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Memories of Post-Depression Days

In a few days I will be 76 years old. Other than my Aunt Mildred I am the oldest surviving member of my mother’s family and four years older than the next in line. My parents and grandparents lived through the depression of the late twenties and early thirties and I saw the effects of the depression in each of them. Since my relatives were not around at that time I felt that I should record a few observations which hopefully will help them have some insight into what their ancestors went through and how it affected them.

I do not recall my exact age when I first began remembering things however it was much earlier than four years of age. My oldest brother was born before I was four and then and I vividly remember the day he was born. I recall being excited that I would have a brother and we could pull each other in one of those red Ryder wagons.

We attended a one room church/Sunday school/and community meeting place. Occasionally we had preaching on some Sundays which were delivered by a circuit riding preacher. The church was heated by a coal stove which stood in the middle of the church and the heat from it was not ample to provide warmth during the cold winters. We had prayer service every Wednesday and in those post depression days we would frequently “pound” members of the community who were in need. Mother usually took a pound of butter as we had a cow and usually had extra butter. Another neighbor would take a pound of pinto beans, another a pound of corn meal or perhaps a pound of flour. Hence the name “pounding.”

Frequently a beggar, often a veteran of WWI or the Civil War, would knock on our door begging for food. He was never refused. Most of our food came from food that my mother canned out of our summer gardens or from dried fruit. We always raised a pig and killed and dressed it after the first frost then salted it down to provide meat during the winter. A Native American neighbor would occasionally sell us a turtle, or a hunter would give us a squirrel. As far back as I can remember I trapped rabbits for food and usually caught several each winter. Another neighbor had a small fish pond which he loaded during the summer and he too would sell us a fish occasionally. Most of our fish came from my grandfather’s store out of a 30 gallon barrel of salt herring.

Mother was a wonderful pie maker. Every Monday was wash day and she always made a “lazy woman’s pie.” This pie consisted of biscuits left over from Sunday and a dried fruit filling. Along with this we had corn bread, pinto beans and all the sweet milk one wanted as long as our cow was producing. There would be a period before she had her next calf when she no longer produced milk and we did without.

My earliest memories of wash days were of my mother and grandmother washing clothes in a large black pot which held about 30 gallons of water and was heated with fire wood in my grandparents back yard. Soap was made from animal fat, Red Devil Lye (sodium hydroxide) and ashes. Clothes were dried on a line in the backyard.

When washing machines came out my grandfather bought my grandmother a Bendix front loader. The machine had to be bolted to a concrete block since the vibration could cause the machine to “walk off” if it were not anchored. The day the machine was delivered all the family came to the house to watch the first wash. That provided more amusement than the first television.

Every family had an out house and usually a Sears Catalog inside for needed paper. Every few years the need would arise to dig a new hole for the out house. I always wanted to help during the day when the men were at work. I would visualize that I might be able to dig right through to China. It never happened.

Games were simple in those days. We played hide and seek, kick the can and later post office or spin the bottle. I was not old enough to play either of the latter two and always wondered what the boy and girl did when they exited to an adjoining room and always came back blushing. Since our front porch faced a major United States highway we played a game of counting car colors and each person would hope that the color he or she picked would win.

Christmas was an exciting time. We would go to my grandfather’s farm and cut a scrub pine, nail a board to the bottom and this would be our Christmas tree. Some years later we decorated it with aluminum foil icicles and maybe strings of popcorn.

My brother and I each received a baseball glove and one ball between us for Christmas one year. This was our biggest gift from Santa ever. At home all our gifts came from Santa, never from our parents. I think that that was a mistake. I remember how much more I appreciated my father and mother when I found out that they were the source of Santa’s gifts. The church always gave us a bag containing one orange, one apple, two or three nuts and a piece or two of candy. This was usually our big gift until years later when my Aunt Bernice began giving all her nieces and nephews gifts. She was generous to a fault and loved by us all.

Saturday night was always a big time. We moved a No. 3 wash tub into the bed room where the only fire place was active, filled the tub with water and took turns bathing. The fire place was usually fueled with coal and on winter nights we would stand in front of the fire place just before bedtime then rush to the cold bed. Mother and Dad had the only heated room and I and later my brothers moved to another bed room for the night.

Dad bought our first radio sometime before the Joe Louis and Max Smelling fight. He moved the radio to one of the windows and men from all over the neighborhood stood around outside listening to the fight. We did have a 78 rpm record player (Victrola) and a few records however the needles and records were so old we could hardly make out the songs and certainly not the tunes.

