Growing up during the Great Depression

OK, this one’s for Gunner, since he asked for it in the comments to this post. The story of my parents growing up years during the Great Depression in West Virginia.


My parents grew up in different small towns in West Virginia during the Great Depression. Allow me to explain this deceptively simple statement.

West Virginia is one of the most beautiful places in God’s creation, assuming you like mountains. There are literally places where you can come around a bend and get stopped in your tracks by the view. The only problem is that you can’t eat the view, and the landlord generally won’t accept it as a substitute for cash when the rent is due. Outside of a few areas, poverty is endemic. Visit West Virginia and you’re in the heart of Appalachia.

(An aside. Growing up in the ’60s during Johnson’s “Great Society” and “War on Poverty” (the first of many wars we’ve unsuccessfully waged on perceived societal ills of one sort or another), I heard the word “Appalachia” constantly in school. One day, when I was about 14 or 15 and in high school, I finally asked my civics teacher where this Appalachia place was, and she described it as the area encompassed by the Appalachian Mountains. She then went on to tell me that it was full of poor people. Silly me, I had never realized my family was poor until that day. We had a nice house, a car, 2 TVs, food on the table and everything else we needed or wanted. It took me a lot of years to get over being poor.)

The West Virginia of the 1880s and 90s was rich in 3 things–virgin stands of timber, coal and people who would work for relatively low wages cutting the timber and mining the coal. Monied individuals and corporations saw this and ventured into the state, buying large tracts of land and starting lumber mills and coal mines. In the process, they started a system that trapped many of these people into working for “the company” for their entire lives–which oft-times were relatively short. Lumberjacking and coal mining aren’t the safest occupations now, and a hundred years ago they were a lot worse.

By the 1920s, things were in full swing. Even though it wasn’t an ideal life, the steady work of the lumber camps and the mines, along with the really choice jobs of working on the railroads and company offices and stores provided a life of relative plenty for a group of people who, a generation or two before, had largely been subsistence farmers. Times were good.

October 28, 1929 changed that. Black Monday was the lead-off event in a series of world-wide economic upheavals that came to be known as the Great Depression.

Most West Virginians didn’t see what was so great about it. They were too busy losing their jobs as the ebbing economy killed the demand for lumber and coal. Their spare time was taken up trying to figure out a way to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. For many, but not all, things were bad.

My Dad’s family was lucky. His father was a conductor for the railroad of a very large lumber company. His $5 a week job kept him, my grandmother, my aunt and my Dad in a nice company house and fed. Well, that and 2 large gardens, some pigs and some chickens. Their entire yard (which was a 50′ x 100′ lot, less what was covered by the house and outbuilding) was gardened, along with another 2 similar sized lots on the next street over. My Dad and Aunt had chores to do before and after school. My grandmother saw to the running of the house, which was a full day’s work in a time before washers and vacuums. Grandpa worked, then came home and worked.

My Dad’s family was fairly well off, as things went.

In a neighboring town, a very young girl, who would one day become my Mother, had it much worse. Her mother had been widowed earlier than most, and was left with 5 children (it had been 6, but one died very young of what sounds like some sort of flu-like virus) to feed, with no job and, as I understand it, not much help from anyone. Like my paternal grandparents, she gardened and raised such animals as she could.

Eventually, she was lucky enough to remarry. The man was, by all accounts, a son of a bitch. The sole story I can recall about him is that he disciplined my uncle by locking him in the crawlspace under the house for whatever infraction took his fancy. Unpleasant. This continued into my uncle’s teens. One night after a high school football game–he was a local football hero in his day (later dying of a combination Black Lung (from his time in the mines) along with a dose of lung cancer), he declared my uncle late, and attempted to lock him under the house for the night. My Grandma took exception to this, picked up a shovel and threatened to kill him on the spot. My uncle did not spend the night under the house, and her husband did not spend the night in it. Fairly shortly thereafter, he died of a heart attack. As far as I know, he fathered no children by my Grandma, and that is probably for the good.

He did have some redeeming virtues–he worked and brought home a paycheck. He also found out how to get “the commodities”–food given out by one governmental agency or another. Sort of an early form of the butter and cheese giveaways of the ’80s. Between his pay, gardening and the extra foodstuffs, the family survived.

Well, almost all of them did, at any rate. There was my Uncle Gerald, who died at 18 in my Mother’s arms. He was afflicted with some sort of wasting disease that left his limbs twisted and useless. In and our of charity hospitals for most of his life, he managed to have, by all accounts, a bright and sunny disposition. And by all accounts, the family was never the same after his passing.

Eventually, my Grandma went on to a third marriage, to a man who was a kind and gentle as her previous husband was mean and ornery. An engineer for the Western Maryland, he died before I was born, also of a heart attack.

There’s a lot more, but that’s the short version. There are many more stories, and one day they may see print. Mostly, unless you were rich, it was a struggle of some magnitude to survive. Then, as now, money made life easier.

Something of note. In a lot of survivalist discussion boards, a lot of comments are made that “I’ll hunt and live off the land if things get bad.” Don’t plan on it, Sparky. In the 1930s, in a lightly populated area with more than abundant wildlife habitat, deer, turkey and pheasant were hunted out by the end of the first year or so. Likewise for the native trout population in the rivers. In the area my Mom and Dad grew up in, the deer have never made a comeback, and neither have the trout. Turkey and pheasant have, and the trout fishing is good, as long as the State of WV hatchery stocks the river in the spring.

This little piece of information has always stuck with me, and is one of the multitude of reasons why I am the way I am about preparing for hard times.

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