Hardscrabble Times

In this present period of economic recession, many of us are struggling to survive difficult conditions and are looking for inspiration. We at Persimmon Tree decided to reach back in time to the Great Depression of the 1930s to hear the stories of women who were children then.

The following accounts evoke a Midwestern experience of the Depression in Detroit, Michigan, and a ’thirties childhood in Texarkana, Texas.

We were heartened to discover that both of these writers remember the warmth and pleasures of those times, as well as the difficulties. And that they credit their family’s accommodation to hardship with shaping their character and imagination in later life.

Barbara Johnson
1054 Dubois Street
by Barbara Johnson

Of the houses we lived in, my strongest memory is of 1054 Dubois in Detroit, Michigan, home for the first 12 years of my life. Whenever I walk past the spot, spirits of former residents hover and dance around me, bringing me happy memories.

I remember every part of this glorious, old three-story, twelve-room brownstone. I explored every room, every closet, and every grand space. Hollywood and my overworked imagination convinced me that I lived in a manor. My most unusual blessing was to have such a large extended family sharing this old house for economic reasons. Parents and maternal grandparents on the second floor, paternal grandparents and two uncles on the third floor, plus three children wherever they wished to be in any of the six bedrooms that made this the most wonderful house in the world. The miracle was that the eleven inhabitants shared a single bathroom with the absence of arguments and apparent discord.

There was a rhythm to the activities of the house, a rhythm to family interactions, and a rhythm to life. Maybe it was the pressure of extremely hard times that prompted the strong drive for the survival of family harmony and tolerance, or maybe I was only seeing things through the eyes of an innocent child. Whichever it was, 1054 Dubois and my wonderful large extended family shaped my character, values, and ambitions.

There were no spaces between the brownstone houses, no trees, no flowers, no birds, but most importantly, no labels. Although it was the time of the Great Depression, we seemed to have all that we needed. Shielded in the innocence of childhood and surrounded by a loving and supportive household of eleven, I didn’t know if we were poor, and I knew no labels like disadvantaged, underprivileged, inner-city poor, or children at risk. Labels can do great damage to children.

One of the most exciting and memorable places in the three-story brownstone was the large basement that served so many of our needs. It seems odd that such a dark, dank, undecorated place could hold such strong memories. During the day, the basement hummed with activities. It served as beauty parlor, bathing area, root cellar, laundry room, play area, extra kitchen and dining space, and it even had a couch and bed for temporary sleeping quarters when migrating relatives had to extend their stay longer than anticipated.

I loved the times in winter when my siblings and I were allowed to bathe in the big tin tub in the basement. It was just like the way folks bathed in the Westerns. We stayed in the tub until the water brought more chill than the furnace could cope with. My sister and I always had our hair washed in the large laundry wash tub. Getting our hair washed, dried, and braided was quite a chore. There were no shampoos, special soaps, detangling lotions, or money to buy them. Kitchen ingredients were always used—vinegar, olive oil, and mayonnaise. After the hair washing, everyone was relieved when with comb and brush in hand and a jar of Dixie Peach, we could dash off across the street to a neighbor who loved to work with our hair, so patient, and taking her time to detangle and braid.

From our Victory Garden, our cellar was filled with all types of seasonal foods that we enjoyed throughout the winter. Dozens of fruit jars, and crocks filled with salted meat, and all kinds of pickles filled one whole room in the basement. No canned or frozen food yet available. You could never tell a season by observing the delicious fare always served up on our dinner table. Today’s chemical additives have all but erased the sensory satisfaction possible from the flavors and aromas of the food from our cellar, and that was in the middle of the Great Depression.

One might think the “manor” was filled beyond capacity with its eleven permanent residents. Certainly the bathroom was challenged, but the basement served as a temporary stopping-off place for relatives and close friends needing a place to catch a breath, find work, relocate, and renew hope that times would get better. Never turned away, they came and went, making up quite an extended family; the manor swelled, stretched, belched, and accommodated.

The dining room table expanded along with the expanded family. We often ate in shifts. I believed for some time that a chicken could somehow also expand with the number of those to be served; I observed later that, simply, more and more dumplings had been added to the pot. As far as I could tell, we always had whatever we needed and enough for everyone. Whoever had work for the day brought home money, food, hope, or sometimes just wonderful stories. Hard times seem to have enhanced our empathy, tolerance, and compassion for the human condition.

Times gradually got better. Grandpa told me that some other president before Roosevelt had promised “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” We already had the chicken, but we never got the car. I learned a lot from my extended family—a lot about life—a lot about sharing, hardships, regrets, ambitions and dreams. The rhythm of the house changed with time. The richness of family closeness did not.