On almost all Sundays that we had preaching services grandmother and mother and later my aunts would prepare the Sunday meal. Preparation for this meant that the front yard had to be swept with a straw broom. There would be patches of grass so we had to sweep around these. Since my uncle and grandfather operated the local grocery store and market we seemed to always have plenty to eat. Grandmother would cook a ham, or chicken, or maybe rabbits or squirrels, always plenty of vegetables, pickles and relishes and always pies and cakes. Opossum was a favorite of my grandmother and was always placed on the table at Thanksgiving. She fed it with sweet potatoes and buttermilk starting about six weeks before the holiday.

If we had a visiting preacher Dad would always invite him to have lunch at our house after the service. This meant that if I were lucky I would get a leg of the fried chicken. The minister would always be served first and he would always get the largest piece of the breast and maybe two pieces. Mother always ate the back and Dad always ate the neck and gizzard. For years I thought that they really liked these pieces of the fried chicken but as I grew older I realized that they were just being generous with our company.

Of course all the children went barefooted all summer, fall and sometimes into early winter. We did wear shoes to church and always wore them until they were too small. Each fall just before school started we would get two pair of overalls and two shirts and two pair of long underwear. By spring we had worn holes in the knees from shooting pea marbles so they were patched and we continued wearing them until we out grew them.

I started milking the cow when I was five and was excited to do so. But soon I could not wait until my next brother, Glenn, was five so he could relieve me. Unfortunately or fortunately for him he developed hay fever and never had the pleasure of milking. Too bad Glenn. You will never know what you missed.

The years leading to WWII and the war itself were tough years for everyone. Everyone it seemed was engaged in the war effort. I was eight years old when the war started. Everyone had to grow a “victory garden” and every one still at home had to help collect scrap metal to be used in the effort. All the young men went to war and my Dad along with others had to leave home and engage in defense work. Those left at home had to do what they could to help.

Every night at 9:00 PM my family would gather at grandfather’s and listen over the radio to Gabriel Heater sell Kremel hair tonic and deliver the “good news tonight.”. Many nights we would hear truck loads of boys singing war songs as they were driven to Fort Bragg. Soon sugar, tires, gasoline, shoes, meats, etc. were rationed. We practiced black out drills and one evening a military plane in distress crashed near our home. All night other planes with search lights lit up the sky. It was some time before we knew what had really happened.

During those years my grandfather would saw slabs of lumber into fire wood and we would peddle it to our neighbors. With many of the men gone to war those at home would gather in the fall and have corn shuckings and fill the corn cribs for the winter.

For a period of time I had a paper route and would rise in the morning before daylight and start delivering 80 papers. I would earn $ 4.00 a week doing this provided I was able to collect. Collection became a problem since most paydays in our area were on Friday and I would be busy at the store until late Friday night. Soon I was losing almost as much as I was profiting. I quit the paper route.

I started working at my grandfather’s store when I was eleven. At first my job was to sweep the aisles and carry groceries. We delivered groceries to customers sometimes until after mid-night. It was my job to collect the ration coupons and stamps, unload the groceries and if necessary pour up the 100 pound bags of feed for the women whose husbands and older children had left to support the war effort. I continued in this job on weekends until my junior year in high school. My senior year I worked every weekday afternoon and all day Saturday until I left for college in the summer of 1951.

My grandfather was a cow trader and he would buy the old cows and sell new young cows to the neighbors. This meant that I would go with him, round up the cows on foot and herd them into his pickup truck. During the week it was my job to go by his feed barn and feed all the cows and horses after I had milked our cow and before I went to school. Frequently I was late for school however our feed barn lot was adjacent to the school lot and never did one of my teachers complain or count me late for school. They knew why I was late.

Every Saturday night after work it was my job to clean up the meat market, wash all the tools and secure all the meat products. On Saturdays my job started between eight and nine in the morning and extended until nine or later that night. I had two bosses, my uncle and my aunt who both worked at the store. I learned a good lesson there which has followed me all my life. Never should a person be required to answer to but one boss. They were both task masters. Only once did I receive a “good job” or a compliment until the very night that I left to go to college. That night they gave me $ 100.00 and wished me well. I had never seen that much money at one time in my life. This I will say, neither of them ever said much when I came in at 9:00 am instead of 8:00am on Saturday morning however they both knew that I was often delivering groceries on Friday night long after when had turned in.

