"Congress voted $525 million in emergency drought relief in 1934." (Boyer, p.819b) In Cimarron County, Oklahoma, "The county's population fell by forty percent in the 1930's, from 4000 to about 2500." (Boyer, p.819b) "Over it's eight-year life,the WPA employed more than eight million jobless Americans...." (Boyer, p.822)
The statistics and dates fill our history books. We memorize them in a mad-dash effort to get a good grades and pass tests. Rarely do we stop to think about the individual families behind these numbers,or their relation to us. Who were they? What did they individually have to endure during a time when our economy was in such a downfall? What did they do in their effort to survive? To find out more about the depression and it's effect on my family I asked my grandmother to give me some insight on her experience during this trying time in our history.
I soon learned that even though the Depression era and World War II are in separate chapters of our history books to my grandmother both eras are one in the same. They were both a time of struggle and ration. In her words,"The country never fully recovered from the depression until two years after the war."
My grandparents, Ala Turner and Delos Eck, married in November l929. They had no idea that the country's economy would plunge into a tailspin downward only a month later.They were both from New Mexico, raised on farms all of their lives.The families survived by raising their own food and selling the extra eggs and cream their chickens and cattle produced.To their rural existence the stock market plunge was not very significant to their survival.The devastating blow came with the dust storms, commonly referred to as the "Dust Bowl". The hardest hit by this deadly combination of drought and high winds were Oklahoma,Kansas,Texas,Colorado and my family's home state of New Mexico (Boyer, p.819a)
The "Okies", as they were called in those days, were forced to look for work elsewhere. Many looked to California to find work in the fields. My grandmother and grandfather, on the other hand, had heard of the recent discovery of the potash mines in Carlsbad, New Mexico. They felt they had a better chance at finding work there given the stories they had heard of farmers getting cheated out wages in California.
They started their journey to Carlsbad in their Model A Ford coup with $7, one change of clothes, pots, pans and bedding. Their first obstacle came with the blowout of a tire. A re-cap of a tire in those days cost about two dollars, but similar to the problems we have today, the bill came to six dollars and some change. Their seven dollars was dwindling fast.
When they finally arrived in the farming community of Carlsbad, they were forced to sleep under a tree for two weeks until they found work. The irrigation canal they were camped by provided a place to bathe and wash. With the little change they had left , they bought some oil and flour. The plan was to catch some fish in the nearby river for dinner. Unfortunately for them, they proved not to be great fishermen. In spite of these discouraging obstacles they were hopeful of finding work soon to better their existence. Their hope and strength proved to be well founded.
My grandmother and grandfather were some of the lucky ones to find enough odd jobs here and there to survive. The problem was not so much getting a job, but through no fault of their own, keeping one. My grandfather found a job in the potash mines as he had hoped, but within a week he lost it to a man with five children to feed. My grandmother found a job in a boarding house funded by the government's CCC relief program. She did the laundry, washing and cleaning in the house, but soon lost it to family members.
The juggling of employees was not an uncommon practice in those days. since employment was so scarce, jobs were often given to those most in need. I seemed only fair that a woman or man with a family to feed would get precedence over a young couple with no children, and of course there was also the principle of "blood is thicker than water." My grandparents were understanding of these unwritten rules and did not complain when a job was lost to someone in more need that themselves. they were just thankful to be able to obtain the little amount of money they did while working those few days or weeks.
Their next means of survival came through a nanny position my grandmother stumbled upon. While soliciting nearby hospitals for any job she could find, a woman told her about Mr. Brittian. Mr. Brittian was a single man with two sons, ages 12 and 15. He needed a woman to take care of the household chores in exchange for food, room and board. The arrangement worked out perfectly for both families. My grandmother stayed in the house and did "women's work" while my grandfather went to town everyday with Mr. Brittian to find odd jobs here and there. Fortunately for them my grandfather was able to find enough work to provide them with the minimum means to survive. Their job there lasted nine months before family members from back east arrived in need of a place to stay.
Thanks to Mr. Roosevelt's National Relief Act my grandfather was next able to obtain a job with Shell oil company working in the oil fields. Shell adopted the suggested business practice of splitting the work week between two workers. My grandfather worked one week for three days and the next week for four. This unique business practice provided more jobs for more people. By no means would people get rich off of this new business practice, but more people would at least be able to feed their families.
My grandmother remembers this time period as a time when the big challenge for women was to try to think of new ways to cook potatoes. She baked them, mashed them, fried them, and experimented with different recipes of potato soup and potato salad. Women also tried to make potatoes more appealing by seasoning them with different things such as bacon grease, butter, salt, pepper, onions, or any other vegetable available in the garden, all in an effort to add variety to their diet and maintain their pride as good housewives.
