Like in a war. There were bad times, very bad times, and there were good times and we survived. Yes, by the Lord Harry, it was a war and we survived it. Our battle flags still flying. ■