These were hard times and I learned so many wonderful lessons during this period of my life. Lessons that I think have made me a better person. Lessons that I may have tried to pass on to my children to a fault. They must be the judge of that. My grandfather passed along one lesson that remains to this day. He once told me that if I were working for a person to be sure that I was at the job before he got there. A simple lesson but one that has served me well. Once my uncle raked me over the coals for not writing a legible figure on a patients charge slip. My father happened to be in the store at that time and heard him. I had to plead with my father to let me continue working after that lecture. I am glad that he allowed me to stay. To this day you will find that though my writing is often illegible my figures are clear. To the customer who called and complained that I had filled her order with a bad cabbage (it was the best we had at the time) and asked that I now wait on her in the future the hurt from that incident still lingers. Perhaps I should be thankful knowing that years later she became a wonderful patient of mine and never complained about my care. What wonderful lessons and what a wonderful life. I have had so many wonderful patients, friends, and employees. I have had a wife and two children who for years never knew when I would arrive for supper. For many years their only vacation trips were while I was attending a medical meeting. They have often sacrificed so that I might serve others and my wish is that they too can feel some comfort in the success that I have enjoyed with them through the years.

Finally I am writing this because we are all experiencing some difficult and threatening times. Hopefully our nation and the nations of the world will be able to survive the greed that has placed us in this position. I am not much older than some of you and not as old as Aunt Mildred however I have lived already long enough to know that what we are experiencing now will stay with us for the rest of our lives. The lessons of the depression in the late twenties lingered with our parents and grandparents all their lives. Better times will come so take the time to spend more time with your family and love those around you. You will be better for it and so will your children.

Love to all,

Dale Simmons


*Dr. Simmons was born in 1933 in Mt. Airy, North Carolina. He received his undergraduate education at Wake Forest University in 1954 and his medical education at Bowman Gray School of Medicine in Wake Forest in 1957. After his residency and military service, he practiced medicine with a specialty in Ophthalmology and community medicine. He retired to Lake Wales, Florida. This essay/letter was published in April, 2009.

The Historical Text Archive publishes this essay in order for people to understand how some Americans coped with the Great Depression and its aftermath.

In a few days I will be 76 years old. Other than my Aunt Mildred I am the oldest surviving member of my mother’s family and four years older than the next in line. My parents and grandparents lived through the depression of the late twenties and early thirties and I saw the effects of the depression in each of them. Since my relatives were not around at that time I felt that I should record a few observations which hopefully will help them have some insight into what their ancestors went through and how it affected them.

I do not recall my exact age when I first began remembering things however it was much earlier than four years of age. My oldest brother was born before I was four and then and I vividly remember the day he was born. I recall being excited that I would have a brother and we could pull each other in one of those red Ryder wagons.

We attended a one room church/Sunday school/and community meeting place. Occasionally we had preaching on some Sundays which were delivered by a circuit riding preacher. The church was heated by a coal stove which stood in the middle of the church and the heat from it was not ample to provide warmth during the cold winters. We had prayer service every Wednesday and in those post depression days we would frequently “pound” members of the community who were in need. Mother usually took a pound of butter as we had a cow and usually had extra butter. Another neighbor would take a pound of pinto beans, another a pound of corn meal or perhaps a pound of flour. Hence the name “pounding.”

Frequently a beggar, often a veteran of WWI or the Civil War, would knock on our door begging for food. He was never refused. Most of our food came from food that my mother canned out of our summer gardens or from dried fruit. We always raised a pig and killed and dressed it after the first frost then salted it down to provide meat during the winter. A Native American neighbor would occasionally sell us a turtle, or a hunter would give us a squirrel. As far back as I can remember I trapped rabbits for food and usually caught several each winter. Another neighbor had a small fish pond which he loaded during the summer and he too would sell us a fish occasionally. Most of our fish came from my grandfather’s store out of a 30 gallon barrel of salt herring.

Mother was a wonderful pie maker. Every Monday was wash day and she always made a “lazy woman’s pie.” This pie consisted of biscuits left over from Sunday and a dried fruit filling. Along with this we had corn bread, pinto beans and all the sweet milk one wanted as long as our cow was producing. There would be a period before she had her next calf when she no longer produced milk and we did without.