My grandmother's contribution to the household would soon be most than her unique way of cooking potatoes. World War II had begun and my grandparents heard to six week government training courses in Odessa,Texas. They jumped at the chance to help in the war effort and signed up for welding training.
After they completed their training, they packed up their car and headed off to Oregon at 35 miles an hour. Big fines could be issued if you were found guilty of crimes such as wasting gas or needlessly wearing our tires. While crossing California they stopped in Oakland to rest and get something to eat. During a casual conversation with a friendly man, they learned there were shipyards hiring right there in Richmond.
There were three Kaiser shipyards in Richmond. Henry J. Kaiser was the founder of these shipyards and was famous for his revolutionary technique of prefabrication. Kaiser reduced the construction of cargo ships from six months to two weeks and, at the end of the war, had reduced it to a cargo ship a day . (Boyer, p.874)
They took their welding test at Kaiser Permanente #2. They passed with flying colors and were hired on the spot. They went to the supply store, bought their "leathers" and went to work the next morning. Their job as welders was to literally put together a ship out of huge pieces of steel.
It was back breaking work. They carried heavy lines over their shoulders everywhere welding was needed and had to weld in awkward positions. Everything was welded together. Their were no bolts in Kaiser's revolutionary technique of building ships fast. My grandparents helped build the "Liberty Ships" made to carry cargo and supplies.
My grandmother speaks of this time in her life with great pride. For the first time in her life and in history, she was working side by side with men and receiving the same wage of $1.20 an hour. At a time when working for a dollar a day was not uncommon, this was an incredible amount of money.
This was also revolutionary in equal rights for women, but not all men agreed with this new business practice. In fact my grandmother tells the story of two men in her crew quitting with the explanation of "We will not work anywhere a woman can do a better job than we can." This statement was in reference to my grandmother.
Although they were making more money than they ever had in their lives, this was not a time of exuberant spending.. The war era was time of saving for everyone. Ration books were handed out. No amount of money could buy goods without a ration ticket. My grandmother tells the story of trading ration tickets among family members. My aunt live on a farm at that time and raised her own meat, so in exchange for my grandmother's sugar coupons, my aunt would give her meat tickets. This arrangement worked out well for both women and was probably not an uncommon practice within many families.
The problem in Richmond was housing. With the shipyards hiring thousands of people, there was literally no housing available. They soon solved the problem by converting college dorms into boarding houses. Part of the arrangement of living in the boarding house was to turn over your ration books. This was fair given that the houses provided meals. The hardship came on Sundays when the kitchen was closed. Many went out to eat, but if you had to work that day, as my grandparents did, you had to go without lunch.
Like most things, the trip to the local market in those days was also very different than today. Any imported goods during that time were unheard of. Bananas, silk, stockings, coffee, and even meat were all considered luxuries. The one thing my grandmother missed most was black pepper. Being raised on a farm, black pepper and salt were the main seasonings in their cooking. As they had during the depression, they went without and did not complain. They simply tried to use household tricks passed around from family to family.
Galvanized steel was another non-existent product to individuals. Today plastic takes the place of steel in household necessities such as buckets, pails, spatulas, etc. This long list of household items also included the wash tub. If a wash tub happened to wear a hole in it, as it often did, there were little options to take. The markets could only help out by providing pieces of aluminum and screws to patch the hole.
Like the depression, the war era was a time of rationing. This time rationing was not practiced out of need for individual survival, but the need for the nation's survival. I believe because of President Roosevelt's "New Deal" and his efforts in helping individuals during the depression, Americans now felt the need to help the government during the war. During this time, Americans banded together in the war effort. My grandmother still believes the war could not have been won without the tremendous efforts of the American people.
The first sign of a new era came one evening in the form of a Watkins man. The Watkins man was a door to door salesman who sold housewives common household items. He greeted my grandmother at the door, "Good evening Mrs. Could I interest you in any household goods today?" My grandmother responded with a polite, "No, thank you. I think we have everything we need right now." He quickly smiled and said, "Are you sure? I have black pepper."
Interviews: Eck, Ala (Portalas, New Mexico, 4 July 1996 and 16 July 1996).
Book: Boyer, Paul S., Clifford E. Clark, Jr., Joseph F. Kett, Neal Salisbury, Harvard Sitkoff, and Nancy Woloch. The Enduring Vision, A History of the American People, 3rd edition (Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath, 1996) pp.805-833.