Billie Mulkey
Texarkana, Texas 1933
by Billie Mulkey

These stories are not icing, they are the main ingredients in that brief period of time when we called Texarkana home. Mama and Daddy had moved their little brood to the “big city” in an effort to earn a living and give us a better chance to try to survive the bleak, depressing times we had been experiencing in Oklahoma in 1933.

We lived in a big white house, right across the street from Aunt Zula. She was Daddy’s aunt. Daddy was going to work for her, delivering candy to all the little “mom and pop” stores and service stations, and any place that could sell a five-cent peanut patty. Aunt Zula made the peanut patties in her home, and they were quite a success for her. It was her business.

By the time the school year was out, Daddy was out! Gone. He felt he could not compete in Aunt Zula’s world, and his male ego just couldn’t take it. So he quit. Now here Mama was, stranded in this situation, with four young children and no means of support. Thank goodness Aunt Zula thought highly of my little mother, and she continued to try to help us survive. My older sister and I helped in the peanut-patty-making process, and we tended the back door bell to sell sacks of “scraps.” We also helped with housework, yard work, and errand running. I’m sure Aunt Zula must have paid our house rent and electric and water bills. Mama worked at anything she could, also, like in Aunt Zula’s beauty salon!

Mama and a neighbor lady held a rummage sale. There was a park-like piece of land across the street and down a slope from us; it had tables and benches, and a wide path ran through this place. Lots of dark-skinned folks walked through on their way to their part of town. So we held our rummage sale in that park and earned a few bucks. Also Mama and a neighbor contracted with the well-to-do black ladies to sew some exotic housedresses and lounging pajamas. That was a neat experience for us children too, because they would come to our house for a fitting and they were so friendly and jolly. Mama became friends with those wonderful, warm folks.

One day my older sister and I were sent to the big Safeway or A&P with a dime that someone had given us at the rummage sale. It had a hole drilled in it that was filled with lead or some kind of metal. We were to buy a loaf of bread. We paid our dime, took the bread, and were at the end of the block when the man came running after us. He was saying our dime was no good. He kept our dime and took back the loaf of bread, leaving two terrified, very bewildered little girls empty-handed and not knowing what to say to Mama.

Mama took some of her glass canning jars to a small store down the street and sold enough to get a loaf of bread and a pound of bologna. We had already used all the good home-canned food, and we had no garden, nor fields of peas, nor fruit or berries to use the canning jars for. So Mama sold them.

We did not eat well, but Mama saw to it that we did not starve. She was very creative and very strong, even though she was so petite and fragile.

This time was during the Great Drought as well as the Great Depression. Summer was brutally hot, and all the concrete roads and the automobiles chugging up and down the roads seemed to add to the heat. Not many shady places to escape the sun. We did not have central air and heating in those days. There were no gentle breezes to cool us, even when we opened up all the windows and doors. We did not even own a radio, and there was no T.V. yet.

One very old, gnarled oak tree stood out front, and at its base some massive roots stuck out of the ground. Here we built an imaginary village, scooping out the soil from some of the roots and making “dwellings” for our villagers, which were the plentiful grasshoppers in our yard. They were everywhere during the dust bowl time. We made roads and used acorns, leaves, twigs and small stones to create furniture, buildings and offices. Poor grasshoppers! Of course, our village had a cemetery, for we had quite a few deceased grasshoppers, as you can imagine. We spent many happy hours in our make-believe world; it was a great way to endure our sparse life.

That year a monstrous storm caused much damage to houses in our neighborhood. I remember how frightened Mama was when she discovered that our feather bed mattress had been stolen off the clothesline during the storm. Some of us had to sleep on pallets after that, for there was no way we had money to replace the stolen mattress.

But during Christmas that year Aunt Zula loaded all of us into her shiny new Buick and took us all over town to view the wondrous sight of gaily colored, twinkling electric lights. We had never seen this spectacle before—lights adorning rooftops, windows, storefronts, and the gigantic Christmas tree in the town square. That trip stood out in my memory and was very special to me.

During our year in Texarkana, life was harsh and sparse and we had very few material belongings, but the closeness of family, our strong faith, and a gut belief that life would be better soon, saw us through. We survived.


Barbara Johnson is a retired educator. She has traveled the world and lived and worked on four continents. She loves to write; memoir is her favorite genre. She is a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.

Billie Mulkey, age 84, is a child of the Great Depression era. Having minimum formal education, she is a self-educated entrepreneur, crafts enthusiast, and avid reader, who loves people, books, history, nature, music, and the continuous challenge to be a vibrant part of the ever-changing universe.

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