My earliest memories of wash days were of my mother and grandmother washing clothes in a large black pot which held about 30 gallons of water and was heated with fire wood in my grandparents back yard. Soap was made from animal fat, Red Devil Lye (sodium hydroxide) and ashes. Clothes were dried on a line in the backyard.

When washing machines came out my grandfather bought my grandmother a Bendix front loader. The machine had to be bolted to a concrete block since the vibration could cause the machine to “walk off” if it were not anchored. The day the machine was delivered all the family came to the house to watch the first wash. That provided more amusement than the first television.

Every family had an out house and usually a Sears Catalog inside for needed paper. Every few years the need would arise to dig a new hole for the out house. I always wanted to help during the day when the men were at work. I would visualize that I might be able to dig right through to China. It never happened.

Games were simple in those days. We played hide and seek, kick the can and later post office or spin the bottle. I was not old enough to play either of the latter two and always wondered what the boy and girl did when they exited to an adjoining room and always came back blushing. Since our front porch faced a major United States highway we played a game of counting car colors and each person would hope that the color he or she picked would win.

Christmas was an exciting time. We would go to my grandfather’s farm and cut a scrub pine, nail a board to the bottom and this would be our Christmas tree. Some years later we decorated it with aluminum foil icicles and maybe strings of popcorn.

My brother and I each received a baseball glove and one ball between us for Christmas one year. This was our biggest gift from Santa ever. At home all our gifts came from Santa, never from our parents. I think that that was a mistake. I remember how much more I appreciated my father and mother when I found out that they were the source of Santa’s gifts. The church always gave us a bag containing one orange, one apple, two or three nuts and a piece or two of candy. This was usually our big gift until years later when my Aunt Bernice began giving all her nieces and nephews gifts. She was generous to a fault and loved by us all.

Saturday night was always a big time. We moved a No. 3 wash tub into the bed room where the only fire place was active, filled the tub with water and took turns bathing. The fire place was usually fueled with coal and on winter nights we would stand in front of the fire place just before bedtime then rush to the cold bed. Mother and Dad had the only heated room and I and later my brothers moved to another bed room for the night.

Dad bought our first radio sometime before the Joe Louis and Max Smelling fight. He moved the radio to one of the windows and men from all over the neighborhood stood around outside listening to the fight. We did have a 78 rpm record player (Victrola) and a few records however the needles and records were so old we could hardly make out the songs and certainly not the tunes.

On almost all Sundays that we had preaching services grandmother and mother and later my aunts would prepare the Sunday meal. Preparation for this meant that the front yard had to be swept with a straw broom. There would be patches of grass so we had to sweep around these. Since my uncle and grandfather operated the local grocery store and market we seemed to always have plenty to eat. Grandmother would cook a ham, or chicken, or maybe rabbits or squirrels, always plenty of vegetables, pickles and relishes and always pies and cakes. Opossum was a favorite of my grandmother and was always placed on the table at Thanksgiving. She fed it with sweet potatoes and buttermilk starting about six weeks before the holiday.

If we had a visiting preacher Dad would always invite him to have lunch at our house after the service. This meant that if I were lucky I would get a leg of the fried chicken. The minister would always be served first and he would always get the largest piece of the breast and maybe two pieces. Mother always ate the back and Dad always ate the neck and gizzard. For years I thought that they really liked these pieces of the fried chicken but as I grew older I realized that they were just being generous with our company.

Of course all the children went barefooted all summer, fall and sometimes into early winter. We did wear shoes to church and always wore them until they were too small. Each fall just before school started we would get two pair of overalls and two shirts and two pair of long underwear. By spring we had worn holes in the knees from shooting pea marbles so they were patched and we continued wearing them until we out grew them.

I started milking the cow when I was five and was excited to do so. But soon I could not wait until my next brother, Glenn, was five so he could relieve me. Unfortunately or fortunately for him he developed hay fever and never had the pleasure of milking. Too bad Glenn. You will never know what you missed.

The years leading to WWII and the war itself were tough years for everyone. Everyone it seemed was engaged in the war effort. I was eight years old when the war started. Everyone had to grow a “victory garden” and every one still at home had to help collect scrap metal to be used in the effort. All the young men went to war and my Dad along with others had to leave home and engage in defense work. Those left at home had to do what they could to help.

Every night at 9:00 PM my family would gather at grandfather’s and listen over the radio to Gabriel Heater sell Kremel hair tonic and deliver the “good news tonight.”. Many nights we would hear truck loads of boys singing war songs as they were driven to Fort Bragg. Soon sugar, tires, gasoline, shoes, meats, etc. were rationed. We practiced black out drills and one evening a military plane in distress crashed near our home. All night other planes with search lights lit up the sky. It was some time before we knew what had really happened.

During those years my grandfather would saw slabs of lumber into fire wood and we would peddle it to our neighbors. With many of the men gone to war those at home would gather in the fall and have corn shuckings and fill the corn cribs for the winter.

For a period of time I had a paper route and would rise in the morning before daylight and start delivering 80 papers. I would earn $ 4.00 a week doing this provided I was able to collect. Collection became a problem since most paydays in our area were on Friday and I would be busy at the store until late Friday night. Soon I was losing almost as much as I was profiting. I quit the paper route.

I started working at my grandfather’s store when I was eleven. At first my job was to sweep the aisles and carry groceries. We delivered groceries to customers sometimes until after mid-night. It was my job to collect the ration coupons and stamps, unload the groceries and if necessary pour up the 100 pound bags of feed for the women whose husbands and older children had left to support the war effort. I continued in this job on weekends until my junior year in high school. My senior year I worked every weekday afternoon and all day Saturday until I left for college in the summer of 1951.

My grandfather was a cow trader and he would buy the old cows and sell new young cows to the neighbors. This meant that I would go with him, round up the cows on foot and herd them into his pickup truck. During the week it was my job to go by his feed barn and feed all the cows and horses after I had milked our cow and before I went to school. Frequently I was late for school however our feed barn lot was adjacent to the school lot and never did one of my teachers complain or count me late for school. They knew why I was late.

Every Saturday night after work it was my job to clean up the meat market, wash all the tools and secure all the meat products. On Saturdays my job started between eight and nine in the morning and extended until nine or later that night. I had two bosses, my uncle and my aunt who both worked at the store. I learned a good lesson there which has followed me all my life. Never should a person be required to answer to but one boss. They were both task masters. Only once did I receive a “good job” or a compliment until the very night that I left to go to college. That night they gave me $ 100.00 and wished me well. I had never seen that much money at one time in my life. This I will say, neither of them ever said much when I came in at 9:00 am instead of 8:00am on Saturday morning however they both knew that I was often delivering groceries on Friday night long after when had turned in.

These were hard times and I learned so many wonderful lessons during this period of my life. Lessons that I think have made me a better person. Lessons that I may have tried to pass on to my children to a fault. They must be the judge of that. My grandfather passed along one lesson that remains to this day. He once told me that if I were working for a person to be sure that I was at the job before he got there. A simple lesson but one that has served me well. Once my uncle raked me over the coals for not writing a legible figure on a patients charge slip. My father happened to be in the store at that time and heard him. I had to plead with my father to let me continue working after that lecture. I am glad that he allowed me to stay. To this day you will find that though my writing is often illegible my figures are clear. To the customer who called and complained that I had filled her order with a bad cabbage (it was the best we had at the time) and asked that I now wait on her in the future the hurt from that incident still lingers. Perhaps I should be thankful knowing that years later she became a wonderful patient of mine and never complained about my care. What wonderful lessons and what a wonderful life. I have had so many wonderful patients, friends, and employees. I have had a wife and two children who for years never knew when I would arrive for supper. For many years their only vacation trips were while I was attending a medical meeting. They have often sacrificed so that I might serve others and my wish is that they too can feel some comfort in the success that I have enjoyed with them through the years.

Finally I am writing this because we are all experiencing some difficult and threatening times. Hopefully our nation and the nations of the world will be able to survive the greed that has placed us in this position. I am not much older than some of you and not as old as Aunt Mildred however I have lived already long enough to know that what we are experiencing now will stay with us for the rest of our lives. The lessons of the depression in the late twenties lingered with our parents and grandparents all their lives. Better times will come so take the time to spend more time with your family and love those around you. You will be better for it and so will your children.

Love to all,

Dale Simmons


*Dr. Simmons was born in 1933 in Mt. Airy, North Carolina. He received his undergraduate education at Wake Forest University in 1954 and his medical education at Bowman Gray School of Medicine in Wake Forest in 1957. After his residency and military service, he practiced medicine with a specialty in Ophthalmology and community medicine. He retired to Lake Wales, Florida. This eassay/letter was published in April, 2009.

The Historical Text Archive publishes this essay in order for people to understand how some Americans coped with the Great Depression and its aftermath.